The Yukon government has enacted new legislation to allow self-governing First Nations to register settlement land without losing aboriginal title.
Premier Darrell Pasloski announced Tuesday that changes to the territory’s Land Titles Act are now in effect. The premier made the announcement at a press conference, alongside Kwanlin Dun Chief Doris Bill and Justice Minister Brad Cathers.
“These changes protect the interests of First Nations and property owners, and will support Yukon’s real estate market well into the future,” Pasloski said.
The updated legislation allows any self-governing First Nation to register parcels of settlement land with the land titles office, without relinquishing aboriginal title. Once the land is registered, it’s much easier to apply for mortgages or other types of financing, because banks want the security of knowing that the property they invest in is part of an established registry.
Previously, Yukon First Nations could only register their land if they agreed to give up aboriginal title and render it fee simple, like other privately owned land.
As a result, it was “virtually impossible” for First Nation citizens to access mortgages under the old system, said Rod Snow, a lawyer for the Kwanlin Dun First Nation and now an NDP candidate for the upcoming territorial election.
These changes should make it easier for First Nations to build commercial or residential developments on their land. They can also lease the registered land to individuals, who can then apply for mortgages to build homes. Once a lease expires, the First Nation is free to de-register the land, leaving aboriginal title intact.
All self-governing Yukon First Nations now have the option to register land with the land titles office. But the legislative changes have primarily been driven by the Kwanlin Dun First Nation, working in partnership with the Yukon government.
“We may not have vast mineral or mining potential, but we are the largest landowner in the City of Whitehorse,” Bill said. “Kwanlin Dun needed a registry to ensure our citizens have opportunities to build homes and to enable residential and commercial leasing to generate revenue for present and future generations.”
For instance, if Kwanlin Dun were to build a new subdivision in Whitehorse, it could make money by leasing the properties to First Nation and non-First Nation citizens.
At the moment, the First Nation isn’t saying much about what specific projects it has in mind. But spokesperson Marie-Louise Boylan did say that Kwanlin Dun has a 22-hectare parcel of land across from the Whitehorse airport that has been “selected for its economic development potential.” That area is a third of the size of downtown Whitehorse, Boylan said. In total, the First Nation has 1,036 square kilometres of settlement land in and around Whitehorse.
However, some work remains before Kwanlin Dun can begin registering its settlement land. The First Nation has to finalize an amendment to its self-government agreement, which must be signed by the Government of Canada and the Yukon government. It must also develop its own land-leasing rules.
Bill estimates it will take up to six months to complete that process. She said the First Nation is also working to determine how many of its citizens are interested in applying for mortgages.
Other self-governing First Nations will also need to amend their own final agreements if they want to start registering land. But with the changes to the Land Titles Act, the Yukon government’s role is essentially complete.
During the announcement, Pasloski touted the new system as the first of its kind in Canada.
“No government has ever tried to do what the Yukon government and Kwanlin Dun are doing today,” he said.
But really, the Yukon is simply finding its own way to provide an option that already exists in many parts of the country, Snow said.
He explained that the federal government operates a land registry for reserve lands, which allows First Nations in the provinces to lease their land without losing title. Nunavut also has its own leasehold title system.
The main distinction here is that Yukon’s self-government agreements are unique in Canada, so the structure of the legislative changes is a little different.
“The difference is in the foundation, not in what the end product is going to be,” Snow said. “The basic concepts of you or anybody else being able to obtain a lease and being secure in knowing that that’s yours … will be the same as in other parts of the country.”
The Yukon government is also working on an electronic registration and records system for the land titles office, which it hopes to roll out in 2017.
Update: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that the size of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation land parcel across from the Whitehorse airport is 1,036 square kilometres. In fact, that is the total area of Kwanlin Dun settlement land in and around Whitehorse. The story has since been corrected.
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