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Friday, August 14, 2020

Nova Scotia court decision should help Black landowners prove ownership of inherited property

Back in the 1800s, plots of land in Nova Scotia were given to Loyalists who fought alongside the British during the American Revolution. Plots were also given to former slaves who fled to Canada after the war of 1812. Apparently at the time, only white settlers received a deed to their property. Black settlers did not.

As you can imagine, this lack of proof of ownership has had a profound effect on the lives and estates of Black settlers over the years and continues to have a negative effect today. How do you prove you own land you inherited from your parents or grandparents if they themselves never had proof of ownership? Hoping to improve the clearly racist situation, the provincial government of Nova Scotia introduced a new law in 1963 that was intended to help Black families clarify their ownership of land and obtain deeds where appropriate. 

However, things did not really go according to plan. Applications by families who could not prove a continuous 20-year residency were denied. Recently a man named Christopher Downey challenged this 20-year-residency rule in the courts. He had grown up on a property that had been in his family for generations, then spent some time in Toronto before returning home. At the time he applied to clarify his title, he had only lived there for 19 years and was therefore denied.

Mr. Downey's court application was successful. The court struck down the rule regarding the requirement to live there for 20 years, as it was not part of the 1963 legislation and it wasn't clear where that particular idea had come from in the first place.

I am personally really pleased with this decision. It removes one major impediment to fairness.

If you'd like to read a story in Canadian Lawyer that describes Mr. Downey's case in more detail and discusses its impact on affected families, click here

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