NOVA SCOTIAN FAMILIES HAVE FOUGHT FOR GENERATIONS TO SECURE THEIR PROPERTY RIGHTS
Vicki Simmons tends to the rhubarb patches and flower gardens that her mother planted at her home in North Preston, Nova Scotia. The property reminds her of her parents. They cultivated the land and built the home she grew up in and now owns. Yet, it didn’t truly belong to the Simmons family until recently, even though they’ve lived there for decades.
Their family is one of dozens of black Nova Scotian families who were stuck in limbo after filing a land-title claim application.
“I feel more security now than I ever have,” says Vicki.
Her comment comes nearly 20 years after Vicki’s parents, Clemmie and Adeline Simmons, first filed an application to obtain title to the land on which they built their home and raised their family. Wanque Simmons, Vicki’s daughter, remembers her grandparents struggling to get the land-title document so they could leave a legacy for their children.
“They said if anything happened to them, they wanted the house to be a family house and something for their kids to be in,” remembers Wanque.
While Wanque is happy her mother now has title, she says it shouldn’t have taken so long to get it. She remembers calling the Department of Natural Resources to follow up on her grandfather’s application when he was still alive.
“They had said something about my grandfather being way down on the list,” says Wanque. “They said he was the nineteenth person and it would be a couple of years before they even get to him.”
But time ran out. Clemmie Simmons filed the original land title application in 1999. He died before the bureaucrats processed his application. His widow tried to pick up where he left off, but she too was unsuccessful.
Wanque and Vicki were finally able to get title with the help of lawyer Matthew Moir. Moir had been working on land title files for years at Weldon McInnis, a law firm based in Dartmouth. Moir also ran into roadblocks when working on the files in the early 2000s.
“There was a person designated at that time to be in charge of the files,” recalls Moir. “He told me, yes, technically that’s my designation, I’m the one responsible to do this, but I’m not doing them because there’s no money to do this.”
Recently, the provincial government allocated more money to process these land title claims but the Land Titles Clarification Act itself isn’t new. It came into existence in 1963.
There was a need for the act because in the 1800s, land was given to both black and white Loyalists by the Nova Scotian colonial government, but black settlers didn’t get title to their land. This meant that their families were unable to pass their properties on to their descendants. In some cases, it also meant that residents couldn’t access government funding programs for things like wheelchair ramps and other specialized health-and-safety renovations.
While some land title claims have been processed over the years, it was lawyer Angela Simmonds who reinvigorated interest in the Land Titles Clarification Act while she was still a law student. She was working at the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society in 2014 when she found out about the backlog of applications.
“I just started researching about the application process,” says Simmonds. “I soon realized that it was a much larger problem and that it really wasn’t a property issue, it was a human rights issue.”
Simmonds went on to write a paper about the challenges of getting title and the history of the residents living in some of the African Nova Scotian communities. Her work caught the attention of the United Nations.
“The reality is, it’s racism,” says Simmonds. “It’s about discrimination, it’s about inequalities that have been in our presence and that we’ve had to work through for decades.”
The UN agreed with her position and findings and produced a report about the treatment of the African Nova Scotian community.
“Part of the report said that African Nova Scotians need to be recognized as a distinct people,” explains Simmonds. “We know that slavery existed here and there needs to be an apology.”
While the provincial government has received this report, it hasn’t apologized. However, around the same time the report was released, the province promised more funding to process historic land title claims in five African Nova Scotian communities: North Preston, East Preston, Cherry Brook, Lincolnville, and Sunnyville.
“African Nova Scotians have suffered, more than anyone else in Nova Scotia, great indignities and injustices with respect to land,” said Tony Ince, minister of African Nova Scotian affairs, when announcing $2.7 million in funding to help residents in those five communities get their land-title certificates.
During that same announcement in September 2017, Ince said this was only the beginning. He promised that a total of 13 communities would receive government assistance to help residents obtain title to properties that have been in their families for decades, and in some cases, centuries.
But the process for getting the program up and running is slow going, which is a major complaint of the communities that were promised help.
“The one thing I would like to be frank and honest about is that there’s still a bit of ambivalence,” says Ince in reference to how some community members are reacting. “But I can assure them that for the first time, they’ve got a government with multiple departments working on this.”
That may sound like a good thing, but one of the big concerns from members of the impacted communities has been that the process of applying for title is too complicated. There are more concerns about having additional departments becoming involved, which could make the process even more confusing without addressing the unique situations in which many of these families find themselves.
One common issue is that there are several homes on one plot of land, but only one person can be granted title.
“It’s not uncommon for a family to be on a property and to have two or three homes around them and for it to still be their immediate family,” explains Simmonds. This has led to some family disputes over who should hold the title. In those circumstances, cases can get stuck in limbo. But there is hope that the people hired using this new funding will be able to find ways to address some of these unique problems.
Wanque and Vicki Simmons are hopeful, too. While their situation had a happy ending, they’re not taking their result for granted because they know it hasn’t been the same for others. This will be the first summer where the North Preston house is officially theirs and they plan to celebrate with a big family barbecue.
“I feel like a new person,” says Vicki. “I finally have something that I can call my own…this is something that’s long overdue for my family.”