Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/August 1886/A Canadian Chapter in Agrarian Agitation

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
968344Popular Science Monthly Volume 29 August 1886 — A Canadian Chapter in Agrarian Agitation1886George Iles



WHEN agrarian agitation is mentioned, one expects to hear of Ireland, the Isle of Skye, Scotland, or England. That American communities have been, and are, little troubled by disputes between landlord and tenant, is taken for matter of course, and not without reason. When fertile wild land could be had for nothing till within recent years, the struggle between proprietors and would be proprietors could seldom become very severe. Questions as to the ultimate ownership of land are still practically in abeyance in the New World. Yet America has furnished interesting instances of agrarian agitation. Prodigal grants of land at nominal prices to colonizing corporations and railway companies have induced bitter and increasing complaints in the United States and Canada. Mr. Henry George's attacks on landed proprietorship originated from observation of the grasping policy of Californian owners of counties who waited idly for their property to acquire value from the neighborhood of industrious settlers. In a new country such holdings are very grievous to working settlers. Large uncultivated blocks separate farmers from their markets, add much to local taxation for roads and bridges, and materially enhance the difficulties of maintaining district schools. Hence, in the New Northwest, both American and Canadian, the advantages obtained from railways, aided by large land grants, are not procured without some sacrifices. These sacrifices are, however, rendered temporary by the alacrity of railway companies in settling their lands with a view to developing traffic. Colonization companies, so called, are everywhere less eager to part with their tracts, and the difficulties arising from this fact sometimes occasion distinct agrarian agitation. In Ontario, the chief province of the Canadian Dominion, one of the grievances of a generation ago was the possession of extensive areas by the Canada Company, which obtained its holdings at a nominal price on conditions notoriously disregarded.

It is, however, the agrarian agitation which took place, for more than a century, in Prince Edward Island, the smallest province of Canada, that is to be here sketched. The course of the struggle there between landlord and tenant may have interest in showing how the grantees of lands bestowed for colonization may shirk their engagements. And it may also show how the voting privileges of a democratic community modified an opposition to landlords which in Cork or Kerry might have gone to murderous lengths.

Prince Edward Island is one of the most beautiful agricultural districts of America. Its forests, fields, and meadows, vested in the crown, were in 1767 disposed of according to a method much in vogue during the early days of British colonization. With the exception of three small reservations, intended for county towns, the island was divided into sixty-seven lots or townships of 20,000 acres. In one day sixty-five of these lots were disposed of by lottery before the Board of Trade and Plantations in London! The grants issued to the various allottees contained these among other conditions:

1. That the grantee of each township should place on the same, within ten years from the date of the grant, one person for every 200 acres, the settlers to be foreign Protestants, or persons who had resided in British America for two years previous to 1767.

2. That such portions of the land, where one third of the acreage was not so settled within four years of the date of the grants, should be forfeited.

3. That payment of quit-rent, varying from two to six shillings sterling per 100 acres, should be made by the allottees at the expiration of five years, payable annually on one half the grant; and, five years after that, payable on the whole.

On these terms the original proprietors took possession, and in the following year petitioned the British Government that the island might be given a separate government. To defray its expenses they proposed that a moiety of quit-rents due in five years should become payable in two—during May, 1769—payment of the remaining half to be postponed for twenty years. Trusting to the good faith and responsibility of the proprietors, a local government was accordingly established. This trust was disappointed. The quit-rents were not paid as agreed, and ten years after the grants had been conveyed the conditions of settlement had been complied with in but ten townships of the sixty-five. Nine others were settled in part, and all the remainder neglected. In no case were the settlers the foreign Protestants bargained for.

As time passed, the proprietors continued their disrespect for the conditions of tenure. The Legislature of the island constantly directed the attention of the Government at Westminster to the facts, and urged the escheat of the grants; holding, perhaps not very warrantably, that after escheat the tenants would enjoy their lands on better terms. Indulgence, however, was from time to time sought and received by the proprietors. Nevertheless, in 1802, the Colonial Secretary, in a dispatch to the governor of the island, ordered that such lands as were held by proprietors who had failed to perform their conditions of grant be escheated. Accordingly, the Legislature passed an act, the result of which would have been to revest in the crown nearly every acre in the colony. What became of this law is a mystery; it was sent from Charlottetown, the colonial capital, to London, for the royal allowance, and was never afterward heard of. In this same year (1802), the arrears of quit-rents had accumulated to £60,000; and the British Government, wishing to encourage the settlement of the colony, determined to accept a moderate commutation. Leniency or favor was invariably shown proprietors who had complied in any degree with the conditions of their tenure. Yet this liberal measure was unavailing—the commuted arrears were not paid. Up to 1833 but £6,000 had been received for quit-rents, whereas the total due under the grants was £145,000. Meanwhile agitation on the subject among the islanders constantly increased, until the British Government was again urged to quiet its perturbed little colony.

