The MLA representing Fort Simpson, N.W.T., leaseholders says legal action could follow over the territory's refusal to let them purchase their leases.
Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson says his constituents feel mistreated because the territory's Department of Lands allowed leaseholders at Cassidy Point, northeast of Yellowknife, to acquire fee simple title to their land, but will not give Fort Simpson residents the same option.
"Their feeling is the government is not being fair," says Thompson, who raised the issue last week in the legislative assembly.
He believes some constituents may feel forced to seek legal redress.
Cassidy Point promise made 24 years ago by assistant deputy minister
Land in unsettled land claim areas normally can't be sold. The territory says this is "to ensure that land claim and treaty land entitlements negotiations are not prejudiced."
Ordinarily, that policy would apply to both the land leased by Thompson's constituents and the Cassidy Point area.
However, Robert C. McLeod, the minister of Lands, said the territory was obliged to override its own policy and let Cassidy Point leaseholders purchase their land because of a letter from a government official sent 24 years ago.
"In 1992 there was a commitment made by the then-assistant deputy minister of Municipal and Community Affairs," McLeod told Thompson in the legislature.
"It was a written commitment to the folks out at Cassidy Point that they would have the opportunity, after leasing for a while, to pay fee simple at the end of the life of the lease. And we have to honour a commitment, the written commitment, that was made. So we did that."
Fort Simpson residents not buying government's reasoning: MLA
Thompson says his constituents will not accept that the reason Cassidy Point leaseholders are treated differently rests on "a commitment by a senior bureaucrat — not by the government or the ministers."
According to McLeod's department, this was the only such letter written to any community. It is not clear why a government official made this exceptional pledge.
The department says all 41 Cassidy Point leaseholders showed an interest in purchasing their land when the territory began that process last year. So far, the department has completed about 25 percent of the applications received from those leaseholders.
In each case to date, the department adds, "those who have obtained fee simple at Cassidy Point have paid the full assessed value of their lot."
In the past, Cassidy Point residents have said acquiring the land affords them greater financial security, for example by being able to acquire a mortgage on their homes.
Conflicting signals about Fort Simpson leases
Anger in Thompson's Nahendeh riding appears to have been exacerbated by confusion over the renewal of leases.
Thompson says some residents with expiring leases were told they must now sign a standard lease instead of an equity lease at far greater total cost over the life of the lease. However, in the legislature, the minister said cheaper equity leases were still available.
"The minister and the staff are saying two different things," said Thompson.
This is not the first suggestion of legal action against the territorial government over land leases.
In 2015, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation said it was considering that course of action over the territory's decision to offer 22 new cabin lot leases along the Ingraham Trail.
Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus has also criticized the decision to sell land to Cassidy Point leaseholders while land claim negotiations are ongoing.
Meanwhile, the process of leasing territorial land, and the cost, could be set to change in the near future.
The Department of Lands says a new, "modernized" land pricing policy is being prepared.
"The current land pricing policy was created in 1997," said the department in a statement. "Work is underway to update the policy to ensure it is consistent with the approach taken in other GNWT policies and provide a balanced and fair approach to land pricing across the N.W.T."