The Deninu Kųę́ First Nation’s bid to construct a mini-putt and RV park in Fort Resolution has triggered a written warning from the NWT’s Department of Lands.
In a “to whom it may concern” notice, the department states the First Nation is occupying territorial land on Mission Island. NWT government maps suggest the area is part of a land withdrawal while land claims are resolved, restricting its availability for development.
The department told the First Nation its notice, dated September 30, “is not a determination of unauthorized occupancy but a tool to begin the determination of the legitimacy of your occupancy of territorial land.”
A photo of the notice was shared by the First Nation on its Facebook page. The First Nation said around 10 similar notices were “posted around the development at Mission Island where our little RV parking area and the golf course is going.”
A photo of the notice of occupancy of territorial land taken by the Deninu Kųę́ First Nation. Photo: Deninu Kųę́ First Nation
The letter tells the occupants of the land they have 30 days to contact the department.
“Failure to respond to this notice within the time period set out herein may result in the Government of the Northwest Territories opting to pursue its legal remedies in regard to this matter,” the notice concludes.
On Facebook, the Deninu Kųę́ First Nation said it was “disappointing how we can never work together in this community because the government has to get involved.”
The First Nation accused the territory of wanting “their little power trip.”
“With this Covid, why harass our First Nation when we had a lot of people working on this project and equipment rented?” the post queried.
“Never seen the government do anything around our community to create jobs for our young families.”
Deninu Kųę́ Chief Louis Balsillie and the territorial government have endured a combative year, with the First Nation and territory sparring over several initiatives – in particular, Balsillie’s decision to erect a highway checkpoint as Covid-19 descended on the NWT.
A territorial government map of land ownership, annotated by Cabin Radio, shows the land in question.
“Regardless of if [the NWT government] has policies, my policy is I look after people,” Balsillie told Cabin Radio at the time.
Balsillie declined an interview request regarding the Department of Lands’ notice and steps the First Nation may take to resolve the situation.
Department site visit
The First Nation announced its plans for a miniature golf course in a Facebook post on April 2.
“We’re doing a miniature golf course and some people have concerns. The Lands people came in from Fort Smith and checked on the work that’s being done, never said anything was wrong, yet people keep calling,” that posted stated.
“I know it looks like a big mess at the moment but once’s it’s all done it’ll be a nice place for our community people that play golf.”
On June 10, the First Nation again posted about the golf course.
“It’s starting to look so lovely out here at Mission Island. All the land fill been put down for our own community miniature golf course.
“[It’s] still a long way from been finished but it’s a start right? The world wasn’t made in a day so got to have some patience.”
The Department of Lands, which did not provide a response until after first publication of this article, told Cabin Radio: “The land in question remains public land and is under a withdrawal order. This means that the interests in the land must be protected, in this case for Aboriginal rights negotiations, and we are unable to provide tenure.”
A spokesperson for the department said by email: “Lands inspectors did a site visit to the area on April 2 in response to concerns raised about activities taking place on land that is under a withdrawal order.”
The spokesperson said those inspectors had issued a stop work order on April 8, contradicting Balsillie’s assertion that no concerns had been raised.
Diocese had concerns
The department’s notice is not the first time someone has challenged the First Nation’s decision to build around the community of Fort Resolution.
In 2016, the CBC reported Chief Balsillie faced a similar disagreement over two separate parcels of land on Mission Island.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith asked the First Nation to stop building after finding development taking place on its land.
Balsillie at the time told the CBC he had no idea the diocese owned the land, and said the First Nation had even received money from the territorial and federal governments for the work.
He told the broadcaster he had no plans to remove the buildings and expected to build a walkway and gazebo.
The First Nation says it has since asked the diocese to transfer ownership of that land, in a letter dated February 12, 2018. That letter suggested the diocese retain title to the old mission house and spiritual gathering area.
“We would prefer to have this land transferred as we have invested time and money into this area, not to mention the historical sentiments for the community of Fort Resolution,” Balsillie wrote in the 2018 letter.
A photo posted to Facebook by the Deninu Kųę́ First Nation shows a letter sent to the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith in February 2018.
The First Nation said this letter was its last correspondence with the diocese, though it said a meeting had taken place between the diocese, the Fort Resolution Métis, Fort Resolution’s mayor, and Balsillie in which all parties had supported the land transfer.
On Monday, the diocese said it retained ownership of the land but had not enforced the contents of a cease-and-desist letter issued to the First Nation.
“I would like to continue conversations with the chief,” Bishop Jon Hansen said.