Lacking land rights, historic black communities in Canada seek change

TORONTO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hundreds of people in Canada’s historic black communities do not formally own the land where they have lived for generations, officials and lawyers say, in what critics call a case of long-running discrimination and economic exclusion.

Many parcels of land in Nova Scotia, settled by black loyalists who fought with the British during the American Revolution or by escaped U.S. slaves, lack formal deeds, say advocates seeking to obtain property rights for local residents.

Lack of a land title can prevent people from using property as collateral for bank loans to start businesses and complicates inheritance claims, legal experts say. It also makes property disputes more common.

The situation in Eastern Canada is an anomaly in the world’s second largest country where property rights are generally well-defined.

“We want equality, and providing clear land titles to all people is an avenue for equality and financial inclusion,” said Angela Simmonds, a community legal advocate from Nova Scotia.

“I would view it as a human rights issue,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Officials do not know exactly how many people in the communities of North Preston, East Preston and Cherry Brook outside of Halifax, the provincial capital, lack formal property rights, a government spokeswoman said.

About 500 parcels of land have unclear property titles, she said.

The provincial government said it is working to address the issue but could not say when residents will receive formal property titles.

“Government has stated its intent to ensure all Nova Scotians, including African Nova Scotians, have clear title to land where their families have lived for generations,” provincial spokeswoman Krista Higdon said.

“Historically, individuals trying to obtain clear title when they lack paper title have faced legal, financial and administrative requirements that have created barriers,” she said.

The Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, an umbrella group representing lawyers in the province, says the government has been moving too slowly.

The government first launched efforts to provide property titles in historic black communities in the 1960s, and some residents obtained titles, said Darrel Pink, executive director of the Barristers’ Society.

But a lack of funds and bureaucratic hurdles mean hundreds of properties still lack clear owners, he said.

“This is an access to justice issue for an historically disadvantaged community,” Pink said. “This is a great example of the wheels of justice grinding slowly.”

The problem is steeped in the region’s history, officials and legal experts said.

When Nova Scotia was administered by the United Kingdom before Canada became independent in 1867, several thousand black people settled after the American Revolution and also were offered land following the War of 1812 in the United States.

But the good farmland went to white settlers, while black residents got poorer quality land without legal structures that gave them property rights, Pink said.

Attaching formal title to property can cost up to $10,000 dollars ($8,100 U.S.), according to the Barristers’ Society. Many residents cannot afford the expense, it said.