Gatekeepers: Canada Desperately Needs To Build More Housing, So Why Is It So Difficult To Do So?

Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre has spoken extensively about how “gatekeepers” are holding our country back. While some dismiss this as nothing but a political talking point, the fact is that Poilievre is indeed correct about one of the biggest underlying problems facing our nation.

All across the country, at the federal, provincial, and municipal level, growing layers of bureaucracy and unaccountable government institutions are expanding their power at the expense of the entrepreneurial spirit that a nation needs to succeed.

Despite our country being so wide open, with endless expanses of land and opportunity, we are becoming more and more closed off and restricted.

Much of this is being done under the guise of addressing climate change and protecting the environment, but this has increasingly become a catch-all excuse for delaying and rejecting projects and thus halting – even reversing – economic progress.

Consider the situation our nation is in.

We have a severe housing crisis, with a shortage of affordable housing, and a shortage of housing overall.

At the same time as governments make it more difficult to build, the feds are dramatically increasing immigration, raising demand for housing. That demand is not being met, and year after year the gap between housing supply and housing demand will grow.

The amazing thing is, there are many entrepreneurial Canadians who are trying to address this.

There are Canadians who want housing, and Canadians willing to build it.

But the gatekeepers are standing in the way.

Recently, I’ve been speaking with Jocelyn Burzuik, President and Senior Construction Manager at Sundance Construction.

Sundance Construction has built multiple housing projects in Manitoba and Ontario and have also participated in sewer and water renewals. Sundance Construction also provides emergency service to repair sewer and water treatment systems in many rural and northern communities.

Burzuik’s travails attempting to have a subdivision approved are emblematic of Canada’s labyrinthine bureaucratic process.

Burzuik is facing significant delays on approval for a subdivision project, because the Environment, Climate, and Parks (ECP) ministry claims there are protected wetlands on the site.

Burzuik says she consulted with Ducks Unlimited and the Manitoba Habitat & Heritage Corporation in assessing the site, and following that consultation her engineering team (comprised of Inninew Project Management & Canadian Clean Water Technologies among with other well-respected environmental engineers) submitted an assessment which determined there were no wetlands on the site where construction of the subdivision would take place.

Those assessments have been given to the ECP, yet the ECP has still not approved the project.

In addition, Burzuik says she has had the senior engineer and watershed manager for the Province of Manitoba approve their drainage plan as exceeding requirements.

Still, no approval has been given.

Burzuik says the ongoing delays have “cost me almost everything”.

Notably, this kind of broken process was supposed to have been fixed by Bill 37 in Manitoba.

The explanatory note for the bill can be viewed below, and the most important and relevant part is in bold:

“This Bill amends The Planning Act and The City of Winnipeg Charter to provide for planning regions and to make local land use decisions subject to appeal to the Municipal Board.

The Capital Planning Region is established for the Winnipeg metropolitan area. Other planning regions may be established by regulation.

A planning region must establish a regional planning by-law, which is to guide land use planning on a regional basis. Development plans, secondary plans and zoning by-laws of planning districts and municipalities within a region must be generally consistent with the regional planning by-law.

The composition of the board of a planning region is established by regulation. A board must include at least one representative of each municipality within the region.

The Municipal Board is given jurisdiction to hear appeals of land use decisions made by a planning district, municipality or planning commission.

An applicant can also appeal to the Municipal Board if a planning district or municipality fails to deal with their application in a timely manner.

Planning districts and municipalities may require a development agreement for certain development permits. The City of Winnipeg may require a development agreement as a condition of approving a conditional use or variance.

Consequential amendments are made to nine other Acts and The Capital Region Partnership Act is repealed.”

The project was conditionally approved in May of this year, but both the provincial government and the Rural Municipality of Gimli say further conditions must be met.

To give you an idea of the absurd gauntlet Burzuik has had to run in order to try and get the project approved, consider the following timeline of email communications Burzuik shared (some names removed for privacy reasons):

“On August 18th, we submitted formally for the Water Control License (which allows us to build drainage swales, ditching, and retention onsite). Concurrently, we applied for the official review of our overall drainage plan. We received initial comments on the drainage plan on August 23rd, and at the same time – the idea of wetlands being onsite were raised. This was an 11th hour disclosure.  At this time, we were informed that the Province of MB would block approvals on our subdivision until we addressed the wetland.  In writing, we were told that if we disagreed, we could have the matter reviewed by hiring our own wetland expert and submit a report detailing actual conditions on site.  We did that.

On Sept 7th, we submitted a “wetland proposal” as per the guidelines under the legislation. The proposal outlined that I disagreed with the idea that we had 1) a wetland in the area where our cattle dugout was located 2) that the compensation letter submitted was accurate. It listed three potential wetlands, one of which was completely off our property, a second that covered the corner of three properties outside of my own. 3) the areas listed in item 2 were not anywhere close to the work area proposed, and as such were not a part of the compensation package overall under the legislation. 4) We offered a perform option in our proposal on the dugout – we increase the overall size of the area for retention, add bioswales as a part of drainage, and improve the overall classification of that area.  From a dugout, we would create a naturalized retention area that would be considered permanent (Class 5).  The proposal was reasonable and we asked for concurrent building as the pond was actually a part of the overall drainage plan. They were the same package.

