Ontario Opposition Leader John Tory pledged yesterday to crack down on illegal occupations such as the long-simmering standoff between native and non-native protesters in Caledonia by beefing up the province's trespassing laws. But his own aides conceded it is not at all clear whether the province has the jurisdiction to enforce such laws on native lands.
Mr. Tory made the announcement near the disputed tract of land in the southwestern Ontario community as part of a campaign stop to burnish his law-and-order credentials and to blame Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty's "legacy of weak leadership" for the standoff, now in its 18th month.
He said a Progressive Conservative government would expand the definition of trespassing to include anyone who organizes or finances illegal activities, not just those who physically occupy someone else's property. His party would also double the fines for trespassing to up to $2,000 a day for individuals and to $25,000 a day for corporations.
The proposed changes to the province's trespassing laws were the latest in a string of policy announcements by Mr. Tory in recent days. But much like other initiatives, including a proposal to fast track the building of more nuclear reactors and extending public funding to religious schools, this appears to be a work in progress.
When asked by reporters if the province has jurisdiction to enforce the trespassing law, given that native land claims are a federal responsibility, an adviser to Mr. Tory said the laws as currently written are unclear.
"We know we can clarify the act," he said. "It would be up to a judge to clarify how it applies to each situation."
However, Deputy Premier George Smitherman yesterday said Mr. Tory "recklessly tried to fan flames in the ongoing federal land-claim dispute in Caledonia."
Mr. Tory said it is unacceptable that vandalism and violence have held residents on both sides of the barricades hostage for so long.
"For more than 18 months, Caledonia has served as a sobering reminder of what happens when the Premier - the person who is supposed to defend the rule of law - turns a blind eye instead," he told reporters yesterday morning, following a public meeting with a group of residents. "In so doing, he has failed the people of Caledonia."
The dispute began in February, 2006, when native protesters began occupying a tract of land adjoining a Six Nations reserve in Caledonia, south of Hamilton. Tensions escalated last week after Ontario Provincial Police issued arrest warrants for three suspects in an assault that left home builder Sam Gualtieri with serious injuries.
Mr. Tory said he would amend provincial statutes, including the Trespass to Property Act, to address the breakdown in law that results from an illegal occupation. If in power, he said, he would use the "moral authority" of the premier's office to get the occupiers off the land.
The Liberals also criticized Mr. Tory over his vow on Saturday to fast track the approval process for building new nuclear reactors, which he said takes too long. However, the province has no control over this because approving new reactors is the responsibility of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Association, a federal regulator.
"He really doesn't understand the complexity of the issue," Energy Minister Dwight Duncan said in an interview yesterday.
Mr. Tory told reporters yesterday that he does not "have all the particulars in front of me" as to what could be done to expedite the process, but he said he is confident it could be done.
"I think where there's a will, there's a way on these things," he said.
Mr. Tory also has vowed to look at selling Ontario wine and beer in convenience stores.
A Conservative government would set up a few "test markets" where Ontario craft beer and wine could be sold outside the confines of the LCBO, Mr. Tory told The Canadian Press in an interview.
"A lot of people think it's just part of civilized, normal life. That's why I say I would like to sit down and talk to everybody about it."
The idea was first floated in April by Liberal backbencher Kim Craitor, who introduced a private members' bill that was welcomed by grape growers and convenience store operators but quickly shot down by Mr. McGuinty.
Opening a new market for Ontario beer and wine would help boost an industry that's getting a "raw deal" right now from provincial beer and liquor stores, Mr. Tory said.
But the desire to expand the market for Ontario beverages has to be balanced with the safety concerns of police and parents, he said.