Nunavut residents are concerned about the possible pitfalls of a 'yes' vote on a referendum on whether municipal lands can be sold for the first time.

On May 9th, Nunavut residents will get a chance to vote on the future of municipal lands. A 'yes' vote means hamlet and city councils will be able to sell municipal lots to individuals or companies. A 'no' means continuing to lease them for a fee.

Methusalah Kunuk

'There has to be a mechanism to control how the land is used and how the land is purchased and by whom,' said Iqaluit homeowner Methusalah Kunuk. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

"I think it's about time that we had that kind of referendum and I'm certainly in favour of allowing homeowners to have the equity in the land that their houses are on," said David Wilman, an Iqaluit resident and homeowner.

Some other Nunavut homeowners agree that being able to buy land is a plus, but are also wary of possible pitfalls.

"I think we have to be careful, because we learned from places like Alaska," said Kirt Ejesiak, who owns a home in Iqaluit.

"I think when they switched to private land ownership there was a a lot of speculation, I think a lot of companies ended up buying the land, where the local people ended up renting on their homeland."

Methusalah Kunuk, another Iqaluit homeowner, agreed, saying that if the referendum passes, then "there has to be a mechanism to control how the land is used and how the land is purchased and by whom."

Land sale should benefit Inuit

For Jack Anawak, Nunavut's former member of parliament, the sale should benefit Inuit in the territory.

"If the municipalities are going to sell the land," he said, "then it should be under the auspices of making sure that the land claims beneficiaries benefit from that sale."

Anawak added that measures should be put in place to ensure that land is reserved to build social infrastructure, such as affordable housing.

Jack Anawak

'If the municipalities are going to sell the land then it should be under the auspices of making sure that the land claims beneficiaries benefit from that sale,' said Jack Anawak, a former Nunavut MP. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

Anne Crawford, an Iqaluit lawyer, believes selling the land would rob the territory's municipalities of much needed funds.

"Fundamentally municipalities own something no other municipality in Canada owns, which is the very land that the community is on," said Crawford.

"That is an inheritance from the land claim that shouldn't be given up simply for paper pushing reasons."

Crawford believes the drive for this referendum comes from the territorial government's desire to unload bureaucratic hassle associated with managing these lands.

"All these arguments about bureaucracy and paper pushing, to me, fundamentally say the government hasn't got their act together," said Crawford. "It's not for voters to give them a pass on the paper work."

Companies could end up with large tracts of land

Under Nunavut's Land Claims Agreement, after 20 years, a referendum may be held on the leasehold title system. The last one was in 1995.

The government of Nunavut was unavailable for comment. A fact sheet they circulated states that a "yes" vote will mean that "municipalities will determine which lots will be available for sale."

The document also states that with a "yes" vote, "if a lessee had paid the full amount of the equity lease and other fees, fee simple shall be transferred to the lessee as soon as reasonably possible," and that "there will be opportunities to examine the possibilities of the property development companies buying large tracts of land, which they will develop, subdivide, and sell, as is done in southern Canada."

In a media release, the government of Nunavut stated that it will host information meetings across the territory in February.