A United Nations working group says both Nova Scotia and the federal government must do more to help African-Nova Scotians obtain legal title to land passed down through families for generations.

In a recent report, the UN working group of experts on people of African descent said it is concerned about the lack of implementation of Nova Scotia's Land Titles Clarification Act, which is meant to help people obtain titles to the lands on which they live.

Many residents in the North Preston area do not legally own their properties. The problem can be traced back to the late 1700s, when the government gave plots of land to Black Loyalists for their support during the American Revolutionary War and to Black Refugees after the War of 1812. But the properties were never legally deeded to the residents. 

Angela Simmonds sits on the North Preston Land Recovery Initiative. She is a Dalhousie law school graduate who is volunteering with six lawyers to work on the issue.

Not one successful applicant

Simmonds said since May, or even over the past year, the team of lawyers working with residents has not seen one successful applicant.

"Some of the applications hinder on the fact that they … require a survey which is expensive," Simmonds said Monday.

However, the government says that's not the case. Government spokesperson Chrissy Matheson said 20 active files were being worked on by staff and three certificates had been issued this year.

Angela Simmonds

Angela Simmonds speaks with North Preston Land Recovery Initiative members. (NSCC)

Tony Ince, the African-Nova Scotian Affairs Minister, and Keith Colwell, the Fisheries and Aquaculture Minister, will make an announcement Wednesday about the land title issue.

The people of East Preston, Cherry Brook, North Preston, Lincolnville, and Sunnyville will soon have new supports to deal with land title issues, Matheson said in an email Monday. 

"The new way forward will bring in people dedicated to working with community residents and funding to help them get clear title to the lands in question."

UN's recommendations on act

The UN working group was expected to present its report to the UN Human Rights Council Monday and on Tuesday in Geneva.

The report recommends that:

  • The act be implemented in collaboration with, and for the benefit of, the affected population group.
  • All resources be made available, fees be waived and remedies be provided for any discriminatory policies relating to the process of granting a certificate of title.
  • Financial support be provided for the implementation of the act to resolve all outstanding land claim issues within historically black communities.
  • The act be amended to respect the cultural traditions of African-Nova Scotian communities.

The group visited Halifax, Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa last October. In Nova Scotia, members met with government officials, Halifax Regional Police, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission and community representatives.

What will financial support look like?

"I think it's great in terms of the financial support to be implemented and to help resolve all outstanding land claim issues," Simmonds said.

"But I do want to say that the excitement came also with a caveat of wondering what this will look like. Because the one thing that I did pay close attention to is it says in collaboration with people who it primarily affects and who are living it and I can say that that's not happening.

Elaine Cain land

One of the properties in North Preston for which the residents do not hold the legal deed. (Google Street View)

"The financial resources to be available could be very broad and if we still continue to leave this up to government, it's really going to be a spiral of the same circle … unless we do the collaboration that it's suggesting that it does."

Racial profiling also addressed

On top of the land title issue, the working group's report also made recommendations concerning the overrepresentation of African-Canadians in the criminal justice system, racial profiling by police and barriers in education, employment and housing.

In a news release, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission called on communities and governments at all levels to examine and develop policies and practices to address the report's recommendations.

"The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission continues to see evidence of racism and discrimination faced by African-Nova Scotians," said Christine Hanson, the commission's director and CEO.

Land Titles Act not working

The Land Titles Clarification Act was passed in 1963 to help residents in 13 historically black communities across Nova Scotia resolve outstanding land claim issues.

According to the report, the group was told that the act was not working as planned. It was told that the process itself discriminated against black residents, many of whom had their claims rejected.

"Residents must bear the burden for submitting all the documentation, as well as the application, lawyer and survey fees necessary to have the land title clarified," the report said.