Bob Milligan feared he was about to lose everything.
As owner of Coast Mountain Outfitters, a company that specializes in hunting expeditions along British Columbia's north and central coasts, Mr. Milligan held one of the largest and most valuable guide territory certificates in the province.
And now it was in the sights of B.C.'s Civil Forfeiture Office, a government agency that has been criticized for its aggressive attempts to seize homes, vehicles, cash and other property that has been associated with unlawful activity.
Mr. Milligan said the Civil Forfeiture Act was created to go after large-scale crime, not small individuals such as himself.
"I think the law's got to change," he said.
In May, 2012, the Civil Forfeiture Office filed a lawsuit against Mr. Milligan in a bid to seize his certificate after he was accused of committing eight offences under the Wildlife Act and the Land Act. The move meant that infractions that could have brought only fines could end up costing Mr. Milligan his certificate and his livelihood.
One of the alleged infractions concerned a trip with a helicopter that a provincial agency had deemed justified for medical reasons. Another involved the use of a snowmobile in a closed area – Mr. Milligan's lawyer said an employee accidentally strayed 200 metres past a zone boundary.
Last June, facing a hefty legal bill in the battle, Mr. Milligan settled the case in a confidential agreement. He also reluctantly sold the certificate – believed to be worth millions of dollars – to the Nisga'a Nation for an undisclosed price. It is unclear how much of the money went to the Civil Forfeiture Office.
The Globe and Mail has reported extensively on the office, which was introduced as a way to fight organized crime but has come to have a far broader reach. It does not need a conviction or charges to pursue a case, and critics have questioned some of the files it takes on, calling it a cash cow. B.C.'s office has taken in millions of dollars more than a similar agency in Ontario, despite opening three years later.
B.C.'s Justice Minister has repeatedly defended the office, saying it takes only cases that are in the public interest.
Scott Ellis, executive director of the Guide Outfitters Association of B.C., said Mr. Milligan's case is the only one in which the Civil Forfeiture Office has attempted to seize a guide territory certificate. The association advocated on Mr. Milligan's behalf with the province.
"Our position was that there are penalties and a mechanism under the Wildlife Act that justly handle Wildlife Act infractions, if there are some," Mr. Ellis said in an interview.
Mr. Milligan said that, at first, he was determined to fight the civil forfeiture case. But as it dragged on and the risks became clear, he felt he had no choice but to settle and sell the certificate.
"I didn't want to [settle]," Mr. Milligan said. "My lawyer talked to me until he was blue in the face. He said, 'It's all about counting beans, Bob. It's not about principle. When you do it on principle, it costs you money.'"
Mr. Milligan said this was not the first time the province pressed him to sell the certificate – it earlier asked him to consider a deal with the Coastal First Nations alliance.
The 47-year-old, married father of two inherited the guide territory certificate when he was 18, after his parents died in a plane crash. The certificate gave him the exclusive right to guide hunters in an area about 17,000 square kilometres in size, with part of the territory including a region known as the Great Bear Rainforest.
Mr. Milligan said that, in 2008 or 2009, provincial officials asked the Guide Outfitters Association to facilitate a meeting between Mr. Milligan and the Coastal First Nations about selling the certificate. (The association confirmed that version of events. A request for comment from the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations was referred to the Ministry of Forests. A statement from the Ministry of Forests did not address the meeting.)
Mr. Milligan said talks went on for two years, but he opted not to sell. Then, he said, came the civil forfeiture case.
The office's notice of civil claim argued the certificate had been used as an instrument of unlawful activity. The offences were alleged to have occurred between 2003 and 2009, and the most serious involved hunting a bear by placing bait, and allowing a hunter to kill a bear while left unsupervised. Mr. Milligan denied those allegations and questioned the use of the Civil Forfeiture Act.
In addition to those claims, the lawsuit alleged a snowmobile was used for the purpose of hunting in a closed area in late 2006, and a helicopter was used to transport hunters without authorization in September, 2008.
Nicholas Weigelt, Mr. Milligan's lawyer, said the only allegation that had "any basis in reality" was the one involving the snowmobile. He said one of Mr. Milligan's employees accidentally travelled into an area where snowmobiles were not allowed. He said Mr. Milligan was convicted of the offence and paid a small fine.
On the allegation involving the helicopter, Mr. Milligan said he obtained authorization over the phone from a conservation officer. He said the temperature was -20 C and the hunters had to be transported out.
