Nova Scotia slow to help North Preston residents at risk of losing land, says advocate
'Pro bono lawyers can't fix an entire community,' says Angela Simmonds
The Nova Scotia government isn't doing enough to help the descendants of Black Loyalists in North Preston who are at risk of losing land that's been in their families for generations, says an advocate for residents in the Halifax-area community.
Angela Simmonds, who sits on the North Preston Land Recovery Initiative, has been working on the messy issue of land titles for three years.
The problem dates back 200 years ago when Black Loyalists were given land without legal deeds in North Preston by the government. Residents without deeds cannot legally pass on properties to their families, which means land could be sold off by the Crown.
Now lawyers are working to help clarify land titles for residents in North Preston, free of charge.
"Pro bono lawyers can't fix an entire community," said Simmonds, an African Nova Scotian law student from the nearby community of Cherry Brook.
"It should not be up to community members and it should not be up to volunteers ... to fix a problem that was brought to the community by the province, who are all still sitting back and watching as other professionals step up."
Proof difficult to come by
Robyn Schleihauf is one of three new lawyers who've joined the team of volunteers working on the issue.
"The exercise of empathy is one of the most important things," said Schleihauf. "This is a piece of someone's whole life."
Schleihauf said it's difficult to find legal documents in most cases.
"A lot of people are experts in their own lives, and are very capable of telling their own story," she said. "But in terms of having wills or anything that might look like a transfer of property, [it's] difficult to shore up."
Government making progress
In an emailed statement to CBC News, the Department of Natural Resources said it's making progress with land title clarifications and establishing relationships with the lawyers helping North Preston residents.
It said more staff from the department has been assigned to work on the files to move the land title applications forward.
In 2016, the department hired Simmonds as part of a project to study obstacles North Preston residents face when applying for land title clarification.
The process can require between $2,000 and $5,000 worth of land surveying, detailed evidence proving the family's history on the property plus legal fees.
After she left her position with the department, Simmonds submitted a 25-page report detailing her recommendations to make the applications process easier for residents, including addressing financial and cultural obstacles.
Financial, cultural obstacles
Simmonds suggested hiring a full-time worker who is African Nova Scotian to build relationships between the province and the community, as well as mediate situations in which residents apply for the same plot of land.
When the department receives applications for the same plot of land, Simmonds said it assumes the two applicants are in conflict and will send a complicated letter to residents delaying the process.
- North Preston residents fight Nova Scotia government for land titles
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Most residents don't discuss their applications with their neighbours, Simmonds said, and don't understand a plot of land can be shared.
Natural Resources Minister Lloyd Hines has acknowledged the benefit a full-time worker would have, but said last year that funding was an issue.
Simmonds said help isn't coming quickly enough.
"There's millions and billions of dollars being allotted to other industries ... so that people can economically benefit," she said. "Except for North Preston."
Older residents assisted first
Simmonds said the community is grateful more lawyers are working for free to translate the legal language.
The Nova Scotia Barristers' Society decides which residents get priority when it comes to pairing up with new lawyers, she said.
Older residents are assisted first, given the time it takes to complete applications.
Some of the applications date back 20 years, meaning some residents died before the process could be completed.