Unauthorized Occupancy of Public Land in the NWT

Consistent with the Recreational Leasing Management Framework, the Department of Lands is addressing ‘historic’ unauthorized occupancy on public land in the Northwest Territories. These sites and structures were established before April 1, 2014.

 

We are all stewards of the land. The Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) is working to support a clear and consistent land management regime. There are rules regarding the use of public land, know your responsibilities

Background: Unauthorized Occupancy of Public Land

The GNWT recognizes that every person in the Northwest Territories (NWT) has a right to use public land, according to applicable laws. 

Unauthorized occupancy is a longstanding land management issue across the NWT. An unauthorized occupant is someone who is occupying public land without a legal right or authorization. There are many structures on public land that do not have tenure.

On April 1st, 2014, the GNWT took over responsibility for land management as part of Devolution. The Department of Lands has since developed an approach to address the historic unauthorized use of public land, and to address untenured structures that existed prior to devolution. In developing the approach, the GNWT made a distinction between structures that were constructed before April 1, 2014, and anything built after that date. Structures constructed after April 1, 2014 without proper authorization have been and will continue to be subject to the legal process for removal.

Structures built before April 1st, 2014, will be evaluated on a case by case basis to determine eligibility for tenure. If they do not meet the Department’s evaluation criteria for a lease, further enforcement action will be taken, which can include the legal process to remove the structures. The criteria is based on current GNWT land management practices, legislation and policy, and includes items such as how far a cabin has to be from the water or a highway, the maximum footprint and size of the buildings, and whether or not the land is available for leasing. If the structures meet the criteria, the occupant may apply for a lease, and may be issued one, subject to further evaluation and consultation with Indigenous governments and organizations (IGOs). Sites established after April 1, 2014 are not eligible for evaluation and will be subject to removal unless they have a legal right or authorization to occupy the land.

The GNWT recognizes that some untenured cabins may be associated with Indigenous occupants who are exercising their asserted or established Aboriginal or treaty rights. We refer to these as ‘potential rights-based cabins’. The Department is working with Indigenous governments and organizations (IGOs) to identify and confirm which untenured structures are potential rights-based cabins.

We have developed a process for occupants who wish to assert their untenured cabins are ancillary to the exercise of their asserted or established Aboriginal or treaty rights. If this applies to you and you have received a posting notice on your cabin, please submit this information to your representative IGO, or the Department of Lands. The Department of Lands will be working with all IGOs to share and confirm the information received.

We have developed a process for occupants who wish to assert their untenured cabins are ancillary to the exercise of their asserted or established Aboriginal or treaty rights. If this applies to you and you have received a posting notice on your cabin, please submit this information to your representative IGO, or the Department of Lands. The Department of Lands will be working with all IGOs to share and confirm the information received.

What is an unauthorized occupant?

An unauthorized occupant is someone who is occupying public land, including a structure, such as a cabin, without an authorization or other legal right. The GNWT does not condone the unlawful use of public land.

What is untenured occupancy?

An untenured structure is a cabin or other structure that was built on public land without an authorization, such as a lease. An untenured occupancy is the collection of untenured structures at a site. For example, one untenured occupancy could include three structures: a cabin, a shed and an outhouse. An untenured occupant is the owner of the structure(s) who assumes responsibility for their use and management.

What is the difference between being an untenured or an unauthorized occupant?

An untenured occupant is the owner of a structure(s) that was built on public land without an authorization such as a lease, who assumes responsibility for their use and management.

An unauthorized occupant is the owner of a structure(s) that was built on public land without authorization or other legal right.

The GNWT recognizes that some untenured cabins may be associated with Indigenous occupants who are exercising their asserted or established Aboriginal or treaty rights. GNWT refers to these structures as ‘potential rights-based cabins’.

There is a legal process for determining if an untenured structure is unauthorized. Removal of a structure requires a court order that confirms it is unauthorized.

I received a posting notice on my cabin, what do I do now?

If you have received a posting notice you are encouraged to use the contact identified on the notice. The first posting notice is your opportunity to identify a legal right to occupy the land. If you do not identify a right to occupy the land within the timeframe specified on the posting notice, a Notice of Trespass will be posted asking you to vacate the land. If, after the Notice of Trespass, you do not identify a right to occupy the land, and you do not vacate the land voluntarily, the Department will initiate the legal process to seek your removal.

If your cabin was built prior to April 1, 2014 and your cabin and associated structures conforms to the Department’s evaluation criteria, you may be eligible to apply for a lease. To find out more about the evaluation process, you should follow up with Land Administration as identified on the notice.

The GNWT recognizes that some untenured cabins may be associated with Indigenous occupants who are exercising their asserted or established Aboriginal or treaty rights. The Department is working with Indigenous governments and organizations (IGOs) to identify which untenured structures are potential rights-based cabins. If you believe you have a legal right to occupy land, you will be asked to complete a form. The form can then be submitted to the Department of Lands using the contact information in the posting notice or to your representative IGO. In either case, the Department will follow up with your IGO to verify the information.

If you have received a posting notice and you do not understand the direction, the Department encourages you to contact Land Administration as identified on the form.

Are you allowed to have a cabin without a lease if you are Indigenous?

The GNWT recognizes that every person in the Northwest Territories has the right to use public land in accordance with legislation and policies. The GNWT also recognizes and respects asserted and established Aboriginal and treaty rights, including the rights of Indigenous people to hunt, fish and trap. At this time, GNWT legislation does not exempt Indigenous persons from requiring tenure for cabins on public land. However, given that Aboriginal rights with respect to cabins are under discussion, a form has been developed so that cabins that may be associated with the exercise of an asserted or established Aboriginal or treaty right can be identified.