Lord Goderich, Colonial Minister in 1832, made a thorough examination of the complaints of the islanders, embodying the result in a lengthy dispatch. He found large tracts unimproved, in expectation that their value would ultimately be raised by the exertions of those colonists who were busy cultivating their property. Vast areas of wild land separated farms from one another, the injustice being heightened by absenteeism of the landlords. Lord Goderich proposed that the quitrents due by the proprietors be exacted, and, as a concession, should be redeemable at fifteen years' purchase. His proposal was not acted upon, and the agitation on the island rose to an extreme. All this, too, with peculiar political conditions. The local Government, in the immediate presence of its governed population, was extremely sensitive to popular discontent. Agriculture was the main and almost the sole industry; the tenants were not mingled with any manufacturing or mercantile class, and the preponderant pressure of their interests was very manifest in a legislative hall which stood within an easy drive of the average island farm. The arm of law was enfeebled. Rents were usually allowed to fall into long arrears before resort was taken to legal measures of collection. It was common for a tenant to owe five to ten years' rent. Arrears, accumulated through sixteen and even eighteen years, were sometimes brought before the courts. Usually, in suits for rent, the landlord paid the costs himself, and did not exact interest. Frequently proprietary rights were disposed of to speculators for nominal sums. Every indulgence by landlord to tenant was interpreted by the latter as a just concession from the possessor of a faulty title. The cost of collecting such rents as were paid was commonly about one fourth.

For twenty-one years after Lord Goderich's vain recommendations, the agrarian history of Prince Edward Island was one of ceaseless turmoil. In 1853 an act was passed by the Provincial Legislature for the purchase of the estates of proprietors who might be disposed to sell. Between 1854 and 1871 thirteen estates, aggregating 457,260 acres, were bought at the moderate average price of $1.31 per acre. Of this area, 403,050 acres have been sold to 5,704 tenants, who have paid, for their average holdings of 70 acres, prices ranging from 94 cents to $3.40, and averaging $1.76. This act of 1853, which depended on the voluntary sale by proprietors of their lands, was too slow in operation for the discontented islanders. They obtained the concurrence of the Legislature and the landlords to a proposal that a commission be appointed with power to devise a system whereby leasehold lands might be converted into freehold. Accordingly, in 1860 a commission was constituted—Hon. John H. Gray being nominated by the British Government, Hon. Joseph Howe by the Legislature of the island, and Hon. J. W. Ritchie by the proprietors. The Legislature, most anxious for the quieting of an agitation which had done the colony incalculable harm, passed an act in advance to give effect to the award of the commissioners. That award, however, had no sooner been published, than the proprietors objected to the manner in which it provided for the valuation of land. This objection was sustained, the award set aside, and another attempt to quiet the strife between landlords and tenants proved fruitless. Wild excitement prevailed as a result of what was regarded as the bad faith of the proprietors. An organization known as the "Tenant League" came into existence, and resistance was offered to the collection of rent by civil officers. Frequent and violent riots gave the appearance of Erin itself to the colony, and troops from Halifax were summoned to quell the disturbances.

In 1862 the Provincial Government passed an act which expired in 1874, intended to give peace to the island. Under it tenants could offer to buy leased lands from landlords at fifteen years' purchase, the Government aiding by an advance to the extent of eight shillings and sixpence per acre at six per cent interest, all arrears of rent to May, 1853, due by purchasers, being canceled. This act also proved disappointing. Few tenants availed themselves of it, the majority of leaseholders entertaining the idea that the lands would come to them on better terms of purchase than those provided in the act, very probably after reversion to the crown.

