53 years after landslide, Salt River First Nation families get land title

Families on Salt River First Nation have lived for more than 50 years on lands that they could not buy or sell because Canada held title to lands designated as Indian Affairs Bureau Land.

'Historic' day for families displaced by 1968 landslide, says chief

A man walks in front of the Salt River First Nation Business and Conference Centre in Fort Smith, N.W.T., pictured in 2019. (Mario Di Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

For a lifetime, families displaced by a catastrophic landslide have lived in homes built on land they couldn't buy or sell, but in a "historic" move, the title will now be transferred from Canada to Salt River First Nation families.

In 1968, a landslide changed the face of Fort Smith forever, and displaced Salt River First Nation families onto lands where they built new homes. But as it was designated Indian Affairs Branch (IAB) land, they didn't own it.

According to a news release issued Thursday, the lots will become "fee simple", which entitles the owner to do what they like with the land, in accordance with other laws such as zoning requirements.

Salt River First Nation Chief David Poitras called the conversion of the land to fee simple lots "a historic moment in our land claims agreement."

"It is my absolute pleasure to announce that Salt River First Nation is finalizing the legal transfer of the IAB lands in accordance with our agreement," he said in the release.

Almost 20 years after Salt River's 2002 treaty settlement "the actual implementation … has become a reality."

'Danger zone'

In 1968, a catastrophic landslide uprooted an Indigenous community in Fort Smith, N.W.T., taking the life of one woman and devastating the lives of many others. (Northern Life Museum & Cultural Centre)

After the landslide, many families in Salt River found themselves living in the "danger zone" — at risk of another landslide, the release says.

At that time, families relocated to lots designated as IAB lands, which can't be bought, leased, or sold and are deemed Crown land that is not a reserve. 

In 1999, Chief James Schaefer and negotiators promised members that they would work to convert the lands to fee simple ownership, and Canada was convinced to "relinquish control" over IAB lands.

In 2020, a team of negotiators successfully pushed for that to become reality.

Salt River First Nation members covered by the transfer will be contacted by the N.W.T.'s lands department.

Poitras acknowledged the work of past chiefs and councils, and the negotiation team's persistence and expertise. 

"To those members who will receive title to their lands in the coming month, I would like to thank you for your perseverance and commitment in creating safe and healthy homes, despite your lack of actual property ownership," Poitras said. 

"It is warm comfort for your children and grandchildren to know their homes and lands are now a legacy asset within your families."

Poitras said those families are "a testament to how Indigenous people can adapt and surpass the challenges they face, no matter how impossible it may seem at the time." 

The First Nation says it is looking to implement other outstanding aspects of the treaty settlement agreement. 

That agreement applies to roughly 400 square kilometres of land comprising parcels in and around Fort Smith, and approximately 13 square kilometres of reserve lands at four sites in Wood Buffalo National Park.