The B.C. government is set to pass legislation on Thursday that overhauls the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) – a change the opposition New Democrats branded as a covert campaign to free up protected farmland for development.
NDP agriculture critic Nicholas Simons said leaked e-mails demonstrate the ministers behind Bill 24 – Bill Bennett and Pat Pimm – had an agenda before the last election to weaken the independent agency in charge of protected farmland.
"These e-mails make it clear they disliked the Agricultural Land Reserve and wanted to undermine the land commission. Clearly, the views that were expressed in these e-mails should probably have disqualified them from being eligible to sit in cabinet," Mr. Simons said in the legislature on Wednesday.
"Instead, they were rewarded by the Premier with the two positions most capable of destroying our farmland. … They had the motive. She gave them the opportunity and the means."
The release of the e-mails prompted an apology on Wednesday from Mr. Pimm, who was minister of agriculture when the proposed legislation was introduced.
Mr. Pimm, who is on medical leave, wrote in an e-mail in July, 2012, that the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) was getting in the way of changes that would help him at election time while his government was busy finding ways to "give the Indians more money which doesn't get me one vote!"
After the contents of the e-mail were reported this week, Mr. Pimm issued a written statement: "I deeply regret and apologize for my comments in regards to First Nations that appeared in The Globe and Mail today. They were inappropriate and wrong."
Mr. Bennett, the author of Bill 24, distanced himself from Mr. Pimm's comments, but defended his own efforts to lobby for change. In the summer of 2012, Mr. Bennett complained in an e-mail to then-agriculture minister Don McRae that the ALC was dragging its heels on his push to rezone land within the ALR. "There has to be room for other job-creating, tax-paying activities," he said at the time.
Mr. Bennett told reporters in Victoria on Wednesday he has never hidden his desire for changes at the ALC. He added that he is not sure how Richard Bollock, chair of the ALC, ended up on the e-mail thread. The result was that the independent agency was well aware of the complaints.
Mr. Bennett said he was acting on the wishes of his constituents.
"I didn't get elected four times because I don't listen to my constituents," he said. He added that he has heard many complaints about the ALC in his riding. "You can call that politics; I call that democracy."
However, he said he disapproved of Mr. Pimm's remarks about First Nations. He was copied on the e-mail at the time: "I'd forgotten that he said that. I am very distressed to see it in print. … He should apologize for that."
Stewart Phillip, the grand chief of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, condemned the remarks. "The comments from MLA Pat Pimm, especially as an appointed member of the [legislature committee] on Aboriginal Affairs, are completely repugnant, reprehensible and downright racist."
The MLAs are expected to end the spring legislative session on Thursday, and Bill 24 is the final law to be passed. It will divide the ALR into two zones, and the commission will be required to provide more flexibility in land use in Zone 2 to allow activities such as food processing and potential oil and gas development.
Agriculture Minister Norm Letnik said he is comfortable that the new law will preserve farmland and ensure "we have a strong ALC that is independent of politicians."