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The Feudal Fiefdoms of Saskatchewan: PART SIX, in Vol.34, No.2, Winter 2020-21

Local Governance gone awry…

In the Regional Parks of SK, people own their homes, on land leased from management Boards that operate at a frightening level of autonomy, enabled by political interference and wilful blindness from municipal and provincial governments. Five seniors represented themselves in Court of Queen’s Bench against a Board-initiated Writ of Possession application. This is the 6th Installment of the story from Norm Zigarlick and friends on the idylls of Park life and their search for ‘justice’ [Story began in Autumn 2019, Vol.33-1]

Norm Zigarlick, SK

I have a feeling that years from now when somebody asks an old timer if they remember 2020, the answer will be, “I try not to”.

With all that has gone on in the world over the last while, the ongoing saga at Suffern Lake Regional Park doesn’t really amount to much. One might see it as a handful of old people duking it out with an obscure arm of government over a minor concern in a place few people have heard of.  That would be fundamentally correct.  When measured on a national or world scale, the local gong show doesn’t move the needle on any issue.

Even in Saskatchewan, the 55 cabins at Suffern lake Regional Park are hardly noticeable on the provincial tax rolls that include 844,000 other structures.

Suffern Lake Regional Park Authority (SLRPA) runs the Park. There are about 100 such parks in the Province, about a quarter of them have associated cabin/cottage communities. There is special legislation, the Saskatchewan Regional Parks Act that outlines operational guidelines. A great deal of leeway is allowed through the Act, so much so that according to various Ministries in the Saskatchewan Government, Regional Park Authorities pretty much answer to no one.

We’ve even had the past Minister responsible for Parks Culture and Sport tell us he didn’t have the authority to intervene on “Board” decisions. Odd comment because according to legislation, the Minister sits at the top of that food chain and we have a whack of communications showing the Ministry had a lot of input into choices made by SLRPA over the past five years.

Under former Premier Brad Wall, the regional parks held a near sacrosanct status. He saw them as being so important to his rural political base, he had a whole bunch of his friends and associates placed in the bureaucratic stream that funded them and in theory, provided oversight. This was not necessarily a bad idea. It put rural folk completely in charge of one of their long-standing institutions and the far away city folk/politicians played no role in the decision-making process. Regional Parks have been around for 50 years or more; they were founded on the idea that rural Saskatchewan families could have places to go where outdoor recreation and family fun was available within a half hour drive or so.

What is odd about Suffern Lake Regional Park is that a majority of cabins are owned by Albertans. Over the past decade the Chairman and the Vice Chairman of the Park Authority have been Alberta residents. At any given time over the past twenty years, a significant number of Albertans have held key roles on the Park Authority.

Perhaps Suffern Lake Regional Park is nothing more than a microcosmic example of globalization similar in concept to Hong Kong residents owning half of Vancouver but somewhat diminished in scale – the total combined value of cabins in the Park is worth more or less the same as a decent house with an ocean view in Vancouver. In general, both locations developed pretty much the same way, somebody from somewhere else was willing to pay more than local folks would for a chunk of land by some water.

Somehow both have found their way into their respective political arenas (or circus tents). Suffern Lake doesn’t get to hold Chinese corporate leaders hostage like that Wow Wee lady that is forced to live in Vancouver while the Americans in essence argue over a future phone bill, but a guy from the Philippines did get charged for fishing in Suffern Lake without a license.

Locally that’s a big deal. Suffern Lake is about the size of six football fields combined, the fish population cannot support an international seafood harvesting operation. Sure, he might have just caught a three-pound rainbow trout for now, but just ask any indigenous leader what happens when foreigners show up and start dipping into the local food supply.

I truly hope that we do not get a glimpse of global administrative actualities just by scaling up Suffern Lake circumstances to an appropriate size. But I shouldn’t really worry about that because, if that were the case, we would already be extinct.

Just to recap our story a little bit… 18 months ago, a group of us geezers were sued by the local Park Authority a couple of times (we refused to pay property taxes until somebody justified the wonky percentage increases). We self represented in Court of Queen’s Bench against one of Saskatchewan’s best-known law firms. We won. Winning against a Regional Park Authority in Saskatchewan doesn’t mean it’s over, it just means there is a different argument on the way.

