More than 700 cabins across the Northwest Territories are the focus of a new territorial government campaign to remove squatters from the land.
Posters have begun appearing on North Slave cabins that the NWT government’s Department of Lands believes may be unauthorized, for example by having no lease in place.
Cabins in other NWT regions will receive the same treatment in the coming weeks. Ultimately, the project is set to cost more than $6 million between now and the end of the decade.
The territory says the process of removing illegal cabins will take years in many cases, but is work the GNWT is now prepared to tackle.
“Squatting is a longstanding issue. It has been an issue for over 50 years,” said lands minister Shane Thompson in a briefing with reporters.
“We need to follow due process and do it right.
“We need to be very consistent from day one. If we move down the road and change while we’re doing things, it’s not good for the ones we’ve already dealt with.”
Importantly, cabins won’t be immediately affected if their owner is Indigenous and asserts that theirs is a rights-based cabin – a cabin on land where their Indigenous government or group has asserted or treaty rights.
Anyone who believes their cabin falls under that definition should contact the GNWT or their Indigenous government if their cabin receives a posting notice.
The territorial government said it would work with Indigenous governments to confirm who owned rights-based cabins. How many of the 700 structures are rights-based cabins is not yet known, the territory said.
Any cabins without such protection will be dealt with in one of two ways.
Cabins built prior to April 1, 2014 – the date of Devolution – will be “evaluated case-by-case against standard criteria,” said Gina Ridgely, the Department of Lands’ director of land use and sustainability.
That means assessing whether the cabin is the right distance from water and highways, meets maximum footprint criteria, and is on land that is available and appropriate for leasing.
If those criteria are met, the owner can apply for a lease. If not, legal proceedings to remove the cabin will begin.
All untenured cabins – those on GNWT land without some form of authorization, like a lease – built after April 1, 2014 will immediately face removal proceedings.
The territory said it had consistently taken action against newer cabins since 2014, but was now dealing with the “backlog” of older structures handed to the GNWT during Devolution.
“This project is going to take some time,” Ridgely said. “The legal process to seek removal can take months or even years, so we don’t expect to see results immediately.”
Focus is North Slave
Around 550 of the 700 or so structures under investigation are in the North Slave.
Blair Chapman, the Department of Lands’ assistant deputy minister of operations, said the population around Yellowknife was “the predominant factor” in the problem of squatters’ cabins.
“In some of the other larger communities – Hay River, Fort Smith – there are some unauthorized or untenured occupants in those areas as well,” Chapman said.
Temporary structures – like most wall tents, for example – won’t be targeted for the time being, but the department said what should happen regarding “long-term temporary use of land” was under consideration.
The territorial government is sending officials to visit all 700-plus cabins in the coming months.
No budget for that work, nor the overall exercise of pursuing cabin removal in court, was initially provided by the department.
After this article was first published, Thompson’s office said the GNWT expected to spend $6.4 million over eight years – including $2.25 million on removal costs and $991,000 on legal costs.
‘Really becoming a problem’
Chief Edward Sangris of Dettah told Cabin Radio squatters were a big problem for the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. He said a survey of the First Nation’s territory had identified more than 500 unauthorized cabins – a figure he thinks has since grown significantly.
Sangris said the First Nation has a “permission to occupy” process that enables it to track members’ cabins.
Illegal cabins were infringing on members’ rights to hunt and trap, Sangris said.
“That’s when we told the government we need to do something about the squatters that are out on the land without any authorization,” he said.
“I’m glad that the government does something about it now so we can have certainty.
“It is really becoming a problem and the government hasn’t done anything.”
Invoices and surprise
Garry Bailey, president of the Northwest Territory Métis Nation, said he wished there had been more consultation about the definition of a rights-based cabin.
“I’m pretty sure some of our members will probably get caught in the loop and receive those forms put on their doors,” Bailey said. “They can come to us, we’ll have to deal with it that way.
“I was surprised,” he added, “because we had a process we’ve already agreed to, and they just shut that one down and they went their own route. The process we had identified with them was we were going work with them to describe what a traditional cabin was, and then we were going help them look, to identify our cabins and maybe work out something for our cabins.
“Then when it came time to get down to it, they abandoned that process. They went this route, so I wasn’t too impressed.”
Duane Smith, chair and chief executive of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, expressed similar reservations.
Smith said Inuvialuit beneficiaries had spent the past two years receiving invoices from the NWT government regarding cabins on the land, and the issue had been raised with the Premier of the Northwest Territories.
“We have the right to construct cabins anywhere within the Inuvialuit Settlement Region,” Smith said on Wednesday, “at no cost.”
He added: “We’ve been raising that for a while. The GNWT has finally initiated what they call a rights-based cabin review. We have been working with them. They’ve asked us if we can gather the information on their behalf, on a contract basis.”
Smith said his organization was “in the final stages” of drawing up maps of all cabins within the region and who owns them.
“We’re going on 37 years of our final agreement and we’re still having to do one-on-one issues with the GNWT, when we should be well beyond these sorts of matters at this time in life,” he said. “It’s long overdue … they have to start to understand there are certain rights and obligations they have to respect.”
Chief of the Kátł’odeeche First Nation April Martel said she had a lot to say on the subject of cabins but was not immediately available for detailed comment.
The Gwich’in Tribal Council said it was aware of the territorial government’s planned work but did not intend to comment.
In the Tłı̨chǫ, Chief Clifford Daniels of Behchokǫ̀ and Chief Charlie Football of Wekweètì were unavailable.
Chief Ernest Betsina of Ndilǫ, Grand Chief of the Dehcho First Nations Gladys Norwegian, and Chief of Colville Lake Wilbert Kochon could not be reached. Chief Frank Andrew of Tulita said he was not aware of the detail of the territory’s plans.
Meaghan Brackenbury contributed reporting.