The Department of Lands is leading separate discussions with Indigenous governments and organizations to identify and manage potential rights-based cabins.

How will you know if a cabin belongs to an Indigenous person?

The GNWT does not have comprehensive information about which cabins are potential rights-based cabins. At this time the GNWT will be posting all untenured cabins to, among other things, determine which cabins are potential rights-based cabins.

If you receive a posting notice on your cabin, and you assert that your occupancy is ancillary to the exercise of an asserted or established Aboriginal or treaty right, please fill out the related form and submit this to your representative Indigenous government or organization, (IGO) or the Department of Lands. The Department will be working with IGOs to share this information so that Indigenous Governments and the Department of Lands have accurate and up to date records.

In addition, the GNWT is providing support to Indigenous governments and organizations to help them identify and keep record of where their members have cabins on public land. This work will assist with the verification of cabins that some Indigenous Organizations already have underway.

What is the Department of Lands doing about unauthorized occupants?

The GNWT is committed to managing public land responsibly and is taking steps to deal with this longstanding issue. The Department has developed a process to assess all historic unauthorized occupancies against a standardized set of evaluation criteria.

The Department is taking a methodical approach to implementation and will be posting all structures that are not under a tenure agreement with GNWT. The posting notice advises the occupant of various steps they must take in order to confirm the nature of their occupancy either with the Department of Lands, or through their Indigenous government or organization (IGO), if applicable. More information on what to do if you have received a posting notice can be found here.

Occupancies that were established before April 1, 2014, are considered historic. If they meet the Department’s criteria for the issuance of tenure, they will be eligible to apply for a lease. However, all lease applications are subject to consultation with potentially affected Indigenous governments and organizations.

A lease provides legal tenure to occupy public land and is subject to standard lease terms and conditions, including lease fees.

What is the difference between ‘historic’ and ‘new’ unauthorized occupancy?

Unauthorized occupancies that were established before April 1, 2014 are referred to as ‘historic’. These occupancies were established before the GNWT acquired administration and control of the land through Devolution. If they meet the criteria for the issuance of tenure, they will be eligible to apply for a lease. All lease applications are subject to consultation with potentially affected Indigenous governments and organizations.

Unauthorized occupancies that were established after April 1, 2014 are considered new and are subject to the legal process for removal. This is part of the regular business of the Department of Lands.

How will the Department determine if a structure is illegal and subject to removal?

The Department will manage each unauthorized occupant on a case-by-case basis:

  • For each unauthorized occupancy, the Department will conduct a site visit and document details about the structure(s) and any out-building(s), as well as information about the location, and affix a posting notice to the main structure.
  • The Department will determine whether the structure(s) were present before April 1, 2014. This will be determined through various means such as: Departmental records, and satellite or aerial imagery. If the occupant can provide other documentation to the Department of Lands, this will also be considered.
  • Eligible unauthorized structures will be evaluated against approved evaluation criteria under the standard lease terms and conditions. If the cabin and associated structures (shed, outhouse etc.) meet the criteria, the case will then be reviewed by various GNWT departments and undergo formal consultation with all potentially impacted Indigenous governments and organizations. The Department may then invite the occupant to apply for a lease.
  • Structures that do not meet the evaluation standards will be removed.

What is the process to remove unauthorized structures?

The first posting notice provides an opportunity to identify a lawful reason for your occupancy. If you do not identify a right to occupy the land within the timeframe specified on the posting notice, a Notice of Trespass, will be posted to your structure, asking you to vacate the land. If, after the Notice of Trespass, you do not identify a right to occupy the land, and you do not vacate the land voluntarily, the Department can initiate the legal process to seek your removal.

In cases where the GNWT has information about the unauthorized occupant, we will also contact the individual directly. In cases where we do not have that information, a public notice may be issued through the newspapers.

The legal process to remove an unauthorized occupant can take a few years and involves both the Department of Lands and the Department of Justice. This process may require the cabin owner to appear in court and provide evidence to demonstrate that the occupation is lawful. The court will make a determination based on the evidence and may issue an Order for Removal.

Going forward, any new occurrences of unauthorized use will continue to be posted and are subject to the removal process.

How did you develop the evaluation criteria?

The evaluation criteria are based on the Department’s most up to date standards for land management, and are based in legislation and policy. These standards have been incorporated into a new lease agreement for cabins. The updated agreement harmonizes terms and conditions for leasing on territorial and Commissioner’s land, and is the standard for all non-commercial and non-industrial leases on public land.

Who is affected by this action to remove unauthorized structures?

All unauthorized occupancies that were established after April 1, 2014, and are not considered a ‘potential rights-based cabin’ are subject to the legal process for removal. This is part of the regular business of the Department of Lands.

If you own a structure, built before April 1, 2014 without a legal right to occupy that land, such as a lease, a Notice will be posted to your structure(s). The Notice asks that you identify yourself to Departmental staff who can explain the process and answer your questions. If your untenured structures meet the requirements of a lease, you may be invited by the Department of Lands to apply for a lease.

How do I report an unauthorized occupant?

If you become aware of an unauthorized use, please contact the appropriate regional office.

How long will it take to address unauthorized occupancy?

The Department has developed a multi-year approach that has defined objectives for each fiscal year and will be applied across the territory over the next several years. The GNWT is committed to working with Indigenous governments and organizations to develop a respectful, collaborative and mutually acceptable way to identify and manage potential rights-based cabins on public land. This work does not have defined timelines, and will require collaboration across GNWT departments, including the Departments of Executive and Indigenous Affairs and Justice.

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