Crooked Lake cottagers face up to 700% rent increase, could be evicted by Sakimay First Nation
Chief says she wants her people to benefit from lakefront property
Grant Singer and his family considered their cottage at Crooked Lake their quiet refuge for years. Now it's up for sale — although he says he has little hope anyone would be foolish enough to buy it.
"If somebody really wanted it, they can have the headache."
In 2007, the Regina man signed a $757-a-year lease for an undeveloped lakefront lot on Crooked Lake, 140 kilometres east of Regina. He moved an old farmhouse onto the property.
He said all told, he spent about $45,000 moving the home, running electricity and putting in a basement and septic system.
In 2009, his landlord, the Sakimay First Nation, jacked up his rent to $4,500 a year. The rates were also increased for more than 300 other cottagers leasing land from Sakimay. Some rates went up by 700 per cent.
"We were shocked. Absolutely shocked," Singer told CBC's iTeam.
He said the cottagers are aware inflation happens, but it has to be within reason.
"For us it wasn't worth that. It just wasn't reasonable for us."
Chief Lynn Acoose disagrees. She told CBC the rate was set based on an independent appraisal.
"From my perspective, as one who lives at Sakimay First Nation and does not enjoy the use and benefit of our lakefront lands, from that perspective I felt it's fair," she said.
"It's a hard adjustment for people to make, but ultimately, it's our land."
Also fighting federal government
While Sakimay is acting as the landlord and collecting the lease payments, the land is ultimately owned by the Crown, which has delegated that authority to the First Nation. So Singer and the other cottagers launched a class-action lawsuit against the federal government.
In 2016, a Federal Court judge decided in the tenants' favour, preferring the evidence of the tenants' appraiser over the Crown's appraiser and concluding the cottagers owed far less than was demanded by Sakimay.
In Singer's case, the court found his rate should go from $757 to $1,162 annually, a hike of about 54 per cent instead of the 500 per cent hike expected by Sakimay.
The judge based his conclusion, in part, on the cottagers' calculation of "reserve factor," which refers to the discount in value that is applied to reserve land. The court ruling says that "the market may respond differently to on-reserve land than it does to off-reserve land."
In this case, the judge granted a discount of 34 per cent from market value.
In a written statement to CBC, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada said the amount determined by the Federal Court for the 2010-2014 rates is under appeal.
The judge's decision covers the period from 2010 to 2014. Sakimay is still expecting tenants to pay the higher lease rates for 2015 to 2018. Cottagers are planning to challenge that in court, too.
It's frustrating, given that it's my hard work that put [the cottage] there. It's my money that put it there. And in the end I may have nothing.- Grant Singer
Late last year, Singer received a bill from Indigenous and Northern Affairs, a department of the federal government, with a demand that he pay Sakimay within 30 days or his lease would be ended.
"So now we got basically $17,500 that we need to come up within 30 days or we won't have this," he said, referring to his cottage and property.
"There's no payment plan — nothing.... And it just seems completely unfair."
Singer said he was stunned that the federal government was acting as a collection agency for Sakimay. He said not only are the cottagers paying their own legal bill, but as taxpayers, they're also paying the bill of the defendants.
The federal spokesperson said: "Canada is supporting the Sakimay First Nations in the collection of rental arrears following the process which is outlined in the terms and conditions of the leases signed between the lessees and Canada."
Singer is also annoyed that Sakimay is demanding a lease rate that has already been rejected by the court.
"It just seems completely unfair that we're expected to pay this money when they're using the [Crown-procured] appraisal when it wasn't found to be valid in the first five years of the lease."
But the federal government defends Sakimay's decision, arguing "lessees are also required to pay rental at the amounts which were determined under the independent appraisal for the 2015 to 2019 period."
Last year, 69 leaseholders on the Musqueam reserve in southwest Vancouver won a longstanding court dispute with the First Nation over rental rates.
