The Doc Project·First Person

Did I buy a condo on stolen land? How purchasing my first home made me question property rights

Last fall, Craig Desson bought a condo in Montreal’s Mile End with his partner. However, one thought lingered: Montreal lies on unceded land, as it was settled by the French without the permission of Indigenous peoples who lived there. Does that mean he effectively bought stolen property?

If Montreal lies on unceded Indigenous land, can anyone actually ‘own’ property on it?

The Montreal skyline as seen from Mount Royal. On the left is the painting Montreal in 1832 by James Duncan. On the right is a photograph from November 2017. (McCord Museum, Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

This First Person article is the experience of Craig Desson, a CBC producer who recently bought a condo in Montreal. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Last fall, I bought a condo in Montreal's Mile End with my partner. It felt like a real accomplishment: I had a bright, two-bedroom apartment in a neighbourhood I love. 

However, one thought lingered. In land acknowledgments, it's usually said Montreal is on unceded land because Indigenous people in the region never surrendered the land to the French during colonization.

So does that mean I bought stolen property? 

Mohawk Council of Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon, who is a leader at Kanien'kéha:ka community near Montreal, was clear: he said I am an "artificial title holder" and that I have to "recognize the Aboriginal title does exist.

"It is there; it cannot be extinguished."

Montreal's Mile End neighbourhood, where Craig Desson purchased a condo last fall. (Craig Desson/CBC)

Montreal is far from the only region in Canada where the underlying claim to the land is unresolved with Indigenous people. Parts of eastern Ontario, including Ottawa, is considered the traditional territory of the Algonquin Anishinabe, and there was no treaty attached to it. A contested land deal is underway related to that claim. The Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs point to a 1997 Supreme Court case which acknowledged their Aboriginal title; despite this, there is still a conflict in B.C. over a pipeline going through their territory.

When it comes to Quebec, the French arrived in sailboats in the 16th century, claimed the land as theirs in part by planting a cross, and then set up a colony. The French colonial powers then divided it up into parcels of land that settlers could trade back and forth at the same time the Indigenous claim to the land was not acknowledged by the French settlers. 

The idea that the plot of land where my condo now sits could be linked to colonization seemed inconceivable to me, because that era was buried so deep in the history books. However, where else could the property I bought have originated from? 

A photograph of Montreal’s Mile End taken in 1910. The original name for the subdivision that became Mile End was the ‘Montreal Annex,’ the neighborhood was envisioned as a Montreal version of the Toronto neighbourhood. (McCord Museum)

So, I decided to find out how legitimate my claim to the land really is. I turned to Quebec's vast online databases of property records that go back centuries. Every time real estate changes hands, a deed of sale lists the buyer and the seller. My hunch was that if I followed these records back far enough, I could find the moment the land became unceded. 

I also wanted to see who had profited from the money made from real estate in Montreal over the centuries, and how that money had shaped societies.

I quickly realized that my amateur history sleuthing skills weren't enough.

According to real estate documents, the three-story building my condo is on was built on an empty lot in 1910; that lot had about 20 different owners. Before the Second World War, the deeds for that building were handwritten in script indecipherable to my eyes.

Plus, Montreal went through municipal amalgamations over the centuries, making it difficult to find which databases the records were saved in.

Around the 1890s, there were strict rules on what could be built in what was a burgeoning new suburb for the city.

A title deed for Desson’s condo from the 1920s. (Submitted by Craig Desson)

"Any owner of the building was not permitted to have a slaughterhouse, a cowshed, a glue or soap factory, a tannery, or any other manufacturer," said local historian Alan Stewart, who agreed to help me in my search.

Before that, it was part of a parcel of land that was essentially a vast field, owned by an eclectic group of property owners that includes nuns, stone masons, and a bailiff.

Looking over these documents, I could tell that almost everyone who sold the land made a profit on the sale. Owning land has generated vast amounts of wealth, often benefitting future generations of European settlers.

"This is a privilege Indigenous people didn't have, and that continues to this day. We are limited in how much wealth we can gain through our homes built on-reserve — which are devalued and can only be sold to a limited number of Native people who belong to that specific community," said Steve Bonspiel, editor and publisher of The Eastern Door newspaper in Kahnawá:ke.

Take the Clark Bagg family. They owned the land Mile End sits on now before selling it to developers in 1891 for $156,000 — a vast fortune in the late 19th century.

Stanley Clark Bagg was a 19th century landowner in Montreal. (McCord Museum)

"This is at a time when maybe the yearly salary of an artisan industrial worker was maybe between $500 and $1,000," said Stewart.

Stewart was also able to track down the first person who would have thought of themselves as the owner.

"The bailiff of Montreal [was] granted the land to his farm in 1683. It would have been virgin land.... [It had] not been touched by Europeans or in any way shaped by Europeans," he said.

But who granted it to him in the first place?

The Catholic Society of the Priests of Saint Sulpice effectively ran the island of Montreal for almost two centuries under the seigneurial system. The French government gave the Sulpician priests what could be considered the land title to Montreal, who then collected dues from settlers and put them towards building the colony's infrastructure.

The French's claim to land ultimately goes back to when Jacques Cartier planted a cross on the shores of what would become known as the Gulf of Lawrence, on July 24, 1534. European nations would begin the process of colonization with these ceremonies. 

This atlas from 1914 shows how the lots in Craig Desson's neighbourhood were divided at the time. (Goad's Atlas)

That is the origin story of the real estate I bought: a land claiming ceremony by colonizers, without the acknowledgement of the people who already lived there.

Knowing what I know now, I asked Chief Simon what he thought about all this. 

He told me that the whole concept of buying and selling land was foreign to his people, who believed that the land belonged to future generations and was the responsibility of current generations to care for.

"With the whites it was: 'Square it off, this is mine and nobody else touches it.'  Whereas we had more of a collective mentality when it came to the land," he said.

Learning about the history of colonization wrapped up in the land my condo currently sits on has made me appreciate the importance of learning more about how the past — including its injustices — is shaping Canada today.

I asked him the question I was afraid to ask: If the land I bought was taken from his people, do I need to give it back? And if so, how?

Mohawk Council of Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Otis Simon is a leader from the Kanesatake north-west of Montreal. (CBC)

Simon said it's not my individual responsibility to address; rather, all levels of Canada's governments need to recognize Aboriginal title, which is an Indigenous claim to the land based on their historical and political occupation of the land that predates the European conquest of North America. 

"Aboriginal title is not something to fear. It's a certain context that we can all work towards peace and finally an equitable justice for both societies, because the way things turned out, there's nothing just about it." 

As for individual Canadians, he says our role is "educating people like you as an artificial title holder.

"Trying to reverse the effects of colonization? I don't think they'll ever be able to do it completely, but we can save our basic fundamental principles to the fullest and flourish and progress and evolve."

This documentary was produced by Craig Desson with Acey Rowe. Steve Bonspiel served as an Indigenous advisor on the documentary and article.