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NNSL photo/graphic

Did you build this cabin on the northeast side of Mosher Island? If yes, the GNWT has filed a claim with the Supreme Court of the NWT against you. The unknown defendant has until May 12 to respond, or the court will issue a judgment against them in their absence. - Laura Busch/NNSL photo

Territory takes hard line on squatters
GNWT department harsher on 'trespassers' than Ottawa is on 'unauthorized users'

Laura Busch
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The way the territorial and federal governments deal with squatters on government land is markedly different, which arguably does not bode well for those currently squatting on Crown land after devolution.

While Emerald Murphy, director of lands administration with Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA), said it is too early to speculate on what happens once the territorial and federal governments have finalized the devolution of lands and resources to the GNWT, she said the territory deals with all squatters in the same way, as trespassers.

"The goals are to get the trespassers off the land. It's that simple," Murphy said. "And if there is any spoilage or wastage of the land, we try to go after them for that as well."

Currently, MACA is pursuing 12 court cases in an effort to evict trespassers from Commissioner's land, she said. Eleven of those so-called squatters are located near Yellowknife. There is no current estimate on how many unauthorized dwellings are on Commissioner's land. However, the department takes steps to remove all trespassers, she said.

Meanwhile, the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) calls squatters "unauthorized users," which is defined as someone who is occupying a piece of land without proper permission, such as a lease, stated Annette Hopkins, director of operations for AANDC in an e-mail response to Yellowknifer.

The federal department estimates there are approximately 200 unauthorized occupants on Crown land in the territory, including 53 who have said they have aboriginal rights to occupy the land, stated Hopkins. About 100 of these unauthorized occupants are located within 100 km of Yellowknife and half of these are located near Highway 3 and the Ingraham Trail.

MACA and AANDC take similar measures when it comes to monitoring for unwelcome users of Commissioner's or Crown land.

There are two ways the departments find out about squatters - when people complain or when their own officials are out doing routine inspections.

Hopkins could not confirm how often AANDC's inspection officers make patrols by press time, however MACA patrols the Ingraham Trail and other roads near Yellowknife "once a week" and survey most Commissioner's land at least once per year, said Murphy.

Whenever either department finds a shack or other unauthorized structure, an officer physically posts a notice on the building.

Where the federal and territorial governments differ is in what they do after they confirm there is a squatter on the land.

"Once departmental officials become aware of unauthorized uses of Crown lands, our inspectors visit each site, investigate, and post a notice on the building requesting the owner contact the AANDC office," stated Hopkins. "Sometimes the occupants contact the office but, more often, they don't. Therefore, the department has no way of knowing who they are, which can make the process of removing them that much more difficult."

If the occupant does contact the federal department, the first step is to determine whether or not that occupant's use of the land qualifies them for a lease, she stated.

The territorial government, on the other hand, is not required to confirm the identity of an occupant before removing a structure from Commissioner's land. For example, one of the cases currently being pursued by MACA is against unknown user "John Doe," who has erected a structure on the northeast shore of Mosher Island. The territorial department must post a summons for the person(s) involved and, if there is no response within 30 days, a judge may issue a ruling for the property to be vacated and MACA officials will remove any structures and items from the area, said Murphy.

Also, temporary use of Commissioner's Land, such as for seasonal hunting or fishing, is considered trespassing by MACA.

"Our main concern is the preservation of the natural quality of the land," she said. "And I think historically, it's pretty clear that trespassers are not as careful about preservation of the land as people who actually have some form of tenure."

Where MACA's response to trespassing on Commissioner's land is regulated by the Commissioner's Land Act, the federal government follows Territorial Land Use Regulations and Mackenzie Valley Land Use Regulations when dealing with squatters.

Both departments declined to speculate on how squatters will be dealt with after devolution comes into affect. However, what is clear is that after devolution, the GNWT will have full administrative control over 85 per cent of the land in the territory.

When presented with the argument that squatters use property that would otherwise remain unused, and perhaps having them there does no harm, Murphy disagreed.

"We have lots of really good leaseholders who respect their leases, take care of the land very well and it's very unfair to those people who are paying their rent and paying their taxes and taking very good care of the land, for people who don't do any of that to get away with it," she said.

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