The government of the Northwest Territories is getting tough with squatters on public land.
Structures that have been built without authorization will be identified and subject to removal through the legal process, Lands Minister Shane Thompson said at a news conference on Tuesday.
"Unauthorized occupancy has been an issue in the North for more than 50 years," said Thompson. "Requiring people to get the right authorizations to use our public land is an important part of how the land is managed, but so is enforcing those requirements."
The department estimates there are upwards of 700 unauthorized structures on public lands in the territory. About 550 of those structures are in the North Slave region, which includes Yellowknife.
The department started posting notices on unauthorized structures in that region last week, and will begin doing the same in the territory's other regions in March, according to Gina Ridgely, director of land use and sustainability for the Department of Lands.
Thompson said rights-based cabins, those that are occupied by Indigenous people on Indigenous lands, where occupants are exercising their asserted or established Aboriginal or treaty rights, won't be subject to removal.
The department has been working with Indigenous governments and organizations over the past two years to identify and confirm potential rights-based cabins, but Ridgely said it doesn't know how many of them there are.
"We have also created a process whereby if an Indigenous member receives a posting notice, they will have information on how to proceed with making their assertions," she said.
She added that the department has sent out information to its Indigenous partners to ensure they know how the process works.
Indigenous governments and organizations have been asking the N.W.T. to intervene and help them manage squatters on their lands.
Dettah Chief Edward Sangris said earlier this year that the problem had become so severe on Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN) land, it encroached on traditional life and treaty rights.
"People just build all over the place and say, 'this is their land.' It's coming to a point where a lot of our members are starting to complain that, 'I have a trapline but I can't go there because somebody is building a house,'" Sangris said at the time.
'Finally stepping up to the plate'
Ndilo Chief Ernest Betsina said he hasn't seen the government's plan yet but is encouraged that it's "finally stepping up to the plate on this issue."
"And I'm hoping the GNWT [government of the Northwest Territories] will work with YKDFN to deal with the unauthorized cabins on our traditional lands."
He said he and his members have seen a steady increase of cabins being built on their land by non-members, especially in the last few years.
"Seems to me that [non-members] build now and they ask for approval later. That's not acceptable. And it has to stop."
2014 key year
Ridgely said unauthorized cabins built after April 1, 2014 — when the responsibility for public land management was transferred from the federal to the territorial government — will be issued a notice to remove the structure, unless they are rights-based.
Owners will have 30 days to contact the department and "identify a lawful reason for their occupancy," said Thompson.
If they can't, they'll be issued a notice of trespass, asking them to vacate the land.
"It's the owner's responsibility to clean up their site," added Thompson. "If someone chooses not to leave or leaves abandoned materials, we can receive authority from the courts to remove. Following removal, we can return to the courts to seek recovery of costs."
Ridgeley added that unauthorized cabins built before that date will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, based on the department's legislation, practices and policy.
That includes how far a cabin is from the water and the highway system, the size of the buildings and their state, and whether or not the land is available and appropriate for leasing, Ridgely said.
"If the structures do not meet the criteria, the department will initiate the legal process for removal," she said. "If the structures do meet the criteria, the occupants will be able to apply for a lease."
Officials with the Department of Lands will use images from aerial photos and departmental records of when structures were built to help them identify which ones were built after April 1, 2014.
Officials will provide written notice on structures they've identified as unauthorized. Occupants will have 30 days to contact the department to begin removing their structure or be faced with legal proceedings.
"The legal process could take months or even years," said Ridgely.
The department said it has a plan to reach all 700 structures over the next two years, even the ones in remote areas that aren't accessible by road, as it integrates the enforcement work with other inspections it carries out in remote areas.
Ridgely said they're focused on permanent structures for the next two years, and as they carry out their work, they will note temporary structures and deal with them in the future.