From Private Property to Public Resource: The Emergence of Administrative Control of Water in Nova Scotia

This is a fascinating essay, there must have been implications as it relates to Dartmouth even before it became the City of Lakes. It was expropriation on a broad scale, which encompassed every water body in the province except for small rivulets or brooks unsuitable for milling, mechanical, or power purposes. Dartmouth’s lakes, once “protected by public ownership for the enjoyment of future generations“, perhaps a vestige of this “administrative control over water (which) replaced not only private decision making and exchange, but judicial control.”


“In 1919 Nova Scotia took charge of the management of its inland water resources in a radical and dramatic way. The Water Act of 1919 simply expropriated basic riparian rights by vesting in the province the ‘sole and exclusive right to use, divert and appropriate any and all water.’ Water was transferred from private to public ownership without compensation of recourse to the courts.”

“Nova Scotia’s Act was atypical in its scope [–within the Canadian provinces]… only Nova Scotia handled the widespread problem by expropriating riparian rights.”

“Judges… faced conflicts with only the traditional tools of the common law inherited from England… In addition to riparian rights, the common law affecting water included prescriptive rights and easements, nuisance and negligence… The judges seem to have focused on the details of the particular legal issues before them rather than on the consequences of the decisions.”

“Part of this tacit ‘policy’ was an absolute regard for private property rights. All the common law doctrines relevant to conflicts over water use – riparian rights, trespass, nuisance – provided for the strict protection of the individual property owner’s rights… In its strictest form, the doctrine of riparian rights accorded owners the right to the water flowing past their land undiminished in quantity or quality. Taken literally this right would have virtually precluded any upstream industrial activity: most commercial uses would violate strict common rights in some way… the traditional property rights may be thus seen as having a built-in antidevelopment bias. The doctrine… was modified, first in the United States and then in England, by allowing for some interference with water flow if the defendant’s use was ‘reasonable’, and by adding the requirement of ‘material’ or ‘sensible’ injury. These vague terms offered great potential for flexible interpretation. Nova Scotia courts, however, seem not to have been inclined to take advantage of the modifications.”

“…the chief reason for the passage of [–the 1919 Water Act] does not seem to have been that common law action had significantly hindered productive development of water, rather, the act grew out of a long controversy over the control and development of water power, which by 1914 had become a major issue in the Nova Scotia legislature.

The Nova Scotia Power and Pulp Company was granted a charter with immense powers to develop hydro power on the Gaspereau River. The company, which was owned by Montreal capitalists, wanted to take over the very successful Halifax Electric Tramway, which could absorb power from the development and provide close to half a million dollars to pay dividends and interest on the large number of stocks and bonds the owners planned to float. The takeover produced a bitter struggle, with the Halifax city council trying to retain municipal control of the tramway. In the end, the Montreal-based group succeeded. Incorporating as the Nova Scotia Tramway and Power Company, it made an estimated gross profit of over a millions dollars in transfers of stocks and bonds. The Montrealer’s then sold controlling interests to a group of Americans in 1919 ‘for a further undisclosed profit’.”

‘The ostensible purpose of the merger was to permit the development of hydroelectricity on the Gasperau and the distribution of cheaper light and power within the city of Halifax. But nothing came of that … the funds raised for that purpose were promptly channeled out of Nova Scotia.’

“By 1918 the Water Power Commission was ready with its recommendations for law reform. The stated objectives of the resulting legislation were to encourage the most efficient development of water power, to protect the public from ‘worthless power schemes’, ‘ill designed plants and dams’, and ‘monopolistic control,’ and ‘to in all ways have in view the fullest conservation of the water resources.’ The act seems to have been a response to the Nova Scotia Tramways fiasco, and in particular it seems to have been an effort to keep control of water resources within Nova Scotia. The commission presumably came to the plausible conclusion that the only way to ensure local control was to remove water from the realm of unregulated market transactions.

The act can be seen as a preliminary step towards the drastic action of the 1919 Water Act. The right to use all watercourses was vested in the Crown, except ‘the right of every riparian proprietor to the use of water for domestic purposes’ — a major exception, since ‘domestic purposes’ included the workings of railways or factories by steam. All grants were to be retroactively construed as having reserved to the Crown all watercourses and beds of all watercourses. In case there was any doubt left in the minds of judges that these provisions would fundamentally change existing riparian rights, it was further stated that ‘the grant shall be construed accordingly and not in accordance with the rules of the English Common Law.”

“…The scope of the expropriation was especially large, however, since the powers could be transferred to private companies….”

“The water Act, in the words of the Halifax Herald, decalre[d] that the government of Nova Scotia has power to divert and appropriate any water at any time in any water course no matter by what grant.”

“This simple and sweeping act gave rise to a heated debate in the legislature, portions of which were reported in the local newspapers. The Herald headline read, ‘A Bill before the Legislature That Takes from the Owners the Water Powers of Nova Scotia and Can Take Also Other Valuable Property.’ The real point of objection was not public ownership, but that there was no provision for compensation in the Water Act and no exception for investment in existing power developments. The attorney general, who introduced the bill, argued lamely that it was not an expropriation measure but simply a ‘vesting bill’, that it only had to do with unused waters.”

“Administrative control over water replaced not only private decision making and exchange, but judicial control.”

“Even in recent history, long after the initial attempt to exclude them, the courts have continued to display their inclination to protect traditional private rights. In the early 1970s two parties successfully used the old exception of small rivulets or brooks to bring an action as riparian owners, and the legislature once again responded by removing the exception.”

“From an American perspective, the ease with which the Nova Scotia legislature accomplished the abolition of a whole class of property rights is astonishing.

–Carmen Baggeley offers an interesting commentary on the differences between the United States and Canada with regard to the protection of property: ‘In the absence of constitutional protection of rights and judicial review, the power of the legislature in Canada is almost unlimited. As a result, the concept of a business being “affected with the public interest”, which formed the legal basis for government regulation in the United States, was unnecessary in Canada. As Christopher Armstrong and H.V. Nelles point out, the absence of constitutional protection for property, as provided in the United States by the Fourteenth Amendment, significantly altered the rules of the game in Canada. Early in this century, when the “due process law” clause was being interpreted broadly, American businessmen were able to turn to the courts for protection. Canadian businessmen did not have this option, instead they tried to play one level of government against the other. Sometimes they succeeded, but more often than not they failed. In desperation, some Canadian businessmen began to discuss ways in which they might get the constitution amended. in 1911, B.E. Walker, President of the Bank of Commerce, even suggested pressure from abroad, “… a complaint from those who represent capital in the United States would seem to be a most natural way in which to bring about consideration of the subject by the Government at Ottawa… “

“…of course the Charter of Rights and Freedoms now provides for constitutional protection of rights and judicial review, but property is not included among those rights.”

[–So many rights, so much freedom, as long as they don’t redefine the meaning of “rights” and “freedom”. “Free”, as long as you agree.].

Nedelsky, Jennifer. “From Private Property to Public Resource: The Emergence of Administrative Control of Water in Nova Scotia.” Essays in the History of Canadian Law: Nova Scotia, edited by Philip Girard and Jim Phillips, vol. 3, University of Toronto Press, 2012, pp. 326–52. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/j.ctt13x1qbb.17. Accessed 23 Aug. 2022.