2 First Nations near Halifax to vote on potential settlement of 100-year-old land dispute

A group of Mi'kmaq from communities engaged in a multi-million dollar land claim negotiation in Nova Scotia are weighing the implications of a surrender of reserve land set aside for their ancestors.

Settlement would see Millbrook and Sipekne'katik surrender claim to 3 parcels of land

Millbrook First Nation band member Jennifer Denny says there are too many outstanding questions about the value of the land to make an informed decision on the proposed land claim settlement. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

A 100-year-old land claim involving two Mi'kmaw communities in Nova Scotia has one mother weighing the implications of a surrender of reserve land set aside for her family's ancestors.

A referendum is scheduled to take place Nov. 21 among Millbrook First Nation and Sipekne'katik First Nation members on whether to accept a proposed settlement in what's known as the 1919 Halifax County land claim.

Jennifer Denny, an entrepreneur and mother of two from Millbrook First Nation, organized a bus tour of one of three parcels of reserve land subject to the claim that would be surrendered to the federal government in the proposed settlement. She brought along her family and four other Millbrook band members.

"It's a big eye-opener to see what the value of the land is with our own eyes," Denny said, standing along the water in Sambro, N.S., one of the areas encompassed by the land claim.

3 reserves created for 'Halifax County Indians'

According to a community information document about the proposed settlement agreement obtained by CBC News, the three reserves were created between the late 1700s and 1850 for the group of Mi'kmaq known then as the "Halifax County Indians," whose descendants eventually came to reside in Millbrook and Sipekne'katik.

The three parcels of land just outside of Halifax include nearly 300 acres (121 hectares) of land in Sambro, just over 300 acres (121 hectares) in an area known as Ingram River, and over 700 acres (283 hectares) of land in an area known as Ship Harbour.

On June 18, 1919, the federal government "took a surrender" of the three reserves — claiming them as Crown land — but the Mi'kmaq argued that because Canada didn't follow the proper protocol under the Indian Act, the "surrender" was illegitimate.

The Mi'kmaq worked on the issue for decades, and eventually the communities of Millbrook and Sipekne'katik took it on together, submitting the land claim in September 2005. In 2007, Canada agreed that the 1919 surrender was not valid, and settlement negotiations followed for over a decade.

The current proposed settlement includes a total payment of just over $49 million to the two First Nations with about $19.3 million for the 1,955 registered members of Millbrook and just under $28 million for the 2,755 Mi'kmaq of Sipekne'katik.

A group of Millbrook First Nation band members toured one of the areas in dispute in a 100-year-old land claim in Nova Scotia. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Each community is also entitled to share a percentage of 1265.35 acres (512 hectares) of other Crown land in the province, an allotment equivalent to the area of the Sambro, Ingram River and Ship Harbour reserves being surrendered. Each community will be able to apply for the land, on a per capita basis, through the federal government's Additions to Reserve process.

Denny said she organized the bus trip so that community members would be able to make a more informed decision on the proposed settlement.

Sambro is well known in Nova Scotia for its commercial fishing, and for one of the Atlantic region's most popular summer destinations, Crystal Crescent Beach. She said the group was surprised to find numerous properties in Sambro for sale, and areas that she believed to be Crown land recently cleared for residential development.

'It's clear that there's still development going on ... that doesn't seem appropriate if the land is [being considered] for settlement with the Mi'kmaq,' said Millbrook band member Teresa Marshall. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

"The [settlement] process has been money-, compensation-oriented for all these years, and never land-oriented," Denny said.

"The option of getting the land back was never [considered] on behalf of the Canadian government [or by] our chief and council."

'A lot of moving parts'

Finding what's best for as many Mi'kmaq as possible is why the negotiation process has taken decades, said Millbrook Chief Bob Gloade.

"We've gone through different changes in government, changes in attitude and perception in dealing with [land] claims and First Nations," Gloade said.

"There's a lot of moving parts in any negotiation ... [after] 20 years we're in a place where we can look seven generations ahead."

In 2012 and 2013, the federal government offered settlement proposals that were under $8 million and included the 1,265 acres of other Crown land, but the Mi'kmaq negotiators declined both, according to the community information document. The First Nations demanded new land appraisals and compensation for loss of use of the land over time.

The Millbrook band members didn't like everything they saw on their tour. This Confederate Flag, flying near land under the claim, 'raised questions' about how the Mi'kmaq would be accepted in the area, said Jennifer Denny. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

In July 2018, the current settlement proposal was tabled. The proposal outlines payments to each adult band member if the proposal is accepted, and for the payouts to be held for children until they reach the age of majority. In Millbrook's case, the payment would be $3,000 each, leaving a balance of an estimated $13.4 million that would be held in a trust fund managed by an independent board selected by the community, to be invested in community infrastructure and economic development.

Gloade said he's been a part of this settlement process and negotiations since they've begun, and said it's been scrutinized consistently, given that a majority of the Atlantic region is considered to be unceded Mi'kmaq territory.

"There's a lot of issues that are unresolved," he said, referring to other massive land claims in the territory, and past court rulings still having effects on First Nations rights.

"The Mi'kmaq have been in this territory for 13,500 plus years [and] we aren't going anywhere," Gloade said. "We have to learn to live with everybody [and] do the best that we can to benefit our committee members now, and in the future."

Millbrook band member Jim Johnson looks over the parcel of reserve land in Sambro, N.S., while touring the area for the first time. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Gloade said he's confident in the settlement proposal, and that he thinks the total monetary payout, potential investments, and additions to reserve land are in the best interest for the community. He said he was hopeful that, if accepted by the community, the monetary compensation not paid out to community members will be invested in projects that will create income for decades in the future.

"If you pay out everything all at once you have nothing left ... you're not looking out for the best interests of future generations," he said.

Gloade said the band council is considering investments in a plot of land owned by Millbrook near an area of Halifax known as Shannon Park, where numerous multi-million dollar developments have been proposed.

Majority vote required

Community information meetings are being held this week in both communities, and community members are being told that there will be no settlement unless a majority of eligible voters from both communities vote to accept the proposal.

Denny said she takes issue with the lack of information shared with the community about the negotiation process.

She said she's still unclear how the value of losing use of the land for 100 years was established. The settlement proposal includes compensation for potential lost income in sectors like gaming, forestry, and commercial fishing, but Denny said she's surprised not to see tourism included, since the area is visited so frequently in the summer months.

A fishing dock with lobster traps on it, below cloudy skies.
In the coming weeks, Jennifer Denny said she will be looking for more clarification on the evaluation of potential lost income for the communities like commercial fishing and tourism - industries that the area is known for. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

"There's also value other than economic growth. There's value in having land to be able to place [homes] for future families," she said.

Denny said the issue of the land's surrender is also "very scary." The settlement proposal comes with an acknowledgement that if the deal is signed, the First Nation can never claim ownership of the property again.

The proposal also includes a section that would require the First Nations to indemnify, or protect, Canada from legal costs arising from future claims by other Mi'kmaq for the properties.

Denny said she's specifically concerned about protecting the rights of her children in the future, and that relinquishing anything owned by their nation should be taken with "the most possible" care.

Denny said she's already made a decision to vote against the settlement proposal, but some of the community members who toured the area with her were still undecided.

"I don't know really, yet," said Eileen Gloade.

"I had no idea that Sambro was included, or where the land was, so I thought [we] should really get out here and see what we're voting on. Now I've seen a lot of beautiful places."


Nic Meloney

Former Videojournalist, CBC Indigenous

Nic Meloney is a mixed heritage Wolastoqi videojournalist raised on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia/Mi'kma'ki. Email him at or follow him on Twitter @nicmeloney.