History of Crown Land Management

Transaction Records.
Since Confederation, the management of Crown land and the natural resources on it has been the responsibility of provincial governments. Activities such as:

  • selling land to people who want to build farms, homes or businesses,
  • regulating the use of resources like forestry and fur trapping and
  • managing recreational uses such as camping, fishing and hunting

have been carried out by Ontario government agencies like the Ministry of Natural Resources.


The province's objectives for Crown land management have changed significantly over the years. The history of the Ministry of Natural Resources land management program has paralleled the growth of Ontario as a province. The program's evolution has generally reflected the needs of the times, as well as changes in government priorities and public attitudes.


In the beginning, Ontario used its control over Crown land to generate revenue, which the government used to pay for public services like roads and policing. In fact, in the 1800s, there were very few taxes and the sale of Crown land around the province's growing towns was one of the government's few sources of income.


The provincial government also used the availability of Crown land like a magnet, to attract European settlers to Ontario. Homesteads were granted free to immigrants who would work to clear the forests and establish farms. This was such an attractive proposition that by 1870s almost all of the land in southern Ontario was privately owned. In the north however, the offer of "free land for the taking" met with far less success. Many northern pioneer communities became ghost towns after only a couple of years, and have long since disappeared.


Several times in the province's history, the government has used land grants to reward soldiers who fought "for King and country". Many grants were offered to men returning from the Boer War and even more to veterans of World War I.


By the 1930s, during the Great Depression, private land was abundant in populated parts of the province. There was little demand for "raw" Crown land to develop new farms or towns. In an attempt to solve the serious problem of unemployment, the Ontario government again tried to encourage the growth of new communities in the north by offering free homesteads to the unemployed. However, this "back to the land" movement failed miserably. It was a hard life that few were willing to pursue.


In the 1940s, conditions changed dramatically. During and after the World War II, there was growing prosperity in the province. This economic boom opened up a whole new demand for Crown land, as city dwellers sought to escape the hustle and bustle of the cities for the tranquility of lakes and forests in Ontario’s "near north". Through the 1950s and 1960s, Ministry of Natural Resources land management program made land available for thousands of cottages, private hunting and fishing camps, commercial lodges, campgrounds and marinas.

By the 1970s, there were concerns that parts of the province had actually become over-developed. Many believed the natural environment was at risk. The sale of Crown land virtually stopped for a time, while questions about "ecological sustainability" were analyzed. In response to public interest, the Ministry of Natural Resources now places a greater emphasis on its stewardship role. For example, people who were planning to build new cabins, docks or roads on Crown land were required to obtain work permits before they began construction. Those permits listed conditions aimed at making sure the construction had the least possible impact on the environment.


By the late 1970s and early 1980s, land use planning for Crown land became a priority. Sensitive sites such as eagles' nests, fish spawning areas, old growth forests and native burial grounds were surveyed and located on maps. Studies were done to determine whether landscapes and ecosystems would be able to cope with man-made changes. The public was consulted and land use planning documents -- rules to control future development and protect those special "values" -- were put in place covering much of the province.


Today, many of the Crown land management tasks which were originally performed by Ministry of Natural Resources staff are now done in conjunction with "partners". As in other Ministry of Natural Resources programs such as forest management, responsibilities for much of the hands-on work of Crown land management have been partnered with municipalities, user groups like cottagers associations or in some cases to commercial operators, who now operate and maintain Crown land assets like roads, garbage dumps and campsites.