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land ownership

Nova Scotia’s land titling project underway in five historically black communities

After 200 years, some people still don’t legally own their land

5 min read
caption Angela Simmonds, shown in this file photo, has served as an MLA and deputy Speaker since her election in 2021.
Angela Simmonds

North and East Preston are the first of five historically black communities to have residents receive land titles, following a promised $2.7-million investment from the province last September.

One title was granted in North Preston in November. In January, another was granted in North Preston and three in East Preston, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

“Anybody getting (title) is a bonus. If it’s one person or a thousand, it’s the fact that somebody is getting it,” said Dwight Adams, chairperson of the North Preston Land Recovery Initiative.

Land titling refers to the process of submitting an application to gain title, meaning legal ownership, to a piece of land.

There have also been two certificates of claim issued since the initiative began, meaning they’re partway through the process. One of these was issued in Oldham in January and one in North Preston in November. 

Ancestors without land title

For more than 200 years, many Nova Scotian families in these and other historically black communities have been living on land given to their ancestors without a title certificate. But with aging populations, communities like North Preston see how necessary land titles are.

“It started to come to the forefront when several (elderly people) died back to back, and we found out that the kids were having problems with the land once their mom or dad passed,” said Adams.

Trying to get title is an expensive, and often long, process. It can cost upwards of $10,000 to hire a lawyer and have land surveyed, which is why many families can’t keep up with their applications. 

The project announced last year deals with five areas, East Preston, New Road Settlement (North Preston), Lake Loon/Cherry Brook, Lincolnville and Sunnyville. Lawyers, surveyors and community navigators hired by the province will work through the applications.

Land title matters

Some community members have quitclaim deeds on their land, which are not the same as having legal title.

caption Angela Simmonds, lawyer and community advocate for land titling.
Angela Simmonds

“Nothing is ever really as good as title. Even if people had quitclaim deeds, it wasn’t proof enough that (the land is) actually theirs,” said Angela Simmonds, a lawyer and advocate for land titling. “It’s showing that someone else is not interested in the property, but not that you own it.”

Without having title, people are unable to will land to someone, sell it, get a mortgage or access things like housing grants because they’re unable to prove ownership.

When an application is made, the first level it gets to is the certificate of claim, meaning the applicant has claimed the land and is looking for ownership. One barrier claimants have to go through is the objection period.

This objection period means people on surrounding land are able to fight the land claim, if they have a problem with it. The objection period for the certificate of claim issued in Oldham runs until April 6, for example.

Outside pressure

Many of the issues faced by people trying to get titles were brought to the attention of the public by an NSCC journalism project called Untitled: The Legacy of Land in North Preston. The project came out in 2015.

More pressure was placed on the province when a United Nations working group said, in a report last fall, a 1963 act “must be implemented in collaboration with, and for the benefit of, the affected population group. All resources should be made available, fees should be waived and remedies should be provided for any discriminatory policies relating to the process of granting a certificate of title.”

The report refers to the province’s 1963 Land Titles Clarification Act, which allowed people from 13 communities to apply for land titles with provincial support. However, this project dissolved about 10 years later, said Simmonds.

Simmonds said it’s important the government recognizes the impact of leaving the communities in a lurch.

“You leave a community that has been historically oppressed, continues to fight the systemic racism of government and leave them to figure it out on their own. Then nobody trusts that system anymore and they don’t have the funds,” said Simmonds. “It’s important that the government has acknowledged their wrongdoing.”

What’s next

Through the title initiative, when someone applies, a lawyer will be assigned at no cost. If a resident has already paid for a lawyer, while trying to get clear title, they can apply to have some of that money reimbursed. The costs of surveying land are also covered.

So far, a surveyor and two survey technicians have been hired by the province. Interviews are underway for community navigator positions, said Bruce Nunn, media relations adviser for the Department of Natural Resources, in an email.

The navigators will be hired by the office of African Nova Scotian Affairs and work as a bridge between the government and applicants. They’re meant to consult with residents and put them in contact with a lawyer and other resources, while also tracking the progress of each case.

Advocates like Simmonds doubt the current budget will be enough to get the whole job done.

“I think $2.7 (million) is not enough, but once you can show that it’s working, I think there will be more money available,” she said. “They won’t be able to take away a program that they’re invested in now.”

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