A Ministry of Environment spokesperson said in a statement the incident was investigated. "The file was concluded with no enforcement action required as the transport was due to medical reasons," the statement read.
It is unclear why the Civil Forfeiture Office mentioned the incident in its lawsuit.
Phil Tawtel, the Civil Forfeiture Office's director, declined a request to discuss the case and broader civil-forfeiture issues. Mr. Tawtel has declined every interview request from The Globe for more than two years. In an interview conducted in late 2013, he told The Globe that 99 per cent of the people the office targets settle in its favour.
The office's notice of civil claim also alleged Mr. Milligan's certificate was suspended between November, 1994, and April, 2003, due to a "number of convictions," although it did not provide further details.
But a 2002 ruling from the B.C. Environmental Appeal Board said Mr. Milligan had convictions in Provincial Court in 1998. Mr. Milligan had agreed in 1995 that he would not guide until an administrative hearing into the allegations in that case had concluded. A copy of the Environmental Appeal Board ruling was provided to The Globe by Mr. Weigelt.
The ruling said the convictions stemmed largely from three incidents in April and May, 1994. In the first instance, a hunter shot and killed two wolverines when he was licensed to hunt only bears, and Mr. Milligan did not report it. In the second instance, Mr. Milligan allowed a hunter to use one of his tags to shoot a black bear when the hunter ran out of tags of his own. The third incident involved an attempt to hunt for grizzly bears, although no bears were shot.
The convictions against Mr. Milligan included unlawful possession of dead wildlife, misusing his tags, guiding hunters toward grizzly bears without a licence, and making false statements in guide reports. He was ordered to pay about $25,000 in fines, the ruling said.
At the time, the Environmental Appeal Board disagreed with a government fish and wildlife manager who said Mr. Milligan should have to sell his certificate. It said Mr. Milligan was young when the offences occurred and he showed an "immature tendency to try to please his clients." It said he had matured, demonstrated remorse and had a clean record in his side work as a fishing guide.
The board said B.C. licensing authorities should also accept some responsibility for allowing Mr. Milligan to begin guide outfitting when he was 19, instead of the usual 21.
Mr. Milligan's response to the Civil Forfeiture Office lawsuit noted the province renewed his certificate in 2007 – at which point it would have known about at least some of the allegations later referenced in the forfeiture case.
"The defendant says that it is clearly not in the interests of justice for the government to misuse the Civil Forfeiture Act in the manner set out in the notice of civil claim … and that this action amounts to an abuse of the process of the court," the response read.
The Ministry of Forests, in a statement, said the regional manager who reissued the certificate in 2007 "would have likely considered past activities and past rulings," including the Environmental Appeal Board's decision.
Micheal Vonn, policy director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said in an interview that the Civil Forfeiture Act allows the government to "cherry pick" how a wide array of disputes is heard. She said the public would be surprised to learn the Wildlife Act was "being swerved around, avoided, in favour of the government's now preferred option."
The Nisga'a, in a statement, said the certificate was transferred to the nation in October. It said "obtaining the guide outfitting privileges conferred by the certificate has been a long-standing objective of the Nisga'a Nation."
The Nisga'a Final Agreement, or treaty, outlines the process for obtaining a guide territory certificate that has been abandoned or made available through the operation of law. However, the nation said those provisions were not triggered and the certificate was bought in an "arms-length commercial arrangement."
The statement said the Nisga'a do not currently have an individual trained and certified to act as a licensed guide. As a result, it has arranged for Mr. Milligan to assist with the transition and operation of the business as a consultant. It said the next steps in establishing a Nisga'a guide outfitting business will include hiring Nisga'a to train with Mr. Milligan.
How long the Nisga'a holds on to the certificate remains to be seen – the Coastal First Nations has already expressed interest in it.
Doug Neasloss, spokesperson for the Coastal First Nations, an alliance of several bands on the north and central coasts and Haida Gwaii, said it has contacted the Nisga'a about buying the portion of the certificate that involves the Great Bear Rainforest. The Coastal First Nations announced a ban on trophy bear hunting in their territory in 2012.
The statement from the Nisga'a did not address a question about the interest from the Coastal First Nations.
Mr. Milligan said working with the Nisga'a has proven to be a very positive experience.
But he said the civil forfeiture process took years off his life.