What do a deceased Canadian Nazi, an airport in Niagara Region, and a small Catholic university in Ottawa have in common? They are all the subject of one of the more obscure parts of MPPs work at Queen’s Park: private bills. Not to be confused with private members bills, private bills are the legislature’s tool for handling the small, mostly inconsequential problems that don’t seize the attention of province-wide policymaking.
Private legislation is any bill that seeks to create an exemption from general provincial law. That legislation, once it receives royal assent, creates a literal privilege—the word comes from the Latin for “private law.”
The legislature is unlikely to grant any really interesting privileges — so motorists should keep obeying Ontario’s posted speed limits. But every once in a while, the details of a private bill are notably odd.
For example in 2015 the legislature passed a private bill to re-establish the corporate estate of Martin Weiche. Weiche was one of Ontario’s most prominent Nazi sympathizers and died in 2011, leaving his five-hectare property to his widow.
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Weiche’s will is being contested by his sons in court and the application for private legislation was part of that process: Weiche’s estate had been transferred from a personal corporation in which his sons were shareholders, to one controlled solely by his wife. Reviving the previous corporation was a necessary step for the sons to contest the will.
The Weiche bill was unusually contentious for a private bill. At the committee hearing, his widow’s lawyer argued against the reincorporation of the old company, warning that MPPs were being dragged into a family law matter that the legislature traditionally stays away from. Some MPPs were persuaded not to vote on the bill because of it.
“I don’t think we had enough material at committee to make a proper judgment,” Niagara West-Glanbrook MPP Tim Hudak told the committee before he abstained.
Not all private bills are so salacious, or involve such notable characters. When the Toronto International Film Festival wanted its property exempted from municipal and educational taxes it had to proceed through private legislation. The festival argued that, as a registered charity which also generates millions of dollars in tourism revenue for Toronto every year, a special exemption from these taxes was warranted.
Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock MPP Laurie Scott sponsored a private bill in 2014 on behalf of a defunct lumber business that wanted to sell its land, but couldn’t because the corporation had been dissolved.
“It took years for the lawyers to figure it out, but it’s basically a technicality,” Scott says. “Usually, lawyers on both sides agree to the bills.”
As with Scott’s bill, the large majority of private bills that have been passed by the legislature are simply to re-establish private corporations that have been dissolved. That’s why the list of private bills recently passed by the legislature include such attention-grabbing titles as the 839255 Ontario Inc. Act, the 828117 Ontario Limited Act, and the Precision Pipe Manufacturing Inc. Act.
Once a bill is ready to be formally considered by the house it tends to move quickly: unlike other legislation, they are sped through with unanimous consent motions, meaning that they’re considered so uncontroversial it’s not worth the time to debate them.
The private bill dealing with Weiche Estates Inc. was introduced, sent to committee, passed by the house and signed into law in a grand total of nine days.
Other bills are so low-profile that even if they don’t create a special privilege, they don’t need the full scrutiny of the legislative assembly. So a bill changing the name of the Niagara Central Airport to the Niagara Central Dorothy Rungeling Airport, or tweaking the makeup of Saint Paul University’s senate, will get a brief hearing at committee but won’t be debated by the full house.
It’s up to the Legislative Counsel at Queen’s Park—who work for the legislature, not the government—to make sure that neither MPPs nor any private individuals are abusing the private bill process.
In all, private bills make up a small part of an MPPs workload.
“It’s not like a private member’s bill, where you’ve got to find support in your caucus or from other MPPs,” says Ottawa South MPP John Fraser. “It’s equal parts legislative and administrative.”
“I never really understood it until I got here.”