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Dispute over surface rights board
Alternatives North warns of possible destruction of homes and business to make way for prospecting

Simon Whitehouse
Northern News Services
Published Saturday, January 26, 2013

The federal government's plan for a new regulatory body in the NWT to rule on disputes over surface and subsurface rights on private lands met with praise and criticism during committee hearings in Yellowknife on Thursday.

NNSL photo/graphic

Pam Strand, president of Shear Minerals in the fall of 2004, president points toward the horizon with Johanna Tuck while prospecting for potential drill targets on the Barrenlands. The government is proposing a surface rights board for the NWT with a goal of providing greater investor certainty. - photo courtesy of Shear Minerals

One side argues the proposed NWT Surface Rights Board is not needed as there are already mechanisms in place to deal with disputes, even arguing the legislation that's creating the board would allow mining interests to develop mineral claims on private property in Yellowknife and other NWT communities, with could “destroy homes and private businesses in the process.”

“We don't see a pressing need for this legislation and there are already provisions in place for the resolution of surface rights disputes,” said Kevin O'Reilly on behalf of Alternatives North, noting the resolution mechanisms available in various land claims acts, NWT mining regulations, and the Canada Oil and Gas Operations Act.

“We're not convinced there is a need for this legislation because it creates uncertainty, and overlap and will cost taxpayers more money, so it is not really required.”

The NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines and the GNWT's Department of Industry,

Tourism and Investment, however, spoke out in favour of the legislation, pointing to the need to strengthen its regulatory framework so that potential outside investors would have more confidence they will get a return on their money.

Chamber of commerce president Hughie Graham said the surface rights board would allow the NWT to catch up with other jurisdictions in Canada, including Nunavut and the Yukon, as the NWT is one of the last to put in regulations around private investment, pointing to the Fraser Institute's annual survey of mining companies last February, which called the NWT one of the most corrupt places in the developed world to do business.

“It gives investment certainty that there is a mechanism in place, should you need to go there,” said Graham, adding it should be an obvious addition, given that all land claims signed in the NWT call for the development of a surface rights board.

According to the proposed Surface Rights Board Act, the five-member dispute settlement panel would be appointed by the minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development to “resolve disputes over terms and conditions and compensation” when subsurface rights come into conflict with private land ownership. Private landowners do not typically have subsurface rights.

The board would be an avenue of last resort should holders of surface and subsurface rights cannot reach an agreement on access. This would effect, for example, prospectors or resource-based companies holding subsurface mineral and oil and gas claims underneath private lands.

Members of the House of Commons standing committee hearing arguments about the legislation include Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington and chair Chris Warkentin, a Conservative Party MP from Peace River.

Warkentin said the hearing in Yellowknife was an opportunity for local groups to provide input on the legislation. He expects further hearings to take place in Ottawa before a draft bill is sent to the Senate in February. At some point in the spring, Warkentin said the bill will be presented to the aboriginal affairs minister to bring to the House of Commons for a vote.

“We are hearing that legislative certainty and completing provisions that have been committed as far back as 20 years is essential,” said Warkentin.

“It is important to move forward, to First Nations people as well as other people living in the Northwest Territories.”

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