It has been likened to the battle between David and Goliath; a small-town Fish and Game Club going toe to toe in the courtroom against Canada’s largest working cattle ranch for the right to access public lakes.
Nearly a decade ago, in April 2013, the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club had become frustrated with having their access to Minnie Lake and Stoney Lake restricted and decided they would take the matter to court.
Minnie and Stoney Lakes are located southeast of Merritt, on the sprawling Douglas Lake Ranch which is owned by Stan Kroenke. Kroenke is an American businessman who is the owner of Kroenke Sports and Entertainment, numerous professional sports franchises and husband of Ann Walton, a Walmart heiress.
“Our Club decided to try to fight to keep open public access to public places,” said McGowan. “We took the Minnie and Stoney Lake road, which used to be part of the Pennask Lake Rd. as a case for precedent setting, we thought we could get the government to come to the table and look after the people of BC in respect to keeping public roads open to public places. We found out that they had a policy and a new plan to allow private landowners to block public access to gain control and manage the Crown Lands and lakes themselves, and we thought this is terrible, we’ve got to try to stop it, so we did, we filed a couple of lawsuits.”
Those lawsuits were filed in the Supreme Court of BC, where after a 20-day trial the judge ruled in favour of the Fish and Game Club and they were also awarded special costs.
This decision was then appealed by Douglas Lake.
“And also, Douglas Lake appealed the fact that the road was public,” said McGowan. “A Crown granted trail, which the law states is public if it’s shown on the original Crown Grant, they appealed that, and the Trespass Act that said if they flood their land with an agricultural water license given by the government then they can prevent the people from going to public lakes as they’re going over private land to go to the public part of a lake.”
The BC Court of Appeal then overturned the first case and ruled in favour of Douglas Lake Ranch.
“In this case, they ruled against four existing legislations, and I have no idea how that now applies with those legislations,” said McGowan.
“The Land Act, the Highways Act, the Land Titles Act, the Trespass Act. I have no idea now that they’ve ruled against those acts, how that applies to the people in the future.”
This lead the NVFGC to take their case to the Supreme Court of Canada. However, word has now come to the Club that the Supreme Court of Canada has refused to hear its appeal, and dismissed the case.
“The Supreme Court of Canada Court of Appeal just basically dismissed our case without hearing it and gave Douglas Lake costs,” McGowan lamented.
“And according to our lawyer, they do not have to give you a reason for dismissing it. You’re just dismissed, that’s it, end of story.”
To add insult to injury, the NVFGC was ordered to pay Douglas Lake Ranch’s legal fees for the ongoing legal dispute, for which they have now received a bill of $44,000.
“That’s just the bill we got for the lawyers for the first court of appeal, and they’ve been awarded for the costs from the Supreme Court of Canada appeal, and we haven’t got a bill for that yet,” explained McGowan.
The NVFGC was able to raise $200,000 through fundraising over the years for their own legal costs, but McGowan holds that they aren’t willing to fundraise to pay for Douglas Lake’s legal fees.
“Myself and the Club have no appetite to fundraise to pay Douglas Lake’s lawyers, it’s not going to happen, I won’t do it,” said McGowan.
“We don’t have the money. We might have to bankrupt the club or start a new club under a new name or whatever, but we’re not going to pay their lawyer bills. We could end up with a $200,000 or $300,000 debt here, which our club can’t possibly afford to pay and we’re not going to fundraise for it, that’s just not going to happen. We’d rather fundraise to clean up a river or do something environmental, but not for someone to steal our lakes.”
McGowan believes that there is, at this time, no further action that can be taken to continue to lobby for public access to Minnie and Stoney lakes.
“Our Club had no interest in winning anything for us, what we were doing was for the people of BC and the future,” said McGowan.
“I have one granddaughter and that’s why I fought it. Other members on the executive have grandkids, I mean, we’re all elderly and we’re going to go out the other end of the door, and we thought we could make this world a little better. But unfortunately, we have to apologize, because we failed. But we tried. The people of British Columbia paid $200,000 to get to this point and for that we thank them and apologize for losing.”
Still up in the air is a lawsuit between the NVFGC and three property owners, including Nicola Ranch and Douglas Lake Ranch, involving access to Corbett Lake.