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Sask. government amended its trespassing act ahead of dispute with Ottawa

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The Government of Saskatchewan amended its provincial trespassing act ahead of its ongoing dispute with the federal government.

The amendment changes the definition of a “person” within the Trespass to Property Act to include “the Crown, in the right of Canada.”

“There’s references to various persons, and all that this order in council does is it says that person can include an agent, essentially the Crown in the right of Canada,” Martin Olszynski, a law professor at the University of Calgary, said.

The change was made on Saturday, the day after a tweet from a Pense area farmer that questioned the presence of federal employees on private land collecting water samples.

On Sunday, a day after the amendment was signed by the Lieutenant Governor, the provincial government sent a letter to federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault accusing federal employees of trespassing.

Olszynski said the trespassing act would have applied to the agent of the Crown regardless of the change.

“The amendment doesn’t really do anything except for essentially pandering to sort of that anti-Ottawa sentiment that we know is fairly popular in the prairies right now,” said Olszynski.

However, the premier’s office said the Crown was exempt, which led to the amendment.

“Such exemptions are intended for emergency purposes, and - clearly - accessing private land for water sampling is not an emergency,” the premier’s office said in a statement.

“In light of that, the amendment was made. Property owners have rights, and we expect everyone – including the federal government – to respect those rights.”

“In discussions with the premier we felt as though it was important to communicate this in a fairly strong way to Minister Guilbeault to get the point across,” Jeremy Cockril, the Minister in Responsible for Saskatchewan Water Security Agency, said.

Minister Guilbeault addressed Cockril’s concerns in another letter on Wednesday, to clarify the circumstances of the alleged trespassing.

“I believe that we, and Canadians, are best served when we engage on the facts—not heated and misinformed rhetoric,” Guilbeault said in the letter.

“If a federal scientist inadvertently encroached on private land without permission, this matter can surely be handled in a mature and informed manner.”

The minister said federal officials look forward to working with the province to better understand the recent rule changes amended by the order in council.

“As a measure of good faith, Environment and Climate Change Canada is reviewing its sampling protocols to ensure they are consistent with area laws before doing any further sampling,” the letter reads.

He also clarified that departmental officials were not testing the water for nitrates or other nutrients related to farm runoff.

“The claims made in the media about this incident compound other recent misinformation regarding the voluntary nature of the fertilizer emission reduction goals, mischaracterizing work that is voluntary, unregulated and being done in partnership with Canadian farmers to reduce emissions, not fertilizer use,” he said.

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) said staff have been collecting water samples in water bodies at targeted sites across Canada for Health Canada, according to the federal government statement.

The Saskatchewan NDP said the premier should have handled the situation differently.

“There’s a way to interact and stand up for Saskatchewan people and to interact with the Federal government that we’re insuring inspections and affairs in an appropriate way, without sort of all this distraction and grandstanding,” NDP MLA Trent Wotherspoon said.

Cockrill told CTV News he was made aware of the allegations from Saskatchewan property owners of trespassers on Wednesday of last week.

A statement from the office of the federal Environment Minister said it is aware of the allegations and is investigating them internally.

Olszynski said it seems as though the federal government was well within its rights, something that may be discovered after the internal investigation.

“At the end of the day the Premier and Minister Cockrill essentially accused federal agents of trespassing when in fact, it sounds like, in all likelihood that’s not the case,” he said.

Violating the Trespass to Property Act in Saskatchewan comes with a maximum penalty of $25,000 for repeat offenders, up to six months imprisonment, and a $200,000 maximum penalty for “any corporation that counsels and/or aids in the commission of that offence,” the letter states.

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