Recognizing the failure of every attempt at grappling with the land question, by means which left solution to voluntary sales or voluntary purchases, the Island Legislature in 1868 urged on the British Government the necessity for the adoption of compulsory measures. The plea led to no action, pending the proposed entrance of Prince Edward Island as a member of the Canadian Confederation. That Confederation, established in 1867, made repeated overtures for the admission of the province before the union in 1873 was perfected. The terms of union provided the means of solving the question which for more than a century had troubled a fertile and promising province. It was agreed on entering the Confederation that the Island Government, which had no public lands and was surrendering its right to customs levies, should receive from the Dominion treasury $800,000; this enabled the province to purchase the township lands from proprietors on terms intended to be just and equitable. Three commissioners were appointed for the duty of purchase; the Governor-General appointed one, the Provincial Government the second, and each several proprietor had the privilege of appointing the third for the hearing of his case. In estimating the compensation to be paid proprietors, the commissioners were required to consider:

1. The price at which other proprietors had already sold their lands to the Government.

2. The number of acres under lease in the estates valued, the length of such leases, the rents agreed for under these leases, the arrears of rent, the years over which they extended, and the reasonable probability of recovery.

3. The number of acres of vacant or unleased land; their quality and value to the proprietor.

4. The gross rent actually paid for the previous six years; the expenses of collecting such rent being deducted, to show the net amount actually received by the proprietor.

With Right Hon. Hugh E. Childers as chairman, the commission went to work, and the voluminous evidence presented to it reveals how thoroughly the tenants regarded their leases as unsound and illegal. Whenever a lease was taken as a basis of valuation, the plea was set up that the proprietor's title was faulty, and that he had leased property to which his right was doubtful. In vain was it contended that the whimsical conditions of the original grant had been impossible of fulfillment. The retort was repeated that, therefore, proprietorship should be forfeited, and it was held that landlord influences at Westminster had, in the early days of agitation, successfully fought off proposed concessions to tenants, which, if granted, would have spared the island grievous evils. The landlords maintained in their defense that their ownership had been repeatedly recognized by the Government, more particularly in the Fifteen Years' Purchase Act of 1865. They pleaded that, if they had not rigorously enforced claims against their tenants, their forbearance arose from no uncertainty as to their titles, but from humanity in cases where their tenants were needy, and from social and political prejudices against legal collection where their debtors were thriving. Leases, it was clear, were very far from being leases in the British, Irish, or American sense; they were not contracts meaning what they said, but doubtful bargains open to discussion or rebate, just as the landlords' title could be discredited, indulgence obtained, or prosecution parried. Many tenants of rich land, abundantly able to pay their rent, had paid none. Often a tenant who had decried his leasehold as poor and unproductive, was proved to have disposed of it for a handsome sum. Parallel with the accumulating of arrears on landlords' ledgers had gone on the steady piling up by tenants as a class of savings in the banks. A disregard for property in rents extended itself to other kinds of property belonging to landed proprietors. It was not uncommon for woodlands to lose their value through being stripped of timber by thieves. When in an extreme case a tenant was ejected from his holding, no successor to him was to be found. Once a sheriff bearing a writ was met by an armed mob, headed by a member of the Legislature.

A very significant element in the pleas made against the landlords, was that the labors of the tenants alone had imparted increasing values to the land in making fertile farms where there had been but wilderness. It was urged again and again that the toilers who had imparted value to property were entitled to proprietary rights, as against the holders of titles whose exertions had been confined to the collection of rent. Therefore, it was maintained, the Government should not, in buying lands, do so on the basis of capitalizing a rent which had, as a value, been chiefly created by the industry of tenants. A good many occupiers of land on short or uncertain leases plainly manifested the universal tendency of such tenure—bad farming and a feeble interest in improvement of any kind. Some of them were accustomed to reducing their indebtedness by sums ranging from five dollars down to five shillings. In every case the landlord's claim received such attention as it was convenient for the tenant to give it after the accounts of merchant, blacksmith, wagon-builder, or other creditor had been paid. This, too, when, even for good land, rent was rarely more than about nine-pence sterling an acre. Incidentally, it was shown that the long coast-line of the island had had its effect in inducing many farmers to embark in fishing, and allegiance divided between land and sea gave agriculture but primitive development. Another fact of interest elicited was that the island had a most admirable fertilizer in the beds of mussel mud and shells bordering its shores, which, applied to the land, increased its yield from two to even ten fold for several years.