I should probably mention that mil rates for property taxes are set by the local Park Authority (there is an education property tax as well, but its mil rate is fixed by the provincial government). That means that for quite a while, a bunch of Alberta folks were engineering certain tax arrangements in a Saskatchewan Park and when we challenged those arrangements, we were sued in Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench. It was the tax-managing border jumpers that authorized the lawsuits. It begs the question, when did Albertans get so passionate about Saskatchewan tax enforcement and why?

Did I forget to mention that one of our prime arguments along the way was that somehow property taxes were being manipulated at the local level? In fact, the former Minister for Parks many times said these were local issues that would be resolved at a local level. I wonder did he mean local Alberta or local Saskatchewan? Or perhaps because nobody provided actual oversight on this Park, the Government of Saskatchewan had no clue the Park they were so fiercely protecting was being run by Albertans?

That may not even be the craziest part. Our group first questioned the fairness of local property taxes in 2016. We expressed our concerns to what we felt were the appropriate government ministries. We felt that lakefront property owners were somehow getting significant tax advantages while the more common folks with inland lots were doing the heavy lifting.   
[END OF TEXT FEATURED IN THE Vol.34,No.2 PRINT EDITION, incorrectly labelled Part Five]

 Through access to information (FOIP) requests we learned that by September of 2017 the Saskatchewan Government’s Ministry for Parks Culture and Sport had one of their mid-manager types making tax related inquiries regarding Suffern Lake taxes.

The email exchanges are fascinating. The Government guy asks our local Park guy why only 25 cabins were noted on a written report instead of the full 47 in the Park. The Park guy replied that at first, he was only given info on 25 cabins that he could pass on to Government, but later the oversight body (Rural Municipality) provided the rest. Park guy then went on to talk about the average range of taxes paid. We found that quite interesting given that to the best of our knowledge, there were 54 tax paying cabins at the time not 47. Given the small number of buildings involved, I can’t consider this error to be accidental.

Of course, in 2017 we did not know this internal tax investigation was going on. Had we known we certainly would never have expected a Park Planner to get the job. It has been my thinking that when the Canada Revenue Agency has a tax issue to sort out, they rarely call on a landscaping professional. However, I may have to reconsider that position after seeing Donald Trump’s lead attorney on his election fraud claims hold a national press conference at the back door of a landscaping company. Perhaps I am not as administratively and politically astute as I would like to be. I can’t wait to see what kind of wisdom comes out of the Christmas tree sales place but I probably shouldn’t expect too much, like politics these days most Christmas trees are fake.

Go forward to early spring of 2018, almost exactly six months after the internal tax queries were being made, Parks Culture and Sport decided that commissioning a “Satisfaction Survey” on Suffern Lak Regional Park was a good idea. The same two guys that took part in the tax inquiry, mid-level Park Planner Ministerial guy and Suffern Park Secretary guy, conducted the survey effort. The survey included questions related to Suffern Lake Regional Park management performance. Responses were supposed to be limited to one per household.  For this survey, the Park Secretary said he contacted 57 cabin owners.  There were no new cabins constructed in the Park during the winter of 2017/2018. It wouldn’t take Sherlock or Watson to figure out there was something goofy about the fluctuating cabin count, but Parks Culture and Sport went with it anyway. They even made the results available to attendees at the 2018 Annual General Meeting where the good work of the Park Authority was noted while trashing us as malcontents in the process.

Just for the record, our group had used 54 cabins number as our measuring stick for a long time. A tax-exempt cabin that was owned by the Park Authority was sold to a private buyer in 2018 which should have brought the number of tax paying cabins up to 55. We finally got our hands on the assessment documents for the entire Park in early 2020 and we discovered that particular cabin was still showing as tax-exempt on the tax rolls. Yep, two years tax free ownership courtesy of the Park Authority and the Rural Municipality who are responsible for keeping the Saskatchewan Assessments Management Agency informed. We provided the information to SAMA and their records now show 55 taxable cabins at Suffern Lake.

That Was Then, This Is Now

Some say Saskatchewan marches to the beat of its own drummer, I suspect he is at least as old as Charlie Watts, the drummer for Mick Jagger and the Strolling Bones.

The new standards of public service haven’t really caught on here yet. For example, Saskatchewan just had its Provincial election. There are 61 seats in the Legislature. The two parties with seats in government are the ruling Sask. Party with the NDP as Official Opposition. During the recent election, a total of 12 candidates with criminal records for impaired driving ran for office. Two of them had been convicted twice. It was split down the middle with six offenders on each slate. The Premier, who was convicted long ago, and the new Minister for Government Relations (former Deputy Premier pre-conviction) won their ridings easily.

