A school project might be the tipping point in a centuries-long fight for land rights.
The 2015-16 journalism class at the Nova Scotia Community College had to come up with an investigative project for their diversity course. After a presentation by the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, the class decided to dig into the issue of land claims in the North Preston area—and were stunned by what they found.
“We couldn’t believe it was happening still to this day,” says student and project leader Kristen Brown. “We went to the archives one day … (and) found a petition from 1841 from North Preston residents asking for land title, and that kind of just shocked me.”
The small community east of Halifax is home to many African-Canadians, some of whom are descendants of the black Loyalists who settled in Nova Scotia in the late 1700s after fighting for the British in the American Revolution. The Loyalists got 10-acre plots of land, but never clear title. Though the community has had issues with the provincial government for years, the fight went public in 2015, when Dalhousie law student Angela Simmonds was hired by the barristers’ society to talk to residents and write a detailed report, called This Land is Our Land.
Simmonds found that almost one-third of the residents don’t have legal title to the land they’ve been living on for generations, as the property was passed down from family member to family member. Residents who want to claim title to their land now have to prove they are the legal owners. Without written documentation, that often means hours of questioning from the province. As Simmonds explains, it can be a demeaning process.
“When did you build your fence? When did you have your first child? How can you prove you own your home?” Simmonds explains. “You’re asking people to explain or justify their life.”
The NSCC class, working under the guidance of instructor Erin Moore, devoted themselves to the project for nearly six months, producing the website NorthPrestonLand.ca. The site includes testimonies from community members, videos discussing the issue, a photo timeline, and an introduction by author Lawrence Hill.
The project has prompted action from the provincial government, as well as the barristers’ society, which has formed a committee of lawyers dedicated to changing the 1963 Land Titles Clarification Act, to make it easier for residents to get deeds to their properties. Though the website is an important step, Brown acknowledges there is still a long way to go. “We wanted to just be the platform to show people what was happening,” she says. “But I think [North Preston residents] need to see action more than talking—and more than promises. Because promises have been broken since the 1800s.”