In that case, the band proposed an 800 per cent increase, which would have seen lease rates increase by an average of $80,000 annually. Some tenants said that increase would have forced them out of their homes.
According to the Crooked Lake lease, if the agreement is ended, the leaseholder is required to remove all buildings and other improvements and remediate the land within 30 days.
Reluctantly, Singer decided to pay the bill. "We didn't feel like we had any other choice."
We're not going to stand by and let tenants live on our land for peanuts while our people live in poverty.- Lynn Acoose
According to Alvin Delorme, an official with Sakimay, about 40 other tenants have failed to pay their arrears, which means the First Nation is in the process of evicting them and requiring they remediate the land.
"We have tenants. The tenants are in arrears and we're taking actions to collect the rent due," Delorme said.
In a letter to Singer, Acoose said if Sakimay's appeal is unsuccessful, the First Nation will not appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.
"Instead, we will allow the current leases to expire and advance a more aggressive development plan that will increase the market value of our lakefront lands."
Singer said in the end, he may have to walk away from his cottage and the thousands of dollars of work he did on the land, as his lease expires in 2022 and he doubts it will be renewed.
"It's frustrating, given that it's my hard work that put [the cottage] there. It's my money that put it there. And in the end I may have nothing."
300% rate increase rejected
In 2014, the two sides reached a settlement agreement that would have seen the cottagers' lease rate rise by 300 per cent.
Acoose said she was part of negotiating that deal.
"We had a good settlement that would have brought $824,000 a year to our members: Stable, long-term funding. That's what we need is stable, long-term funding."
However, at the last minute, the band council withdrew its support for the settlement and the deal died.
Acoose said she regrets that.
"Against my advice, council pulled that settlement agreement and wanted to wait for the court decision to come down. We got the court decision in November of 2016 and it was not good. The plaintiffs — the cottagers — won."
Instead of $824,000 a year, the court awarded Sakimay the equivalent of $348,000, she said.
Last year, Sakimay made a new settlement offer to the cottagers but their lawyer recommended they reject it because, he said, the First Nation was asking for far more than the court said it was owed.
Considering next steps
The Crooked Lake leases are set to expire between 2018 and 2022 and the band is trying to decide its next steps.
During the recent election campaign for chief, candidates argued the land around the lake represents untapped potential, which could be developed into a property similar to Regina Beach, with campgrounds, beaches and commercial activity.
In a re-election speech last summer, Acoose said that would mean greater prosperity for the reserve "and it would also mean that our people would no longer be excluded from enjoyment of our lake areas."
"We're not going to stand by and let tenants live on our land for peanuts while our people live in poverty," she said.
One of her competitors, Lyle Acoose, argued the leases should be ended outright.
He raised concerns about the fact the cottages are mostly occupied by "moonias," a Plains Cree term for white people.
"We had a settlement down there; now it's all moonias down there," Lyle Acoose said in an August 2017 election speech in Regina.
"We lost it all. There's nothing for Indians anymore on the reserve. So I say let's get rid of them all."
Singer said he's mystified by these comments.
"I was just completely dumbfounded. They were the ones that put the leases out there in the first place," he said.
"Everyone's invested into this and now all of the sudden now they're just changing the rules mid-game."
Confident about future
Singer said Sakimay's ongoing treatment of the hundreds of cottagers on the lake will dramatically affect its future plans.
"I think it would be hard to find people that want to have seasonal sites or any kind of lease after what we've been through."
But Elmer Eashappie, CEO of the band's on-reserve economic development arm, Zagime Management Authority, doubts that.
"When you look at economic development, there's always a taker out there, always somebody next in line that wants the opportunity," said Eashappie. "So will there be a shortage? Absolutely not."
When asked what assurance he'd be able to give people that there wouldn't be another large rent increase in the future, he said: "What's their assurance that I'm not going to get hit by a car in the next 10 minutes? There is none."
However, a Sakimay official said any new leasing arrangements will include dispute resolution mechanisms that will enable both sides to avoid legal action.