Governments must be restrained from dedicating public money and power to crush their citizens. The Charter fetters police powers and legislation, but what impedes government from applying its unlimited resources to harass us into poverty in civil court?
Government lawsuits can visit incalculable stress against citizens, in addition to penury. The Alberta government’s treatment of the Hansen family for almost three decades is a case in point. Still, the government refuses to back off.
In 1980, David and Linda Hansen purchased a ranch in the southeastern Alberta desert that has a small, simple dam on it built in the 1940s by the federal government. A year later, the Alberta government wanted the Hansen dam and other lands as part of a regional irrigation project. In 1984, the government made its move. It muscled in and wrested control and operation of the Hansen dam and land.
An expropriation hearing ended in an agreement that the Hansens owned the dam and land, the value of which would be determined later. In good faith, the Hansens signed the agreement and sent it in.
Soon the government earthmovers throttled up and carved a road across the Hansen land. Linda wondered, "Shouldn’t we get the signed agreement back first?" But David gazed at the trees falling to the bulldozer. "We have an agreement with the government. We have to trust them."
When the contract came back from the Alberta government three months later, the Hansens were grieved to see that it had been altered and someone had allegedly set David’s initials to the alterations. The government was also now taking the position that the dam had no value.
Water is liquid gold in southeastern Alberta. The Hansens had no interest to stand in the way of necessary irrigation improvements. They just wanted a fair and honest process if the government wanted to take their land. But now the Hansens felt betrayed by their provincial government. From that point in late 1985 they refused to honour the agreement. In the absence of trust and mutual respect, matters spiralled out of control. An ordinary, hardworking Alberta family suddenly found itself in a duel with an arrogant government determined to impose its will. Over the next quarter century, for daring to resist, they were compelled to defend serial civil proceedings against them that in any other context would have been viewed as abusive and vexatious.
They allege the government intimidated them, tried to pit neighbours against them and even threaten to hold other land to which they were entitled.
Mostly, the government launched a long Kafkaesque odyssey in the courts that might vanquish the Hansens, starting with a lawsuit to gain the land in 1986. Financed by the public treasury, it kept up the pressure for a decade before suddenly dropping it, after the Hansens had paid a string of lawyers to defend them.
In 1996 the government proposed a new agreement, which the Hansens found to be worse than the original 1985 agreement. Exasperated and the last drop of goodwill having been spent, the Hansens told the government it would no longer be permitted free access to and control of their land. Undeterred, the government obtained a court order allowing it continued use of the Hansen dam and lands without payment, an order which continues to this day. All offers proposed by the Hansens to settle were rebuffed.
The government commenced yet another lawsuit, reversing the legal position it had held for the previous 15 years. It now denied the Hansens ownership of the dam and claimed instead the government owned it. After dragging out this claim through the courts six more years, the government walked away, no closer to any solution.
Two decades from when this ordeal started, the Crown then again hit the reset button with new expropriation proceedings. By now, the Hansens had forked over $100,000 of their savings to lawyers while the Alberta government enjoyed access and control to their land. This dispute seemed hopeless and interminable. The matter of compensation still remains unresolved.
The stress of this unwinnable war had taken an incalculable toll on the emotional and mental health of the Hansen family. The children grew up in this rancour. David was worried. Isolated and traumatized, he raged in his heart against his insensitive government, as he felt the world collapsing around him. Emotionally exhausted, he could not sleep for months. Suddenly he died trying on Jan. 14, 2003, at the age of 62.
The province did not pause to relent. Within days, the government inspector returned. Linda still hopes for payment for what she considers trespass by her government for almost 30 years. Recent requests for mediation were refused in what has become a ruinous personal dispute. The public tab for this Hansen shakedown probably approaches one million dollars, while the province quavers under major debt and is cutting budgets for worthy causes.
In a cruel twist of irony, Linda’s own politicians have been cabinet ministers. Pleas for her current representative, the provincial Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, to intervene have been ignored. Instead the Alberta government now wants even more Hansen land, but Linda can muster no trust to sign another agreement. Today, the government will be in court again seeking to discard her claim to fair compensation.
The Hansen file is a frightening and disgraceful outrage allowed to play out in obscurity, without constraints of justice or time. Linda Hansen, now also 62, wants final closure to this nightmare. Only the practical common sense of some senior official in the Alberta government can intervene to settle this shameful chapter now. Is anyone listening?