On Sept 9th, we submitted the updated drainage plan which encompassed the comments made on August 23rd, under seal of a professional engineer and the “wetland” area.  This was sent to the Department of Environment, Climate and Parks, MIT (Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation) and the RM of Gimli.

On Sept 16th, MIT after conducting a review by a provincial engineer in the department, approved our drainage plan as submitted. This approval was sent out to all parties required by the approval process.  The review was completed well within the timelines expected.

On September 22, 2022, after sending out multiple emails, and phone calls – we received an email from ECP that the documents had been received but that no timeline for review was available to us. During this timeframe, we asked in writing and via phone for feedback of any kind to give us a direction to work toward.

On September 29th, 2022, we received a follow up email from ECP that both submissions were still under review and that there would be no timeline for that review. No feedback was given at the time.  During this time, our firm engaged multiple entities to see if we could resolve the impasse.  Something was not right.  Feedback of some sort is always given.

On Oct 5th, 2022, we engaged our MLA Derek Johnson to see if we could facilitate a meeting onsite to resolve what appeared to be engineering issues. 

Between October 12 and 13th, we started receiving non-responses from ECP.  The series of questions asked had already been answered in previous exchanges. A set of cut and paste questions appeared from ECP, but no context given. We were not provided an actual engineering review, or contact person.  We requested information on who was reviewing, whether we could set up a conference call to address questions with our engineering team.  This was ignored. Instead, requests were just ignored.  Another ECP official cut and pasted the following into their response to us:

“Furthermore, your client’s assessment of the wetlands affected by the development differs from our assessment. They have indicated that it is not really a wetland and the area proposed for compensation falls short of what we maintain it should be. As such, your client may hire at their own expense a wetland expert to conduct an independent study of the property and provide us with a report that clearly distinguishes the extent and class of wetlands on the property.”

On Oct 14th, we made contact with another ECP official – the director for the Drainage Section and supervisor for the other officials we spoke with. We were ignored. The official sent an email to their subordinate to follow up with us but nothing else provided.

On October 19th, we took additional soil samples from site, and submitted to an accredited lab for analysis. (Farmer’s Edge)

On October 20th, during emails and phone calls with ECP we were informed that their engineering review is done outside the drainage section as they are not engineers. We formally requested again, that we be given contact information for the reviewing engineers to determine what, if anything is needed, for the drainage plan review.

On October 21, 2022 our engineering team provided a detailed response to ECP’s comments made during the phone calls with our team.  Specifically, we addressed the wetland proposal and that it satisfied all reasonable legislative requirements, and that we continued to assert the dugout was in fact not a wetland. We informed ECP that we had engaged in consultations with Ducks Unlimited and Manitoba Habitat and Heritage – the provincial wetland experts from August 24th 2022 through October 2022.  We asked specifically why the wetland issue was raised as an 11th hour issue if this was such a critical item?

On October 26th, 2022, we received another response from ECP. Upon review, they were willing to remove two items from the compensation report, but still refuted that the cattle dugout was not a wetland even though archaeological evidence was submitted prior.  We asked for clarification again – what constitutes evidence of completion of all works in the proposal?  This is a question we asked every time.  If I decided to pay the now $13,200, what constituted completion of works? Who would review, what standards were we following? Would my engineering submission be used to verify the works done? IE what were the rules I had to follow to complete?  NO RESPONSE GIVEN.

On October 27th, our team followed up with additional comments regarding the drainage plan and wetland:

‘1) Do you know if the drainage plan is acceptable yet? If it is acceptable, the consideration of the ratio and perform compensation hybrid might be a simple way to move forward for the client.

2) Do you have a copy of the wetland report that identifies the three wetlands? Mostly interested in the central one.

3) Does the Province have a list of qualified wetland experts?

4) What qualifies someone as a wetland expert according to the Province?’

We specifically asked the above questions because there is NO formal designation in the Province of Manitoba for a wetland expert.  It is subjective and based on physical experience in environmental and civil engineering. We had already submitted for soil samples showing where our soil samples were taken from, the depths, maintained a chain of custody to the labs, and pinpointed on the map and via photographs at time of sampling. Both MHHC and Ducks Unlimited provided us with their comments of what our site encompassed based on photographs, and soils testing onsite. Not a wetland.  Not a Class 3 wetland.  In fact, ECP in their last email (Dec 5, 2022) to our firm says that we have Fyala Series soils – as per the coarse Provincial soils survey done in 2010. As per their own documentation, Fyala series soils are “new soils, disturbed by agricultural activities”.  Within the guidelines of the legislation, a Fyala soil series might fall into Class 1 or Class 2. This, as per the legislation, does not require regulatory mitigation or compensation.

