Mary Tapsell has held a lease to property on River Lake, outside Yellowknife, for more than 30 years and has a cabin there. During that time, she says people without leases have put up structures and left messes behind.
Tapsell outlined her concerns in a May 7 letter addressed to Shane Thompson, the territory’s lands minister. “These people do not take pride in the structures they have erected or the land they illegally occupy,” she wrote.
“I am convinced that when they choose to abandon it, they will leave a mess behind.
“This beautiful piece of land is littered with discarded toys, machinery, and batteries.”
Tapsell provided photos of two sites on the lake where she said squatters have built structures and kept items. One site has been abandoned for four years, she said, with garbage and construction materials left behind.
The other is still actively used and includes a cabin, a burned-out shower, a shed filled with ATVs and tools, and a sleeping shack, among other items strewn on the land.
“I’m just fed up,” she told Cabin Radio.
“I just care about the land … and I don’t even have an issue with people squatting, it’s the messes that they make. It’s complete disrespect.”
Tapsell said there is a safety issue if a fire starts or someone needs medical attention.
She asked: “If you’re not registered to a land lease and you’re just squatting somewhere, how does someone know if you need to be evacuated?”
‘They actually need to do something’
Tapsell said the land around the lake is within the asserted territory of the Akaitcho Dene First Nations. They are currently in the process of negotiating an agreement-in-principle on land, resources, and government.
As first reported by the CBC, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation – which is part of the Akaitcho process – recently raised concerns about squatters on its land.
The First Nation has created an online survey where members can identify potential squatter camps so action can be taken against them.
Tapsell said she sees squatting becoming a big problem as she drives along the Ingraham Trail or heads out onto the North Arm of Great Slave Lake.
“I often hear from friends boating on the big lake that squatters are erecting structures on all the favourite places they used to dock to camp,” she said.
“All the really nice places close to town are just being taken over by people that, rightfully or wrongfully, are just putting up structures.”
Tapsell said she first alerted the territorial government to the issue of squatters on River Lake in 2016, and acknowledged officials have since spoken to the people occupying the sites. But she said progress hasn’t been made.
“When they’ve found places and they see there’s an issue, they need to actually do something,” she said. “I don’t think that’s happening.”
Tapsell added she understands the challenges involved – she used to work for the territorial government on environment and lands-related issues.
‘It just doesn’t happen overnight,’ says minister
In an emailed response to Tapsell’s letter on May 11, Minister Thompson said his department was aware of unauthorized occupation on River Lake. He said the sites had been inspected in the past.
Thompson said the department would follow up with another inspection this week and is working through the “legal process toward final removal and clean up.”
In an interview with Cabin Radio, Thompson noted unauthorized occupation of public land has long been an issue in the Northwest Territories.
“We don’t condone unlawful use of public land. We’re working on our approach to address longstanding issues and prevent further violations of the rules and processes,” he said.
A file photo of Shane Thompson in October 2019. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Thompson said as soon as the department receives a report of unlawful land use, it is investigated.
But he added it’s a “very long, tedious process” through the legal system to have unauthorized camps removed.
He said one of the biggest challenges is determining whether a camp is illegal or belongs to someone with Indigenous land-use rights.
“It just doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “There is a process and we have to honour that process and we need to be very consistent through this whole process.”
People can temporarily camp on public land in the NWT. Indigenous people have the right to use land and live in their traditional territories.
Thompson said the territorial government is working with Indigenous governments to identify unauthorized camps. He said the department met with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation about its concerns on May 8.
Since devolution, Thompson said, the territorial government has addressed 16 cases of unauthorized land use. To date, 715 unauthorized camps on public land have been identified.
Thompson said the department has come up with a plan to address the issue. It needs to be approved by the Legislative Assembly before the territory can “tackle the issue wholeheartedly,” he said.