HL Deb 26 July 1875 vol 226 cc2-7

rose to call the attention of the Secretary of State for the Colonies to the Act of the Colonial Legislature for the compulsory purchase by the Local Government of Prince Edward's Island of all or any of the estates of the British proprietors in that island, and to ask what steps have been taken by Her Majesty's Government to protect the just interests of those proprietors; and, whether the amount payable to them for the purchase of their rights is limited to the sum of eight hundred thousand dollars men- tioned in the Act? The noble and learned Lord said that he considered this subject to be one of great importance. For some time past what might be termed a "land question" had existed in the island. The numbers of the owners of the soil were very small, and a strong democratic feeling prevailed in favour of the compulsory sequestration of the land by the tenants who held of them. This was not a new state of things in many countries; but in Prince Edward's Island it had had considerably sway, the Local Legislature being more or less completely elected by those whose influence was on the tenants' side. The consequence was that great efforts had been made to bring about this result. Last year a very similar Act to that to which he was now alluding passed the local Legislature but failed to receive the Royal Assent, the Governor General in Council stating in a despatch to the Lieutenant-Governor of the island, that he was advised the Act was objectionable, because it did not provide an impartial arbitration for the purchase of this property. The Act of 1874 was also objected to, because it was subversive of the rights of property, harassing and ruinous to the owners, and a dangerous precedent by the encouragement it held out to agitation. The Act of this year differed from the Act of 1874 in creating a more satisfactory tribunal for the adjustment of these cases. Three Commissioners were appointed—one by the Governor General of Canada, one by the local Government, and the third by the Island proprietors. In 1860 the proprietors, most of them resident in this country, were very willing to settle all disputes, and the matter was referred to Commissioners, who reported that the basis of compromise should be that the lands should be valued at 20 years' purchase, the purchase-money being regulated by the amount of rents stipulated to be paid. This compromise had never been carried out. An Act had now been passed which bore very harshly upon the proprietors. The Commissioners were to settle the amount to be paid, taking into consideration not how much rent had been reserved, but how much was paid, so that proprietors who had been lax in enforcing their rights would suffer accordingly. The Commissioners were also to consider what was the probability of recovering rents; so that if the law of the island were lax—as in some respects he believed it was—this fact again would tell against the proprietors. The Commissioners were also empowered to open up old questions whether the original conditions of grant had been observed by the proprietors. The Act purported to be one for changing leasehold into freehold tenures; but all that it really did seemed to be to give to the local Government power to acquire the land compulsorily from the proprietors, while it did not give the tenants any statutory right of purchase. Mr. Childers was going out as one of the three Commissioners and the representative of the Governor General, and he wished to ask the noble Earl the Secretary for the Colonies whether any instructions had been given to Mr. Childers to take a reasonable view of the rights of the proprietors under the Act, and whether Her Majesty's Government had been able to do anything which would lead to justice being done to the proprietors? Otherwise there was reason to believe that the true value of the land would be largely depreciated in the course of the inquiry by the Commissioners. He wished also to ask the noble Earl, whether the amount payable to the proprietors for the purchase of their rights was limited to the sum of $800,000, which he believed had been paid by the Canadian Government in consideration of the recent Federation?


