Pros and Cons of the Nunavut Land Referendum

Originally posted on Northern Public Affairs on April 22, 2016.

On May 9, 2016, residents of Nunavut will be asked to vote YES or NO on the following question:

“Do you want Municipality of _______ to be able to sell Municipal Lands?”

Until recently, I, like many other Nunavummiut, had no strong opinion on the issue. I didn’t even understand what it could mean for me and my community.

But being a conscientious homeowner, I decided to investigate.

I read the information available from the Government of Nunavut (GN), attended public consultations, and interviewed people from around town. I asked everyone I knew – homeowners, renters, homeless people, business people, locals, transients, Inuit, and non-Inuit.

I realized that this vote had the potential to be very important for the future of Nunavut, and I decided to share what I’d learned. With this article, I hope to give Nunavummiut the information they need in order to have an open discussion about these issues.

Why is this vote being held?

Over 20 years ago, communities in Nunavut were asked if they wanted to be able to buy and sell their land, which is currently only acquired through leasing. Back then, the vote was overwhelmingly NO, with the exception of Iqaluit, which nearly voted in favour.

The Nunavut Land Claim Agreement (NLCA) stated that another vote could be held in 20 years. That time has now come, hence the coming referendum.

What are the potential benefits of a YES vote?

Tenant rights and responsibilities: Many believe that if people were to own their properties, they would take better care of them. Currently, if you want to build a house, you have to lease the land from the municipality. In theory, this means the city could evict you from the property. (In reality, this would require a very serious reason, as well as a legal battle. To my knowledge, it has never happened.)

Less municipal administration: The fact that a municipality must approve the transfer of leases every year can cause administrative delays. If municipalities sold those properties off, they would no longer have to deal with this administrative task. In theory, this would free up work for municipalities.

Municipal revenue: With the ability to sell land, municipalities could set the price of property, and potentially generate a lot of new revenue. This money could be used to fund other projects.

Private development: With new revenue, municipalities could potentially be able to afford new developments, like subdivisions and commercial properties. Therefore, land development could speed up – especially in Iqaluit.

Access to mortgages: Banks (especially banks outside the territory) prefer the stability inherent in permanent land ownership. For this reason, a YES vote could potentially make it easier for homeowners to secure longer-term mortgages, lowering their monthly payments, and making mortgages more accessible to people with lower incomes.

Access to insurance: Insurance companies, too, prefer this stability. Getting a house insured could also become marginally easier with permanently owned land.

Foreign investment: The ability to buy land could lead to a spike in foreign investment in Nunavut. Investors would likely feel more secure knowing that their land (their investment) would remain firmly within their control, forever.

Streamlined system: Nunavut is the only province or territory in Canada that does not yet allow land ownership. Changing the way lands are administered would make the territory’s legislation more similar to that of southern Canada. Although this isn’t a benefit in and of itself, some would argue that Nunavut’s housing system could benefit from becoming standardized (“modernized”), keeping pace with the rest of the country.

What are the potential dangers of a YES vote?

Irreversible decision: According to the NLCA, if the vote is NO, another vote is allowed to take place after only five years. However, if the vote is YES, then the decision is final and irreversible. If Nunavummiut discover that permanent land ownership was a bad decision, it will be too late reverse the decision.

Municipal debts: With the ability to sell land, municipalities could generate new revenue. However, if they were to run into financial troubles, they could effectively be forced to sell lands in order to pay their debts. This would put them in a weakened position with respect to other interested parties, including the federal and territorial governments, Inuit Organizations, private corporations, lobbyists, special interest groups, etc. For example, if there was a disagreement on specific land use, the territorial government could pressure the municipality to sell its land by threatening to collect unpaid debts.

Loss of collateral: One of the ways municipalities are able to secure borrowed funds – for example, Iqaluit’s multimillion-dollar deficit caused by the ‘Dumpcano’ – is by leveraging the value of its assets. If these assets (municipal lands) were sold off, that could reduce the municipality’s ability to borrow money. This could become a problem if the municipality runs into another fiscal deficit.

Political uncertainty: A YES vote would allow the municipalities to permanently sell land; it would notrequire them to. They would be free to sell (or not sell) the land, depending on the will of the current leadership. So far, most municipalities have not taken a stance for or against the sale of municipal lands, wishing instead to remain neutral until the people have voted. Since they’ve chosen to remain neutral, they have not presented any plan as to how the sale of lands would be administered. In essence, we don’t “know” what a YES vote would mean.

Exploitation: In theory, if the municipality were to sell lands indiscriminately, large development companies could buy up land and exploit it. Local residents could become forced to rent from southern landowners, indefinitely. Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI), the governing body which represents Inuit people, recently agreed that permanent land sales would not benefit the local population. The problems associated with permanent land ownership are becoming more and more apparent in places around the world, including Scotland, where private ownership is widening the wealth gap.

Assimilation: Inuit culture is very different to southern culture in regards to land ownership. If an Inuit territory is to adopt the mentality of southern land ownership, it risks losing legal protection of its cultural values.

Nunavummiut should vote

No matter what the verdict, it’s important that the decision is made by Nunavummiut – people who live, work, invest, and plan to retire in Nunavut. Unfortunately, voter turnout in Nunavut is typically abysmal. It’s important that we encourage one another to get to the polling stations on May 9, 2016.

It’s also important that we’re aware of all the facts. More information is available from the governmenthere.

How I would vote

After all my research, I don’t think we know enough about the reasons for this vote to make an informed decision. Therefore, I would vote NO.

I don’t believe permanent land ownership is an urgent problem in Nunavut. With a young population, many of whom have more urgent struggles like poverty, homelessness, food insecurity, addictions, suicide, and violence to deal with, I think we’re in too vulnerable a position to make such irreversible changes.

Southern interests are more likely to take advantage of the benefits that this change in legislation could bring, and I don’t think it will benefit the lives of Nunavummiut, who could be in danger of losing ownership and control of their own lands.

Like the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If land ownership isn’t an urgent problem, why aren’t we focusing on other tangible initiatives for sustainable economic growth, education, infrastructure, and social welfare? There are plenty of other priorities the GN could, and should, be focusing on.