On the 4th of November, 2022 we send an email as a friendly reminder that we still have not had our questions send above answered.  At 4:16 pm on Friday Nov 4th, we received another cut and paste series of comments from ECP. On Monday, Nov 7th, we responded to all items and requested more information as their comments were not complete. They only contained a portion of the reviewing engineer’s comments.  We asked for that information or the engineer directly to answer what he needed to.

On Nov 7th, for a second time, I requested a Ministerial Inquiry by ECP into the slow walking of approvals in writing.

On Nov 8th, 2022 we asked for a copy of the assessments used by ECP to determine size and classification of wetland. These were not provided, and to date, we still do not have any of what they used to assess.

On Nov 11th, as per ECP request, we had our wetland experts submit a detailed report on size of the area, classification, and onsite investigations to verify it is not a wetland.

On Nov 18th, we received comments from ECP on our drainage questions (partial) but nothing on wetlands.  In writing on Nov 18th, 2022, we confirm that based on the lack of comments the wetland issue is now off the table, and that we have answered the engineering questions on drainage.

On Nov 18th, 2022, an engineer for the Province, contacts our engineering directly and works with our team over the weekend to address the drainage questions. On Nov 22, 2022, the revised information was submitted.  On Nov 24th, the engineer confirms our drainage plan meets the requirements and there are no further comments required.

On Nov 25th, our engineer stamped the revised with provincial engineer’s comments – and we submitted the complete package again to ECP, and the RM of Gimli.

On Nov 28th, 2022, we followed up via email with ECP on the drainage and whether we would see the formal approval coming shortly.

On Nov 30th, 2022, we followed up again via email as to whether we were going to see an approval coming.

On Nov 30th, 2022 – An official from Manitoba Municipal Relations says that ECP can take as long as they want to review and approve.  I challenged that immediately, in writing.

On Dec 5th, 2022 – we receive an email ECP saying that we need to pay money to MHHC, they are ignoring our wetland onsite review by qualified engineering experts, and that their ‘aerial” assessments (of which we have never been given access to), and their coarse, broadly based regional provincial soil mapping was right and we were wrong. The comments pulled from the email by ECP were pulled from the 2010 Provincial Soils Survey.  There were no soils taken either from our area, or from our site physically. The language was directly cut and paste from that posted Gov pdf.

We have received no further comments.”

Two things really stand out here.

First, the sheer number of different organizations and groups that are involved in the approval process and their seeming lack of communication with each other.

Second, the fact that the government says they can take as long as they want to give a response or approval, yet if we keep the government waiting when they demand something they tend to take immediate coercive action.

As a result of all this, we have a Canadian business – Sundance Construction – that is taking a serious financial hit while waiting for the government to reply to them.

Not just a Manitoba problem

Reading this, you may wonder what this has to do with Canada as a whole.

Isn’t this just an issue with the Manitoba government?

Well, consider that Manitoba has a conservative-leaning government that is far more pro-business than the opposition NDP party in the province.

Further, Manitoba actually gets a good grade on red tape reduction from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business:

Manitoba gets a 9.5 grade, the highest of all provinces on reducing red tape, and the regulatory burden is down 10%.

So, if things are still so difficult despite less burden, this tells you that there is a deeper and more fundamental problem going on.

As of 2020, Canada ranked 23rd in the world on the ease of doing business index.

Among our worst areas are “dealing with construction permits.”

In 2012, Canada ranked 17th on the list, and in 2014 we ranked 13th.

Since then, we have fallen significantly to the 23rd spot.

By comparison, the United States is 6th, Australia is 14th, New Zealand is 1st, and even notoriously bureaucratic Germany comes in at 22nd.

This is all a choice

At the federal level, we have witnessed our country become increasingly held back by a government that is on an ideological climate crusade.

It is such a deeply ideological and anti-development worldview that it essentially discourages people from taking initiative and building the real tangible things our nation needs.

And this attitude – though often in milder forms – is found throughout our nation, and even in political and government institutions we wouldn’t expect to see it.

Canada cannot expect to succeed if we are simultaneously a country with incredibly high immigration levels while also making it difficult to build housing.

We cannot take full advantage of our vast resources and territory if we stand in the way of those who have the entrepreneurial drive to develop it.

And, as a final note, Jocelyn Burzuik describes Sundance Construction as a “Indigenous & Independent” company.

Shouldn’t our country want to see more Indigenous-led businesses who are building and developing our nation?

Isn’t true reconciliation about ensuring that all of us can benefit from the abundant potential of our country?

We need to get bureaucracy and government out of the way, stop putting up roadblocks, push the gatekeepers aside, and unleash the full strength of entrepreneurial Canadians.

Spencer Fernando

Photo – Screengrab