Squatters encroach on traditional life, and Yellowknives Dene is mapping the problem

Yellowknives Dene are turning to GIS mapping to identify hundreds of suspected squatters, which are displacing trappers, hunters and fishers from traditional activities.

Stop issuing land leases until land claims resolved, says Dettah chief

Chief Edward Sangris says squatting on Yellowknives Dene First Nation land is in violation of treaty rights and is pushing traditional land users out. (CBC News)

When squatters put up camps and cabins on Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN) land, they don't ask for permission, they just build, says Dettah Chief Edward Sangris.

He said the problem is now so severe that it encroaches on traditional life and treaty rights.

In response, the First Nation is asking members to map it out so it can tackle the problem.

"People just build all over the place and say, 'this is their land.' It's coming to a point where a lot of our members are starting to complain that, 'I have a trapline but I can't go there because somebody is building a house,'" Sangris said. 

The YKDFN is asking members to submit locations, photos and comments about potential squatter camps and cabins using an online mapping tool

They estimate there are more than 400. 

Members are asked to submit data if they suspect squatters. Those measures will help the First Nation work with the territorial government to determine who is rightfully there, says YKDFN lands manager Machel Thomas. (CBC News)

Stopping squatters is even more urgent because people are occupying areas set aside through interim land withdrawals. Until they settle their land claim, people should stop building, he said. 

"The issue of squatters is going to be dealt with once we settle our claim, but until then, the government should not be issuing more leases," Sangris said.

The YKDFN is part of the Akaitcho process, a series of negotiations focused on land, resources and governance in the N.W.T., involving the Deninu K'ue First Nation and the Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation along with their federal and territorial counterparts.

Asserted territory in the Akaitcho process. (Government of the Northwest Territories)

Before the pandemic hit, Sangris expected an agreement in principle by the end of May and a final agreement within a year-and-a-half.

Once an agreement is signed, there will be "certainty for everybody," he said.

"We're trying to be respectful. We think people should be respectful of our traditions and our culture and treaty rights," he said. 

'People are starting to build cabins without permission'

Former Dettah chief Jonas Sangris says structures across the Great Slave Lake and near the community are making it more difficult to do traditional activities. (CBC News)

Encroachment on YKDFN lands worsened with the construction of the Ingraham Trail in the 1960s, said Jonas Sangris, former chief of Dettah.

"All the boys from Ndilo; the Laffertys, the Doctors, Sangris and Betsinas, they all used to go to Prelude [Lake] and Prosperous Lake to set traps there, years ago," he said.

Once prime trapping locations, those areas are now populated with cabins and camps which have pushed them off their traplines, he said.

Sangris said something similar is happening on Great Slave Lake. Last fall, he went hunting toward Enotah and on nearly every island, there was a cabin.

Jonas Sangris says areas he uses for hunting have become populated with cabins and camps. (Google Maps)

"We don't want them to build any more cabins from here to François Bay," he said. 

Near his own cabin, someone has put up a large structure.

"A mile and a half from my cabin, on the big island, I thought it was a rock sticking out. I went out there and it was a three-story building. That's huge! Why would they want to build a huge thing like that out there?" he said.

"We haven't settled our land claim and they have to get permission. They figure they own the land. That's not right."

Sangris is among YKDFN members concerned that increased road access, including a winter road to the Nechalacho rare earth mineral project, could open the land to more squatters southeast of Dettah.

Cheetah Resources, the project proponent, understands the YKDFN's concerns about unauthorized use, said  spokesperson David Connelly. 

While mines cannot restrict public access on the ice roads they build, the company "took steps to actively discourage vehicles from using the ice road except for traditional, and educational activities," he said.

Territorial government should step in, says Chief Sangris

Sangris said squatting violates treaty rights and the territorial government should help the First Nation manage squatters. 

"This is supposed to be for our people, going on the land, fishing and trapping. To live out there in a huge house like that is not what it's meant to be."

Department of Lands spokesperson Toni Riley wrote in an email that unauthorized occupation is a "significant land management and political issue across the Northwest Territories and has been for many years."

The government considers an unauthorized occupant as someone occupying public land without tenure, Aboriginal or treaty rights. 

The department responds to complaints, including from the YKDFN and takes a risk management approach which prioritizes structures that pose an environmental concern. It can respond by removing the structures. 

However, the government has no "effective means of managing occupancy of land" or identifying which structures are associated with an Aboriginal and/or treaty right.

It's developing a plan to deal with existing structures and prevent future violations, by working with Indigenous governments to identify who rightfully occupies land.

"This work is in the early stages and will help the department take action on unauthorized occupancy in a respectful way," Riley said.