Why does this seem to not matter to voters? Maybe because in 2016 Saskatchewan also had, by far, the highest number of convicted impaired drivers per capita in Canada. Good ol’ boys who like a beer and rye apparently get elected by other good ol’ boys with the same tastes.

Speaking of new Cabinet Ministers, we are dealing with a whole flock of them. Over the past several years we have faced off against Ministers for Parks, Justice, Government Relations and Environment as well as Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority. Every one of those Ministers got changed out following the October 2020 election. Lots of new faces for us to deal with but so far, the same old tactics.

A couple of the new Ministers have yet to even acknowledge correspondence from us, let alone address concerns. The first response we did get was of the “it ain’t me, babe” variety. The new Minister for Government Relations had his deputy advise us that his department was not part of our conflict. Ummmm…. OK? This is one of the largest portfolios in Government and the one that officially holds the land this Park is situated on. This is also the Department that six or seven years ago (according to their own legislation) was supposed to see to it that each Regional Park had a development plan. We checked; this Park doesn’t have one. Neither does any other Regional Park in the Province. I am going to disagree with the new guy regarding the conflict participants. If this friggin place had a development plan like his legislation says it is supposed to, then perhaps they would know how many buildings were here, how much tax should be paid and perhaps my friends and I would not have been sued a couple of times each for bringing taxation concerns into view. The way I see it, not doing anything is the same as doing the wrong thing, so we’ll be in touch Mr. Minister.

Suffern Lake Regional Park Authority is referred to as an Other Legislated Entity and described by the Government of Saskatchewan as a public body performing a function of government. They receive funding from the Government of Saskatchewan through the Regional Parks Association and taxation. Members of the Park Authority at Suffern are appointed not elected, many of the appointments come from a pool of their own choosing. They receive little if any training in public administration. The top of the administrative chain in the system is the Minister for Parks, Culture and Sport. The Park leases land from Sask. Environment then sub leases parcels to cabin owners. The taxation structure is overseen by Government Relations. For some reason, the Government of Saskatchewan says they have no real control over what the Park Authority chooses to do. That is like giving your twelve-year-old the keys to the SUV, fifty bucks in cash and saying have a nice time. Then two hours later telling the cops you hold no responsibility for the accident.

Just because I’ve been ranting about the Provincial Government doesn’t mean all is well on the most local of the battle fronts. Far from it. Back when we were getting sued the first time, a petition was circulated throughout the Park’s cabin community. It made comments about us refusing to pay rents (arbitrarily imposed after they terminated leases without notification), fines for offenses like putting up Christmas decorations without permission or picking up dead wood inside the park boundaries, and non-payment of taxes (90 days in arrears and in dispute at the time). It is not surprising that we didn’t get to see the petition until it showed up as an exhibit urging the court to have us all evicted.

About 35 people signed including the new buyer who had not yet been added to the tax rolls a year after his purchase but who saw fit to comment stating, “pay your bills!”. The new buyer is also an Albertan. At the time of the petition he had yet to pay a cent in taxes to the Saskatchewan government while John Danilak, who was sued, had paid his taxes ever since property taxes were implemented in Regional Parks a couple of decades ago.

The petition-peddler is another dandy, he had the gall to try solicit a signature at a cabin whose owners were five full years in arrears on taxes (sitting Chairman’s extended family, family favoritism in its finest form). Too bad no one was home; we don’t have a quote from them.

By the way, the petition-peddler is the owner of a beachfront cabin that was assessed at about one sixth its fair market value.

It’s a tad disheartening to see people put in writing how they dislike you and feel the need to comment on your shortcomings based on what somebody else told them. We were called freeloaders who were taking money from the Park.

In a different document (AGM minutes) we found evidence where counsel for the Park Authority advised them to delete a comment from the floor. The comment was that we were “harder to get rid of than a troublesome bear”, a statement made shortly after a troublesome bear was shot in the Park. It could be worse; they regularly shoot beavers here for chewing down Park trees. I only got fined 500 bucks for picking up a dead tree. In this publicly funded, wilderness area Park, gnawing down trees is a capital offence for our National Rodent.

