By Richard Bell
For more than 200 years, residents of many African-Nova Scotian communities have been unable to secure clear legal title to the land they their families have lived on for generations.
In the latest effort to end this injustice, the provincial government announced on March 5 the commitment of a new $3 million compensation fund to assist residents in the five Land Titles Clarification Areas of North Preston, East Preston, Cherry Brook, Lincolnville and Sunnyville with the associated costs of surveying and legal fees.
Randy Delorey, Attorney General and Minister of Justice, also introduced the Land Titles Initiative Acceleration Act on March 23, which contains amendments to the Land Titles Clarification Act, the Municipal Government Act, and the Halifax Regional Municipality Charter.
The problem started with the arrival of black settlers who had fought for the British in the American Revolutionary War, and a second group fleeing slavery during the war of 1812. The Crown gave them land, but instead of granting them legal title, they were given documents called “tickets of location” and “licenses of occupation.”
In 1963, the province enacted the Land Titles Clarification Act under Premier Robert Stanfield. But progress was glacially slow. Very few people were able to clear their titles. In 2015, a group of students at Nova Scotia Community College investigated land title issues in North Preston in a powerful video project called “Untitled: The Legacy of Land in North Preston.” Video interviews with local residents talking about the difficulties they encountered when trying to clear their titles are still available online. The project got wide media coverage and prodded the government to act.
Further pressure to act came from after law student Angela Simmonds got the issue before the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. In 2017, the UN group issued a report calling on the province and the federal government to do more to help people gain title. And in 2017, the provincial government created The Land Titles Initiative, backed with $2.7 million.
The March 2021 announcements strengthen and expand The Land Titles Initiative. Angela Simmonds, who took the issue to the UN in 2017, is now the executive director of the Accelerated Land Titles Initiative. And the Honourable Corrine Sparks and the Honourable Valerie Miller have been appointed as commissioners to adjudicate disputes. In addition, there is now a Community Liaison Committee (CLC) with 2 members from each of the five designated Land Titles Clarification Areas.
The Cooperator spoke with Spencer Colley, a long-time community activist and organizer, and one of the East Preston representatives on the CLC. Colley was enthusiastic about the impact of the latest round of funding and organized support. “It will be a tremendous help for people who’re living on land they’ve never had title to,” Colley said. “As a CLC member, I’ll be working directly with people in the community, talking with them one-on-one, helping them get the proper documents and get in touch with the right people.”
Colley said he was encouraged that the leadership of the latest round are from the black community. “People of the black race are now in control of this now, the executive manager, the lawyers, people who know these communities, they’ll see that this is going to go forward.”
According to a report from African Nova Scotian Affairs, the Land Titles Initiative that began in 2017 has resulted in clearing titles for about 200 parcels from the 527 applications received, from a total of more than 850 eligible parcels. On the maps of East Preston and North Preston, the lots pale brown lots are lots whose owners do not have title. As of February 2021, of the 1491.1 hectares of covered lands in East Preston, the titles of 599.6 hectares, or 40.13%, remain to be clarified. In the North Preston/New Road Settlement’s 376.6 hectares, the titles of 165.1 hectares, or 43.8% remain to be clarified.