A simple yes or no? Nunavummiut to vote on sale of municipal lands

The last time Nunavummiut were asked if they wanted to give municipalities the power to sell municipal lands, the result was a resounding no.

In April 1995, all 25 communities, and some 82 per cent of voters who cast ballots, rejected the proposal in a plebiscite held under article 14 of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA). That same section dictated that another referendum could not be held on the matter for at least 20 years.

Nunavut still wasn’t even a territory yet, and Nunavummiut had yet to select a capital. For voters in 1995, the next two decades no doubt seemed like the impossibly distant future.

But those two decades have since passed, and the Nunavut government is asking again.

The question is fairly straightforward: “Do you want Municipality of                     to be able to sell Municipal Lands?” It is a yes or no proposition.

Robert Chapple, the Nunavut government’s Kugluktuk-based director of planning and lands for the department of Community and Government Services, says the question is ultimately the culmination of a process that began in the 1970s with the creation of municipal governments in what is now Nunavut. That process continued through the transfer of large chunks of federal Crown land to the Northwest Territories government in the 1980s and the signing of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement in 1993.

“I look at it as the natural order of things: a community obtaining more power,” Chapple says. “Now [municipalities] are at the next step and the people will determine if they should go forward or if they should wait a while.”

Not everyone agrees. A quick scan of Nunavut Facebook reveals a few common fears: That real estate sharks will buy up people’s houses from under them; that speculators will snap up vacant lots, pushing sky-high housing costs even higher or, worse, take away Inuit-owned land.

“It’s a bad idea for land to be held in fee simple by individual people.”

What’s more, there have been complaints about how well the Nunavut government has communicated the proposal, despite public meetings being held or scheduled in every community.

So far, the land claim organizations have remained quiet. Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. declined to comment for this story and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association officials did not respond to a request for comment.

In December, Iqaluit lawyer Anne Crawford told the CBC that municipal lands are a huge source of income for municipalities, and one that should not be sold off piecemeal.

“Fundamentally, municipalities own something no other municipality in Canada owns, which is the very land that the community is on,” she said. “That is an inheritance from the land claim that shouldn’t be given up simply for paper pushing reasons.”

For the record, the government of Nunavut is remaining neutral on how people should vote. But the NLCA is explicit in what constitutes municipal land: Anything outside a municipal boundary would never be for sale, nor does the vote apply to any Inuit-owned or Crown land inside municipal limits, or any land already held in fee simple title.

The very question concerns Garth Wallbridge, a Yellowknife-based lawyer who has worked on, by his count, hundreds of Nunavut real estate transactions over the years. Wallbridge, who is Metis—and notes he won’t have a vote May 9—worries that municipal land sales could start the territory on a slippery slope leading to the erosion of collective land ownership.

“It’s a bad idea for land to be held in fee simple by individual people,” he says. “It all kind of is gone at some point.”

On a more practical level, Wallbridge says he’s not sure the change is even needed, since banks are already well-acquainted with Nunavut’s leasehold system.

“There are no longer many restrictions on people being able to build on their land, to mortgage their land, to treat their land as if it was a lot in the middle of Winnipeg or Vancouver,” he says. “Banks understand leasehold title.”

“To me, it’s the principle of being able to own my own land, and the flexibility from a financial institution.”

Still, the interplay between municipal lease agreements that homeowners sign and the mortgages they need to finance home-buying creates serious incentives for prospective homeowners to vote yes. Mortgages insured by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation must be five years shorter than the lease agreement.

What that means, says Brian Tattuinee, an Iqaluit homeowner who has worked in land administration for three levels of government, is a shorter amortization period that tends to drive up the annual cost of mortgages.

“To me, it’s the principle of being able to own my own land, and the flexibility from a financial institution.”

Tattuinee doesn’t buy the argument that land sales pose an existential threat to Inuit collective ownership. By his understanding, municipalities would only sell selected lands and could control what gets built there through zoning and other bylaws.

“There are all these mechanisms where the municipalities retain a lot of control. And this is standard everywhere,” he says. “Downtown Toronto: You can’t build whatever you want to build. It has to conform to certain regulations set by that particular community.”

While land speculation is an age-old problem, Chapple says most municipalities require construction to take place within two years of an owner signing a lease. As for residency restrictions, he says those would require amendments to the Hamlets Act and the Cities, Towns and Villages Act, which the government is open to doing in the event that any communities vote yes.

In a lot of ways, Nunavut is a much different place than it was 20 years ago. Its population has increased by one-third. Iqaluit has grown into a relatively cosmopolitan and diverse urban centre and its population has nearly doubled. And yet the gulf remains wide between the larger centres—where Tattuinee suspects a greater likelihood of a ‘yes’ vote—and the communities.

Chapple says the Nunavut government will not keep asking this question. Another plebiscite on the matter can’t be held for another five years, and while Community and Government Services is footing the bill for this referendum, it will be up to communities to fund any future votes.

It’s hard to see municipal governments, particularly the smaller ones, jumping to fund such a plebiscite on their own. So if the answer from Nunavummiut on May 9 is no, they may not be asked again for a very long time.◉

Photo credit: Rod Brazier (CC)

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