We are about 18 months downstream from the petition being presented in court filings. We had noted other slipshod work from the Park’s legal team (like having to serve us twice on QB174 of 2019 because the first attempt had errors). It wasn’t a real surprise when we read the two descriptor box comments at the top of the petition documents.

Here is exactly what appears in the header boxes: 

Petition Summary and background: There are some Cabin owners in Suffern Lake that refuses to follow the Regional Park bylaws, refusing to pay taxes, living on park property without a lease and not paying a monthly/daily rent. This is unfair for the other cabin owners at Suffern Lake as well as less operating funds for the Park.

Action petitioned for: We, the undersigned, are concerned cabin owners who urge the court to have these non-abiding cabin owners removed from Suffern Lake Regional Park.

It is apparent the two items were not written by the same person unless it was one of those alcohol-friendly driving dudes that started it after closing time one night and finished it after coffee the following morning. We didn’t give it much attention other than being disgusted/disheartened/demoralized by what we saw written about us.

Nothing in our Suffern Lake Regional Park adventure is ever what you expect it to be.

Even the petition story didn’t end with a court dismissal in our favor. In mid-November 2020 I received an unsolicited email (and several related follow-up emails) from one of the people that had signed the petition on the Canada Day long weekend 2019. A small group of cabin owners had recently seen the petition as presented in court documents for QB 174, QB 230 and QB 231 of 2019.  So far, five people that signed the original document have come forward to say the document presented to the courts is not the same as the document they signed. The difference is the box that says, “we the undersigned urge the court…” They say that component was not present in the original document. None of the Respondents to the various court actions ever saw the door to door document so we can’t say what was or wasn’t on it. But we can see no reason why people who signed the original would contact us 18 months later and say this isn’t right, unless they truly believed it wasn’t right.

That led us to digging out the petition and reviewing it. While the comments made by those who signed are disturbing, we don’t see any comments about evicting us. The theme throughout is about paying bills and fairness; about forcing us to pay what the Park Authority claimed were valid amounts. The lack of acknowledgment of evictions in the comments adds credibility to the idea that evictions were not noted in the door to door version of the document.

So here we sit. Leases have not been renewed, we have all new Ministers, we have an apparently altered document that found its way to court and we have a government that denies responsibility for anything and everything that’s gone wrong.  With just a bit more imagination they might get to blame it all on Jason Kenney’s Alberta Government. That isn’t as far -fetched as it seems, a couple of former Sask Party hotshots have already migrated to important positions in Kenney’s government.

On the upside, Saskatchewan Assessments Management Agency has honored its commitment to do a reassessment of all 55 privately owned cabins in the Park and has indicated they have already approached Government to have legislation and regulations changed so the weaknesses that allowed the assessment/tax manipulation at Suffern Lake do not reappear.

Macro Considerations

On the broader world stage, we have sat in stunned silence watching Donald Trump and Joe Biden try to out geezer each other to take control of what is supposed to be the greatest country on earth. It’s like sitting between two old motorheads debating which race car was the best, the Stanley Steamer or that Italian one I can’t pronounce and if cloth helmets offer adequate protection in a crash. 

And we still have Covid-19. It is one of those things that is either the greatest hoax of all time or it’s a real deal that’s knocking people off left and right. Either way, I’m not getting too deep into that discussion. If it is a hoax, I sure as hell ain’t tough enough to try take down the people who pulled it off. Do I care if it’s a way to disguise a Qanon-promoted economic collapse theory? What difference would it make? Broke is broke. The reasons really don’t matter once you get there. My own economic theory has long been “stay broke, that way you don’t notice recessions”.

Leaders are all anxious to open the economy and avoid harsh restrictions like closing down restaurants, bars and gyms. The Premier of Saskatchewan is one of those leaders. For a while he was self-isolating because he was exposed to Covid-19 in a restaurant, but he has since been tested negative. A negative politician? Who knew?

Am I in favor of decentralizing government and putting more control in the hands of those on the ground locally? Well, I’ve just gone through about five years of that reality and my opinion on it might be a little warped.

Will I wear a mask in public? Sure, why not? To start with, I look better. I also love going to banks wearing a disguise because the powers-that-be say I have to. Just once I might put on sunglasses along with my mask, walk in and say, “all right you stickers this is a F#$# up!”

Merry Christmas.

Norm Zigarlick, December 2020, normzig56 (at) gmail.com

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