My Lords, I find some little difficulty in replying in any detail to the noble and learned Lord, and for this reason'—that the Act which he has brought under the notice of your Lordships is not an Act which has been passed in the ordinary course of Colonial legislation. In the ordinary course of Colonial legislation an Act passed by the Colonial Legislature is sent home to this country, either for sanction or disallowance by the Crown; and, of course, the responsibility in such cases rests with the Minister who advises the Crown. This Act, however, stands on a different footing. It is passed by the Provincial Legislature of the Dominion of Canada; and under the Canadian Federation Act of 1867 it is provided that Acts so passed shall be allowed or disallowed, not by the Crown on the advice of the Minister in England, but by the Governor General. This Act has followed the usual course. It has come under review by the Governor General, who has, I think, exercised his judgment properly in sanctioning it. I should exhaust the patience of the House if I were to go minutely into the history of this legislation. The noble and learned Lord has alluded to it as a matter of extreme difficulty, which has existed for a great number of years. It originated, curiously enough, in a lottery which was held in London rather more than 100 years ago. The lottery, which afforded a curious picture of the Colonial administration of the day, was held for the purpose of putting up a large portion, if not the largest portion, of Prince Edward's Island in lots. In one day no fewer than 67 lots were raffled for, each lot containing 20,000 acres of land. Certain conditions were attached to each lot; but, in most cases, they had not been complied with by those who obtained them. The consequence was that property which was then lightly won was lightly treated. The conditions as to settling the lots with colonists were, in the main, not complied with; and in addition to that, the properties were subjected to the difficulty of absenteeism. The result of these two evils was, that complaints not unnaturally sprang up in the island. The tenants who held the properties found out that the owners were not complying with the conditions. They themselves, on the other hand, departed from their conditions with their landlords, and either did not pay the rent at all, or else allowed it to fall into arrear. The ultimate result was a complete state of confusion and recriminations between the two parties. This went on, and about 10 years ago a tenant's league was formed in the island for the purpose of disputing the possession of the property with the descendants of those who held the original lots. A Royal Commission was appointed to investigate the matter. The Commissioners say in their Report— The tenantry of Prince Edward's Island share the common sentiment of the continent which surrounds them. The prejudice in favour of a freehold tenure, if it is one, is beyond the power of reason. The proprietors cannot change the sentiment; the local Government have no power to resist it; and the Imperial Government, having become weary of collecting rents and supporting evictions in Ireland, can hardly be expected to do for the landlords in Prince Edward Island what has ceased to he popular or practicable at home. It is, therefore, imperative upon all the parties concerned to convert this tenure. Agrarian questions now occupy the public mind incessantly in this fine colony to the exclusion of all sound politics. A public man is valued in proportion as he is subservient to the proprietors or friendly to the tenants, not for the measures of internal improvement of inter-colonial policy he may propound: and the intellectual and social life of this people is exhausted and frittered away by disputes and contentions detrimental to the interests of all parties. The Report of the Commissioners presented no exaggerated picture of the state of things in the island, and showed the advantage of putting an end to it by any system of legislation which was likely to meet with a reasonable amount of acceptance by the contending parties. I am not at all disposed to say that the Act is perfect. Indeed, I quite agree with the noble and learned Lord that it is open to very many charges in various points. The main purport of the Act I take to be this—It requires that a certain notice should be given to the proprietors of the intention of the Government to purchase the land, and provides that three Commissioners shall be nominated, who are to have the power of determining the price. A proprietor may appear by counsel and he may appoint a solicitor; and although he has no appeal from the decision of the Commissioners, yet the Supreme Court of Canada may remit the report of the Commissioners for subsequent revision. I cannot state that the Act is in every respect satisfactory; but I am bound to say that, in my opinion, it is not altogether unfavourable to the proprietors. This Act does not lay down the principle of compulsory purchase for the first time. That principle was laid down before in Prince Edward's Island, and this is a supplementary Act, which is rather in favour of the proprietors than otherwise, as it provides on the whole a fair and equitable machinery to enable them to obtain compensation for their land. My noble Friend opposite (the Earl of Kimberley), when he was Colonial Secretary, accepted an Act passed in 1872 on the subject, and also the subsequent Act passed in 1873. Those Acts embodied the principle of compulsory purchase. I think the House will admit that a very wise and proper choice has been made of the gentlemen who are nominated Commissioners, and who will give a fair consideration to the claims of the proprietors. The Home Government is not in any respect whatever responsible for this Act. It is a measure which was disposed of in Canada by the decision of the Governor General, and consequently instructions from home would really be superfluous, or, rather, more than superfluous. At the same time, Mr. Childers has been placed in personal communication with Lord Dufferin, and it is quite understood that his Lordship will give whatever consideration is proper to all the representations which may be made to him on either side. The noble and learned Lord (Lord Penzance) has referred to the sum of $800,000 mentioned in the Act. If I understand rightly, the Question of the noble and learned Lord is whether the compensation to be awarded under the Act is limited to this sum of $800,000. I do not think it is; I have no reason whatever to believe that it is so. The only allusion to this sum is to be found in the Preamble, and not in the enacting part of the measure. In conclusion, I will only remind the House of what I originally stated—namely, that this measure is one which has been passed by the Colonial Legislature of Prince Edward's Island, and which consequently receives the sanction, not of the Crown through the Imperial Government at home, but the sanction of the Governor General of Canada. Taking all the circumstances into consideration, I quite admit there is much to be said on both sides. I think, however, my noble Friend the Governor General of Canada has exercised a wise discretion in assenting to this measure, which I trust will not only put an end to a controversy which has raged for 15 years, but will put an end to it as much in the interest of the proprietors as to the interest of any other class of the community.