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Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston fields a question at a briefing in Halifax on Dec. 7, 2021.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Noah Richler divides his time between Toronto and Sandy Cove, N.S. His most recent book is The Candidate: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, a finalist for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing

It’s harder and harder to believe in Canada these days. We are, increasingly, a haven of factions refusing the bonds of universality that allow folk of different backgrounds and regions to feel kindred. Now, exacerbated by the isolationism two years of COVID have fostered, our politicians, here as in the rest of the world – the United States, Britain, France, Russia – indulge in populist policies that rely on a handy demonization of the Other.

The most recent example of this is taking place in Nova Scotia, where Premier Tim Houston’s Progressive Conservative government is on its way to passing a budget with new and onerous property taxes to be imposed exclusively upon the approximately 27,000 homeowners from out-of-province. These fellow Canadians, in most instances, are being penalized – and demonized.

A new Non-Resident Deed Transfer Tax and Property Tax will add a surcharge of 5 per cent to the price tag of a property if it is sold to someone who is not a full-time resident of Nova Scotia, and add the equivalent of 2 per cent of a property’s value to the municipal taxes out-of-province homeowners already pay.

Effectively, the Non-Resident Deed Transfer Tax and Property Tax, which is expected to raise $81-million for the province, immediately triples the tax burden of a property owned by someone who is not a full-time resident.

This is happening when out-of-province homeowners already pay significantly more tax because the assessments on which their taxes are based are not eligible for the capped rate of increase – which this year stood at 5.4 per cent – that only full-time residents enjoy. In Sandy Cove, the community of which I consider myself a part, out-of-province residents were seeing increases in their assessments of three, four, five, 10 and 20 times that.

The absurdities are rife, but Mr. Houston and his Minister of Finance, Allan MacMaster, have been unrelenting in their commitment to the plan. The clear inference is that out-of-province homeowners are rich and do not contribute, which is all the more astonishing when you consider that a vast number of them are in fact Nova Scotians wanting to maintain their connections to the province, and, almost categorically, out-of-province homeowners deliberately and pro-actively spend in ways that support local business.

Time and again this was evident in two days of remarkably articulate protestations made to the Nova Scotia legislature’s Law Amendments Committee, concluded on Tuesday. The shock, in particular, that Nova Scotia would erect such formidable barriers to families, some of whom have been visiting for generations, not years or decades, was palpable. But it was the insult to fellow Canadians, to the very idea and constitution of the country, that hurt most of all, and so the hearings reached their apogee in the warning of a Charter-based challenge to the constitutionality of the new taxes. Spearheaded by out-of-province resident Paul Hughes and lawyer James Bunting, it alleges that the Nova Scotia budget, Bill 149, directly contravenes Canadians’ Charter-guaranteed rights to mobility and to be free from discrimination.

The challenge is viable because, unlike the B.C. Speculation and Vacancy Tax to which it is sometimes compared, the Nova Scotia version – with levies that are four times as great – is not a tax on houses but on people. Which is how the Houston government has always intended it: Out-of-province property owners own 3.6 per cent of Nova Scotian homes, but this quotient pales next to the number of individual multiple property owners who are full-time residents – and who are presumably also, and even more significantly, excluding ordinary Nova Scotians from being able to afford a home. But rather than mine this infinitely more remunerative seam – 21.6 per cent of full-time Nova Scotia residents are multiple property owners accounting for 40.9 per cent of properties owned – non-voters are the ones being strong-armed.

Mr. Houston would only grudgingly say, “I don’t want there to be any kind of misunderstanding of the contribution that I and the government believes [sic] that non-residents make. … They do improve their properties, they do eat out.”

And take up space.

The appetite of non-residents for property, says Lunenburg MLA and Minister of Economic Development Susan Corkum-Greek, “moved inland during the pandemic” with “the effect of squeezing out our own.” Now “people from other areas of the country abroad are finally seeing opportunities here for good jobs and a great life” and room must be made for these permanent, rather than seasonal, residents – turning the tide on generations of Nova Scotia outmigration.

“For too long,” Ms. Corkum-Greek says, “we collectively bought in to the idea that you had to leave Nova Scotia to prove your mettle.”

Which, of course, is not true.

Nova Scotia did not lose generations of workers to an “idea.” Nova Scotians, as the cohorts of young moving through the province’s many universities prove year on year, moved away because there were no meaningful jobs in the province. It’s not going to be an “idea” that changes that, but a policy. The right policy, which Bill 149 is not.

Tellingly, Conservative Nova Scotia premier John Hamm explored similar measures in 2001 but abandoned them after they were categorically rejected in the report of the Voluntary Planning Task Force he commissioned, and that is likely gathering dust in Mr. Houston’s cabinet library. The new taxes fail to identify property owners who may well have a principal residence elsewhere but are, in essence, Nova Scotian. They fail to recognize but will severely impede the extraordinary infusion into the province of lifetimes of money, hard work, social commitment and good will that are the direct result of out-of-province ownership. They imply that a person with a job who can’t afford a house in Dartmouth is going to commute from a suddenly vacated seaside mansion in Halifax to Chester, move into a seasonal cottage, or to the Digby Neck or Eastern Passage or Cape Breton, where non-resident owners have transformed properties that are often unwanted and in disrepair, and where they’ll be lucky if they find work at all. And they will rip a fissure through a plethora of historically harmonious communities because out-of-province members are being grouped together in bigoted fashion and told they are not wanted.

My Nova Scotia friends are sympathetic – and alarmed. They understand, as out-of-province residents do, that the housing crisis in Dartmouth and Halifax needs to be addressed, but understand these are not the means. A few, even before the Conservatives’ coercion, suggested my partner and I make Nova Scotia our principal residence. And, truth be told, the trickster in me likes the irony of this idea – that as an aging couple we would in the long run end up costing far more to the province than the Nova Scotia government is able to reap from us now. But we’re not about to be coerced by thugs at the border rifling through our pockets and demanding the keys to the house in the name of an ill-conceived, unresearched housing policy that will ultimately backfire, if it is not doing so already.

More to the point, I shall never renounce my citizenship to the greater country – to, pace Ms. Corkum-Greek, the greater idea. Which is Canada. From coast to coast to coast. The whole of Canada is home and we all have a right to be anywhere in its glorious variety – without penalty or prejudice.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this column stated the non-resident property tax is forecast to raise $81-million. That’s the amount for both the property tax and the deed transfer tax.

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