09/27/2017 16:19 EDT | Updated 09/27/2017 16:29 EDT

Nova Scotia Giving Black Residents $2.7 Million To Settle Land Rights

"People want to get something that they own that they have been on for so long."

Andrew Vaughan / The Canadian Press
African Nova Scotian Affairs Minister Tony Ince speaks near Halifax on Wednesday. The province is spending $2.7 million over two years to help residents in black communities obtain clear legal title to their land.

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia's Liberal government is committed to doing the right thing to help African Nova Scotians gain clear title to land that has been in their families for many generations, a cabinet minister promised Wednesday.

"African Nova Scotians have suffered, more than anyone else in Nova Scotia, great indignities and injustices with respect to land,'' Tony Ince, the Minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs, told a gathering at a church in Cherry Brook, near Halifax.

Ince announced residents of five predominantly black communities will get $2.7 million over two years to help clarify their land ownership.

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Ince said the province is taking action to address disparities and "systemic discrimination'' that blacks have faced.

"As an African Nova Scotian I understand what land means to our people. I can only imagine the frustrations you have felt and as minister ... I can assure you that my government is committed to doing the right thing for you.''

Land was provided to black and white Loyalists by the Nova Scotia government in the 1800s, but land titles weren't given to black settlers, creating longstanding confusion and in many cases the inability for owners to pass property on to relatives.

As an African Nova Scotian I understand what land means to our people.Tony Ince

The communities to get initial help include North Preston, East Preston and Cherry Brook in the Halifax area, and Lincolnville and Sunnyville in Guysborough County. In all, 13 communities will eventually see government assistance, officials said.

The initiative includes funding to assist with legal fees and other costs, and to hire two community liaison officers to assist residents through the process. A land surveyor and two survey technicians will also be hired to complete surveys and to compile support plans.

The government says it will also consider amending legislation to reduce barriers to land ownership.

N.S. failed to help families get what was theirs, UN says

The Land Titles Clarification Act was introduced in 1963 to help people of African descent get title to land given to their families long ago, but this week a panel of United Nations experts said the province had failed to properly implement it.

The UN panel, which looked at anti-black racism in Canada, heard from residents that the funding had dried up over time for a program that had become expensive, unjust and discriminatory.

Natural Resources Minister Keith Colwell, who also represents some of the areas affected, agreed Wednesday.

Fisheries minister Keith Colwell standing on the right next to Tony Ince and Spencer Colley (L-C) on Wed., Sept. 27, 2017.

"I have been trying to help the community but with zero resources,'' Colwell said. "Now today ... we are putting in this first phase of this program and it will be resourced more if we need to resource it more, that's the difference.''

Still, some in attendance, like Evangeline Downey of North Preston, expressed displeasure with the government's plan to do much of the work through the Nova Scotia Legal Aid Commission. She also thought the formal announcement should have come at a community meeting to discuss the government's plan.

"We'd like to pick our own lawyers, that way nobody can steal our land,'' Downey told the ministers.

"We'd like to know what's going on, not you telling us this, this or this.''

We'd like to pick our own lawyers, that way nobody can steal our land.Evangeline Downey

Colwell promised Downey that a community meeting would be held at a future date. Downey later told reporters that meetings should be held in each community.

Spencer Colley, chair of the East Preston Ratepayers Community Development Association, said while he doesn't believe there is widespread mistrust of the government's plan, there are historic grievances at play.

"People want to get something that they own that they have been on for so long,'' said Colley. "Yes there is mistrust, but again we have to learn to start trusting and get the work done.''

Spencer Colley, chair of an East Preston ratepayers association, speaking at Wedesday's press conference.

A pilot project involving volunteers in the North Preston area and the Nova Scotia Barristers' Society has been working for the past few years to help residents with their ownership battles.

Dwight Adams of the North Preston Land Recovery Initiative said it's still not known how many African Nova Scotians are affected by land ownership issues.

Adams said it is something the new government program will have to sort out.

"We have to find out exactly what those numbers are. We have people that have been battling this forever and a day.''

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