2017 Soybean Harvest

2017 Soybean Harvest

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Court rules that Bear Creek was navigable in 1831 - natural severance of property results

I first posted about this case in December, 2012; it has now gone to a hearing and a decision has been rendered.  Justice Mitchell has declared that the portion of Bear Creek that passes through the property owned by the respondents in the application "was navigable in 1831 and, therefore, title to its bed was retained by the Crown creating a natural severance of the property."  That was the position that had been taken by the respondent landowners when they hired a surveyor to prepare a reference plan showing Bear Creek as a navigable watercourse comprising unpatented Crown land.  Based upon that reference plan, they purported to convey the land on one side of the creek from joint ownership to ownership by one of the landowners alone.

The court application was commenced by the local municipality, which took objection to the reference plan prepared by the surveyor.  The municipality asked the Court to declare that the watercourse (which is now part of a municipal drain under the Drainage Act) does not create a natural severance of the property.  Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Ontario was also added as a respondent to the application and supported the municipality's position.

In making her decision, Justice Mitchell started from the finding ("not seriously challenged by the Municipality in its argument on the application") that the present watercourse on the property "is the same watercourse located on the property in 1831" at the time of the Crown grant.  Therefore, in determining whether the watercourse was navigable in 1831, Justice Mitchell could rely on the present navigability of the watercourse.

She concluded: "The depth of the watercourse is presently and, based on the evidence of Mr. Burwell, also was at the time of the original grant, sufficient to float a small craft or a log.  There is no suggestion that the water does not flow freely along the watercourse or that its flow is obstructed in any meaningful way.  There may be seasonal fluctuations in the depth and flow of the watercourse but the parties agree this evidence is not determinative of the issue: See the seventh and eighth criterion in Coleman.  The watercourse was, therefore, "navigable" in fact at the time of the original Crown grant."

However, in order to create the natural severance, the watercourse must also have been "capable of public use" or "public utility" in 1831.  Justice Mitchell said of this requirement: "Trite to say that actual use, both historical and present day, is the best evidence of a watercourse's capability of public use.  That said, other "lesser" evidence will suffice to meet the evidentiary burden."  On a review of  the totality of the evidence, she found that "it is more probable than not that the watercourse was not only "capable of public use" in 1831 but was actually used by the public. ... It was capable of constituting an aqueous highway for public commercial and/or recreational use at the time of the original Crown grant regardless of whether or not it was considered by the public useful for such purposes."

As a result, the bed of Bear Creek as it passes through the respondent landowners' property was never actually granted by the Crown to private landowners in 1831.  It was the bed of a navigable watercourse that was reserved to the Crown and now serves as a physical separation between the respondents' property (properties) that lies on either side of the watercourse.

Read the decision at: Municipality of Middlesex Centre v MacMillan et al.