When the Land Commissioners had concluded their labors in court the experiment of tenant proprietorship began. It proved an experiment attended with many difficulties. The surveys of the lands had been very incomplete and imperfect, so that disputes as to boundaries were constant. The Government now finds that it has paid for 41,000 more acres than it has received. From doubtfulness in surveys and boundaries it was not uncommon for three or four persons each to claim the right to buy the freehold of the same property. The purchase of the land by Government having banished all fears of arrears of rent being exacted from former tenants, a general resurrection by former owners of old leases, agreements, and minutes developed an army of claimants for the right to buy. In addition to these elements of contention, the Government had to deal with hundreds of squatters, who by virtue of twenty years' occupation had acquired proprietary rights. During the years which have elapsed since the act went into force, its difficulties have been gradually overcome, chiefly through the judgment and ability of the commissioners who have administered it. Let some statistics of their labors be presented:

Up to December 31, 1885, the Government of Prince Edward Island had bought from proprietors 843,981 acres of land, and had sold 679,832 acres at an average price of $1.59 per acre. The usual Government terms of sale were one fifth cash, and the remainder payable in ten equal annual installments, with interest at six per cent. On December 31, 1882, the last date up to which statements regarding arrears were published, it was shown that by purchasers who had made no payments whatever during terms varying from three to fifteen years, $200,648 was due in arrears to the Government. A pretty general feeling seemed to prevail among them that new concessions would be granted delinquents, who as a class were numerous enough to make the authorities charged with collection very lenient indeed to put it mildly.

In quieting disturbances and placing real estate in the hands of its occupiers and users, the Land Transfer Act did unquestionable good. In the passage and administration of the act a favoring of the tenants and ex-tenants is most manifest. Before sales to tenants began there was a classification of lands according to value, and tenants usually bought at prices somewhat below cost, and occasionally at prices much below cost. Tenants in buying properties which they had cultivated were freed from all arrears of rent due to the date of acquisition by Government. Improvements of all kinds which they had effected on their lands had been, and continued to be, their property; as such these improvements, houses, barns, fences, and what not, had entered into no calculation of the Government's when buying and selling.

Since the act went into operation a good many tenant-purchasers have sold out their holdings, and, considering the value of their improvements, usually at a marked advance on the purchase price, bearing out to some extent the complaints of the original proprietors that too little had been paid them. It is difficult to arrive at the truth of this much-disputed matter; a fair approximation alone is possible. Wilderness lands bought some years ago from the Government, and still unimproved, sell at a considerable premium. Cultivated farms do not as a rule realize so handsome an advance, and in their prices is to be considered the very variable element of value—tenants' improvements. It is generally thought in the island that something more than the mere sentiment of ownership as distinguished from tenancy was sought to be gratified by the land agitation. For twenty years before 1875 a suffrage practically universal was enjoyed by the island. A voting majority had it in their power to modify the tenure of property in their own interest, and they exercised it through their parliamentary representatives. To-day the effect of a habit of mind acquired in the years during which concession after concession was made to tenants is still plain. Arrears due the Government go on accumulating, it would seem, with the expectation that in the future they may be wiped off the slate. The tenants when they became purchasers had decidedly good bargains; they would certainly not have agitated as they did merely to exchange rent for an equal financial burden of interest, yet, as events have proved, their bargains, though good, have been less profitable than was anticipated. Since 1875 the vast areas in the far West and Northwest brought under cultivation have greatly reduced the prices of farm produce, and have at the same time powerfully attracted the emigrating classes of the Atlantic seaboard.

Rhetoric, in so far as it prophesied a wonderful impetus to the island when leaseholds gave place to freeholds, has somewhat missed fulfillment. Unthrifty farmers were not born again to thriftiness by the act of 1875. The money-lender has taken the place of the land-lord with a good many of them. His terms are not so easy, nor his methods so gentle, and already about a fourth of the farms of the island are mortgaged at rates of interest averaging about seven and a half per cent. A single solicitor in Charlottetown has stowed in his vault mortgages to the amount of half a million dollars, held chiefly by widows and orphans, whose claims, unlike those of the wealthy proprietors, are exigent and must be promptly met.

The lesson from the history of land-proprietorship in Prince Edward Island is applicable to a wider field than the little Canadian province. It marks the unwisdom of governments in granting large tracts to corporations or individuals on nominal terms. With the lapse of years, if holdings are retained by their original grantees, the rise in value is enormous, and a community which has chiefly created that value resents the levy of "unearned increment." The agitation in Prince Edward Island also illustrates how the wide franchises of democracy modify the violence of combats concerning questions of property. Even though the mistakes of the Old World be some-times repeated in the New, though unwarrantable privileges be created or acquired, the people possess a power in the ballot-box which renders unnecessary those appeals to the cartridge-box which so often accompany transatlantic agitation. Perhaps, when English Hodge awakens to his new influence as a voter, laws partly of his making may take the color of his interests, and English landed property may be further shorn of privilege. Beyond that may also be exerted the sinister influence against contract to which law-makers with little property, or none, are ever strongly tempted.