Kwanlin Dün Chief Doris Bill calls it a “very exciting milestone” for the First Nation.
This week, the Yukon Legislative Assembly tabled a piece of legislation that, if passed, will open the door for the First Nation to start developing its land and bring in substantial revenue.
“This hasn’t been done before,” Bill said this morning at a news conference.
And it’s been in the works for about four or five years.
“Not until recent weeks have we seen a possible light at the end of the tunnel.... There is indeed an appetite and means forward on this process. The tabling of the bill is part of that process,” Bill said.
While the amendments to the Yukon Land Titles Act are billed to “modernize” the paper-based, Gold Rush-era legislation, new regulations to accompany the act will change the process for registering First Nation settlement land.
It will allow First Nation settlement land to be registered in the Yukon land titles office while safeguarding aboriginal title, Premier Darrell Pasloski said in a statement this week.
This means the First Nation may lease its land to citizens or companies for residential or commercial purposes – which is ultimately intended to generate revenue.
“We had a choice,” said Rick O’Brien, an advisor with Kwanlin Dün’s economic development department.
“We could have registered some of our land under (section 5.9 of the final agreement) and gone to court with the (Yukon government).
“But we chose to work with the government and figure out how to make this work,” O’Brien explained, adding that the chosen route is free of litigation.
The First Nation had to find a way to be able to lease and register its land that would satisfy potential lenders and keep aboriginal rights and title on the leased land.
The answer was adding a clause to Kwanlin Dün’s self-government agreement stating that while settlement land is registered in the land titles office, the rules and procedures of the registry system apply to the land and prevail over Kwanlin Dün’s laws.
The added clause does not affect other self-government powers to control the use and management of the land – it does not delete or take out anything from the self-government agreement.
“This will not affect our aboriginal rights and title,” Bill stressed.
“If this was going to jeopardize that in any way, we would not have moved forward with it. That has been the bottom line for us right from the beginning.”
The First Nation has not worked out all of the kinks as to how the leasing process will work – the length or cost of the leases, or whether the First Nation will build the structures on the land itself.
The general idea, however, is that the First Nation will own the land, but the person or company leasing the land may own the building on the land.
“We have enormous amounts of land within the city of Whitehorse,” said Dave Sembsmoen, an advisor for Kwanlin Dün’s economic development department.
“As land owners, land can be a liability as well,” he added, saying that looming taxation liabilities come into play when systems for economic development are not put in place.
Essentially, as the largest land owner in Whitehorse, Kwanlin Dün might easily be the highest taxpayer.
And, without a way of generating money on its large land holdings, it could become a financial burden for the First Nation.
“We want to get this land out there.... We need to get to that happy place where we can start making money on it.”
The amount of land that Kwanlin Dün possesses will, without a doubt, generate massive dollars if and when the legislation takes shape.
In its final agreement signed in 2005, Kwanlin Dün took possession of 1,042.79 square kilometres of Settlement Lands.
Kwanlin Dün negotiated to receive 34.85 square kilometres of community lands within and near Whitehorse city limits.
To put this in perspective, a Major League Baseball field is usually about one hectare in size.
Using this model, Kwanlin Dün would have about 3,400 baseball fields worth of land – just within Whitehorse city limits alone.
“This will move the First Nation forward in a huge way,” Bill said.
“It’s been a hindrance to us.”
Bill noted that the original hope was to have the legislation passed before the Oct. 19 federal election.
“It just wasn’t possible,” she said, noting that she has already discussed the matter with Yukon MP-designate Larry Bagnell and he agreed to make it a priority.
“With the change in federal government, it’s going to take some time,” Bill said.
“We hope to get it done as soon as possible.”
For now, the amendments to the Yukon Land Titles Act have been tabled – it will need to be read by the legislative assembly, debated and passed before the First Nation can move through the next steps.
In September, the Kwanlin Dün council passed a resolution to consent to the amendment to the First Nation’s self-government agreement.
From there, the territorial and federal governments will need to sign orders-in-council to amend the self-government agreement.
Kwanlin Dün council will then have to pass amendments to the First Nation’s lands and resources act to allow for registration of settlement land in the Yukon land titles office.
Within the proposed amendments to the Yukon Land Titles Act is an initiative to transition to an electronic registration system – which Pasloski noted this week will help deliver more efficient land titles services.
The bill is a component of the Land Titles Modernization Project, which examined all aspects of Yukon’s land titles regime and the associated business processes used in the land titles office.