Nunavut referendum: Policy change could raise municipal revenue without land sales

While much of the debate over Nunavut’s land referendum has centred on the economic risks and even the morality of a ‘yes’ vote, the territorial government continues to maintain policies that may be hobbling the ability of municipalities to raise their own money without resorting to land sales.

Nunavummiut head to the polls on May 9 to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the question of whether or not municipalities should have the ability to sell municipal lands.

One of the potential appeals of a ‘yes’ vote for municipalities is the possibility of new sources of revenue from the sale of lands — something not permitted under existing policies around leasing.

Sales or for-profit leases could perhaps patch the sometimes massive holes in Nunavut municipal budgets or help raise money for capital projects.

“Municipalities can’t sell land at a profit,” said Iqaluit Mayor Madeleine Redfern. “They can only recoup costs associated with development; [for example], surveying, road, and service installation.

“We can dispose of land via land lease at-cost, plus a small incremental value for neighbourhood improvement…but that’s about it.”

Darren Flynn, the GN’s assistant deputy minister of Community and Government Services, said the policy is found in both municipalities’ own land development bylaws and territorial government policy. He said it was designed to prevent the leasing of multiple lots for the purpose of sub-leasing at higher rates, and to stop municipalities from artificially inflating demand by holding off on opening up new lots.

“It’s really meant to ensure that municipalities are able to develop in a sustainable way, but at the same time not causing undue inflationary [pressure],” Flynn said.

He would not say whether or not the GN would entertain changes to its municipal land policies in the event of a ‘no’ vote.

Sales or for-profit leases could perhaps patch the sometimes massive holes in Nunavut municipal budgets or help raise money for capital projects. Iqaluit and Igloolik are the most recent examples of municipalities struggling to stay in the black. The City of Iqaluit has yet to take a formal position on the referendum, although Redfern herself has said she intends to vote against the sale of municipal lands.

James Eetoolook, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.’s vice president, said he hasn’t heard any municipalities complain about the existing land lease policy. He repeated NTI’s position that beneficiaries should vote ‘no.’

Among NTI’s objections, he said, is the likelihood that smaller hamlets would not collect much money from land sales, further increasing the disparity between larger and smaller communities.

“In some areas they’re probably not going to collect a hell of a lot,” he said.

Eetoolook said NTI has been asking the GN since last November to delay the vote because the government has not adequately explained the consequences of a ‘yes’ vote.

“Will there be foreclosures? Will [Inuit] lose their houses? Will that create an additional shortage of public housing within the community? Will they be evicted if they cannot pay for the lot? These kind of questions need to be answered.”

Flynn said whatever happens on May 9, the GN will continue to help communities develop zoning bylaws and fund municipalities at their current levels, which includes covering the cost of employing land administrators.

“None of that will change,” he said. “We still intend on providing that service to municipalities.”

With the number of voices urging a ‘no’ vote becoming increasingly active, the defeat of this ballot question seems increasingly likely in most, if not all, of Nunavut’s communities.

But even if voters reject a new regime of private land ownership, the question of whether the status quo is working for Nunavut municipalities will remain largely unanswered.◉

Photo credit: Leslie Phillipp (CC)

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