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Among the important dates circled on the calendar of Nova Scotia’s nascent premier, Iain Rankin, April 1 should stand out, and not because he enjoys a good April Fools’ prank.
On that day, in the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, Rankin’s actions as lands and forestry minister in Stephen McNeil’s government will come under some serious, and potentially damaging, scrutiny.
The court is conducting a judicial review of the province’s March 2019 decision – made on the recommendation of then-lands and forestry minister Rankin – to remove Owl’s Head (provincial park) from the province’s Parks and Protected Areas (PPA) list.
The Liberal government struck the 285-hectare parcel of coastal land from the list to clear the way for its sale to a developer who’s proposing a golf resort that would engulf Owl’s Head, adjacent Little Harbour on the Eastern Shore.
The applicants, who sought and got the judicial review, are asking the court to find that Rankin, and/or the government, breached their duty to procedural fairness by removing the land from the PPA list and preparing for its sale without any public notice or consultation. Indeed, the government hid the decision successfully for nine months, until it was uncovered in December 2019 by CBC reporter Michael Gorman.
The applicants’ brief to the court, filed by their lawyer Jamie Simpson, also says the former minister failed to consider factors that ran contrary to the decision the government ultimately took, because he had a single-minded focus on one result – “that is, delisting Owl’s Head Provincial Park and negotiating its sale to a private developer.”
Simpson judiciously omitted words like “underhanded” and “sneaky” from his brief, but they still seem to be there, lurking just beneath the actual text.
Owl’s Head has become much bigger than the parcel of land that bears the name. Nor is this just another tug of values between the economy and the environment.
Nova Scotian governments have referred to Owl’s Head as a provincial park for almost 50 years.
After extensive public consultation, it landed on the Parks and Protected Areas list, where it was included as an “existing” provincial park until, suddenly – after the golf course proposal became public knowledge – it wasn’t.
The applicants for the judicial review – well-known Nova Scotian wildlife biologist and conservationist Bob Bancroft and the Eastern Shore Forest Watch – are challenging the province’s prerogative to remove the site, unilaterally and without public notice.
They note that there are about 100 other provincial parks – or, more accurately, places the province has represented as parks – that fall into the same category as Owl’s Head.
That is, they are parks as far as Nova Scotians are concerned, the government refers to them as provincial parks, but because they have not been officially and legally designated as such under the Provincial Parks Act, they are “vulnerable to secret negotiations for their sale to private interests.” Owl’s Head is the proof.
A judicial finding that the government’s surreptitious delisting of Owl’s Head offends procedural fairness would preclude Nova Scotia governments – present and future – from taking similar secret action.
Owl’s Head presents problems for Rankin, and not just because he was the minister who recommended delisting and selling it.
In his bid for the Liberal leadership and as premier since, Rankin has positioned himself as a champion of the environment. How he, and his government, handles the Owl’s Head controversy from here out will influence whether he can retain claim to that title.
Owl’s Head has become a symbolic beachhead for environmentalists.
It is the place where the government – now Rankin’s government – either lives up to past commitments to protect natural places or, like so many governments before, it proves willing to sacrifice such places provided there’s a few jobs to be had and some new money coming in.
Indeed, many Nova Scotian environmental advocates count Rankin as an ally and expect him to reverse course and put Owl’s Head back on the protected list. Or, at least, they hope he will.
For others, Owl’s Head is the litmus test of Rankin’s bona fides as an environmentalist, and the test results are pending.
For his part, Rankin has both local and provincial politics to consider.
Kevin Murphy, Eastern Shore Liberal MLA and Speaker of the legislature, supports the golf course development, which suggests that, on balance, it is popular with voters in his riding. A reversal of the decision on Owl’s Head could cost the Liberals votes on the Eastern Shore and jeopardize Murphy’s seat.
But, because of its symbolic significance, if Rankin’s government proceeds toward the sale, he’ll pay a price with that segment of the broader electorate that’s motivated by environmental concerns.
Of course, if the court rules against the government, it’s confirmation that the decision to secretly remove Owl’s Head from protection was a shady bit of business and those involved, up to an including the new premier, have some explaining to do. Mea culpa might be in order, too.