Two years after the N.W.T. government said it was cracking down on squatters who had cabins on public land, only five cabins have been removed. Some cases have been in limbo for years.
The Unauthorized Occupancy of Public Land initiative was announced by then-Minister of Lands Shane Thompson on Feb. 10, 2021. At the time, the government estimated there were upward of 700 unauthorized structures on public lands. Since then, the territory has issued notices ordering 43 illegal cabins be torn down, but only five have actually been removed.
The process of getting a cabin removed can take years.
Take the case of one illegal cabin owner who is now before the courts. Frank Walsh, an employee of the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority, freely admits he has never tried to obtain a lease for his cabin north of Yellowknife.
"I'm squatting. I have no problem admitting I'm squatting. In that sense, I guess I'm doing something illegal. Do I feel it's wrong? No, I don't feel it's wrong," Walsh told CBC in an interview about his case.
Based on his own submissions to the court, Walsh has had his cabin on Narcisse Lake, about 15 kilometres northwest of Prosperous Lake, since around 2007 or 2008.
According to court documents, Department of Lands employee Clint Ambrose first inspected his cabin on March 21, 2019, at which time he noted down that didn't see a lease for the property in the Department's database, but didn't take any action beyond that.
Almost two years later, on Feb. 24, 2021, Ambrose inspected the cabin again. This time, he posted a notice on the cabin, telling Walsh that he had 30 days to prove he had a lease for the property, or the Northwest Territories Department of Lands (now part of the Department of Environment and Climate Change) could pursue legal action against him.
In his affidavit, Walsh swears that he contacted the government shortly after the notice, and was told that the department of lands was "collecting names and contact information," and would follow up.
On Jan. 27, 2022, an inspector came again, and posted a second notice, asking him to vacate the lot and remove his cabin within 30 days, and again advising him that they would pursue legal action if he didn't respond.
About a week after the second round of notices, on Feb. 16, 2022, Walsh contacted the Department of Lands, but didn't show proof of a lease. He was again asked to vacate the property.
A flowchart posted to the Government of Northwest Territories webpage providing information to cabin owners about the process for removing unauthorized cabins. (Government of Northwest Territories)
It wasn't until April 5, 2023, over a year after that second inspection, that the Department of Lands started the process of taking Walsh to court.
His first court appearance was on Sept. 29, 2023.
Complicating the process further is the fact that Walsh is counter-suing the government, asking the judge to order the territory to negotiate a lease agreement with him.
Walsh said at one point he meant to apply for a lease, but he had young children at the time, and "time just gets away from you."
He also acknowledged he didn't try at all to resolve his case with the Department of Lands, beyond one phone call in 2021 and one in 2022, until he was summoned to court.
But he believes it was the job of the government to follow up with him and tell him what he needed to do, which he felt didn't happen in his case.
"[The department] had lots of time to tell me to get out of there and I had lots of time to do things. So we're both at fault here," he said.
Walsh's case isn't the only one that is dragging on.
Another alleged squatter on Narcisse Lake, Matt Pond, was served his first notice on Feb. 24, 2021, the same day as Walsh. His first court appearance isn't until Dec. 8, 2023.
CBC asked the territorial government why so few cabins have been removed, but the government declined to comment because there is a media blackout due to the recent territorial election.
'It's unceded land'
Ndilǫ Chief Fred Sangris said the territory's failure to remove illegal cabins is an issue of sovereignty.
Ndilǫ Chief Fred Sangris, pictured here in July 2022. (Avery Zingel/CBC)
The area around Yellowknife, which is Yellowknives Dene First Nation territory, has the most unauthorized cabins in the N.W.T.
"Here in Akaitcho territory, in Treaty 8, we still own the land, we have an Aboriginal title, and we have not ceded or surrendered our land," he told CBC.
"It is a problem for us to exercise our treaty rights in terms of harvesting, hunting and using the land. The people occupying our land interferes [with] and violates our rights."
He said he would like to see the territorial government put more resources into removing squatters, and consult more with Yellowknives Dene First Nation throughout the process.
"If there's only five cabins in all those years, then really, they don't want to do their job. They don't want to do it. That's the signal."