The empty lot in North Preston, N.S., has been in the hands of Elaine Cain’s family for many years, a connection that stirs in her a sentimental bond with the piece of land.
But despite the fact her family has long paid property taxes on it, they have never held the deed.
On Wednesday, Cain welcomed as a “bright day” an announcement by the Nova Scotia government that it will provide funding to help people in five historically black communities gain legal ownership over land they’ve claimed as theirs for generations.
“I think it will be great because this is what we have been looking for,” she said in an interview. “It will give us … a boost, actually, to do whatever it is that we have or plan to do. I’m confident that they’ll help me.”
The province said it will spend $2.7 million over two years to help residents obtain legal title to land in the communities of North Preston, East Preston and Cherry Brook in the Halifax Regional Municipality, and in Lincolnville and Sunnyville in Guysborough County.
No deeds to black settlers
The problem can be traced back two centuries, when the government gave plots of land to Black Loyalists for their support during the American Revolutionary War and to Black Refugees, former slaves who sought refuge after the War of 1812. The government, however, did not give deeds, which meant those who settled never officially owned the land they lived on.
The repercussions today are that, without clear title, residents cannot sell their property or legally pass it down to other relatives. The province says that out of the 1,620 total land parcels in Cherry Brook, East Preston and North Preston, for instance, about a third are without clear title.
Cain said she’s had her property surveyed, but because of a dispute with some family members, she can’t get the deed. She said she needs money to pay for legal costs.
If she gets clear title, Cain plans to build a home and a small teahouse for seniors. She hopes to make an application for funding within a week.
African Nova Scotian Affairs Minister Tony Ince made the funding announcement Wednesday in Cherry Brook. The money will pay for a surveyor and two surveyor technicians, two community liaison officers to help residents with the process, and will help cover legal fees related to clarifying land ownership.
Lincolnville resident Alonzo Reddick travelled to Cherry Brook to hear Ince for himself. Reddick has title to his land but wants questions answered about the migration of his property.
Trouble passing land to children
Migration means moving a property from the old land registration system to the current one. This must be done if the land is to be resold, subdivided or refinanced.
“I’m 82 years old and I have children and I’d like for them to have parts of my land, and I can’t afford what I’m being told it’s going to cost to have it migrated,” Reddick said.
“It’s very important and it should be very important to all the black communities.”
Reddick also wonders how one surveyor is going to do the work in all five communities.
“It will take him 15, 20 years,” Reddick said. “You have to get more than one surveyor.”
Dwight Adams, of the North Preston Land Recovery Initiative, said the $2.7 million the province is investing is not enough and will be depleted in no time. He said each community should be asking for more.
“How do you put a dollar figure of that amount out there thinking that it’s going to be enough?” he said. “It’s not just this community that needs it. It’s not just the five that stepped up that are in the forefront of the conversation. It’s all the communities.”
The process to determine the legal ownership, which includes a survey of the land, can cost about $10,000 — money many people say they cannot afford.
Earlier this week, a United Nations working group said both the province and the federal government must do more to help African-Nova Scotians obtain legal title.
In a report, the working group of experts on people of African descent said it is concerned about the lack of implementation of Nova Scotia’s Land Titles Clarification Act, which is meant to help people obtain titles to the lands on which they live.