The Government of the Northwest Territories has made last-minute changes to a planned closure of the Land Titles Office amid much protest by real estate professionals.

The chief medical health officer ordered GNWT workers to work from home starting Thursday unless they were essential workers.

Real estate professionals in the city railed against the decision to close the Land Titles Office at the Stuart Hodgson Building as they are not considered “essential workers.” The office is necessary to facilitate property transfers and land sales.

Adrian Bell, president of the Yellowknife Real Estate Board, said he spent much of March 18-19 advocating for Justice Minister Caroline Wawzonek, whose department administers the office, to reverse the decision.

The Press Secretary’s office was asked about the Land Titles Office and the implications its closure could have on real estate transactions. GNWT staff stated that amendments were made to the planned closure to allow for continued filing of necessary documents.

“Legal Registries and the Department of Justice have developed an option that will allow the continued filing of documents in the Land Titles Registry during the current circumstances, with the health and safety of employees and the public remaining as the primary consideration,” the office announced in a March 19 email.

Thomas Hall, director of land registries with the GNWT Department of Justice, issued a two-page letter to the Law Society of the Northwest Territories and members of the bar on March 19 stating that there will be some allowances permitted.

“In acting to protect the health and safety of employees, the Government of the Northwest Territories closed all non-essential offices and required employees to work from home where possible,” states the letter. “This includes the closure of the Land Titles Office, although it was understood that a long-term closure of the Land Titles would have significant implications. While the health and safety of our employees must remain paramount, options for providing reduced services at the Land Titles Office on a temporary basis have been evaluated.”



The letter goes on to state that the office “will continue operations during normal business hours” starting March 20.

However, these will come with restrictions, including the office remaining closed to the public. In addition, those seeking to submit documents to the office can only do so by appointment or via mail.

One appointment per day

“Only one appointment will be allowed per day,” Hall stated in the letter. “When the submitter comes to our office they must not be exhibiting any symptoms of COVID-19 or they will be asked to leave.”

Other stipulations include that submitters need to “knock on the back door of the office and must wait to be acknowledged by staff.”

This will be followed by an invitation to drop off documents in a specific bin with no physical contact with staff.

“Any returned documents will be signed out at the same time, and will be placed in the bin in advance of the submitter’s appointment time,” states the letter.

The letter also states that any other searches or services will be conducted at the counter and no discussion will be permitted regarding the documents between the submitter and the staff during the appointment.

Other services 

Hall wrote that other services will be available from staff through email or by phone or fax.

“We would stress that service levels may be reduced during this time and may change as circumstances dictate,” Hall stated.

Other department offices closed include Corporate Registries, the Personal Property Registry and Administrator of Commissioners for Oaths and Notaries Public.

Online services will continue, including land title searches, the Corporate Registries online system and the personal property online registry system.

Yellowknife realtors protested a decision to close completely the Land Titles office at the Stuart Hodgson building last week. The Department of Justice has responded and made some amendments to ensure physical title transactions can still be transferred.
image sourced from Google Streetview

Realtors respond

Bell commended the decision in an email on March 19.

“Land Titles has amended their decision to close,” he stated. “The Justice Minister and a few MLAs (Rylund Johnson and Caitlin Cleveland among them) really stepped up and acted quickly. ”

Johnson said in a statement that he was glad the office will be open during limited hours while maintaining public safety. He said he hopes it will show the need to bring land titles services online.

“It is important to understand that closing land titles means that no one is able to a get a mortgage or transfer property,” he said. “We are likely to see various changes in mortgaging with Canada’s largest banks announcing deferrals, and it is important we have the office open to ensure homeowners can respond as needed if any filings are required at land titles. Mortgages underpin our economy and it is important we allow a way for real property to continue to be bought, sold and mortgaged over the coming months. Ending the sale of all property in the territory would exacerbate the economic aspect of this crisis unnecessarily.”

Earlier in the day, Rod Stirling, a realtor with Coldwell Banker, had stated that the implications of not having some staff at the office to oversee the transfer of title and closure of sales could have posed serious problems for sellers and buyers of homes – and by extension several workers associated with the real estate economy.

“The whole process impacts a huge amount of people. You look at the real estate process – it is bankers, it is buyers, sellers, realtors, appraisers, movers, insurance companies, or utility providers,” he said. “Real estate is the biggest investment that somebody makes in their lives and to have that put on hold with the closure of an office has a huge impact. The financial repercussions are huge as well.”

Stirling said in Canada, most land titles offices are electronic, but the Northwest Territories is different.

“Here it is done manually through a registration system so you need a body to examine documents and register documents on a manual system,” he said. “It is more than just a paper push because banks don’t allow money advanced and transferred until it is registered on title. It doesn’t get registered on title unless the office is open.

“So you have got pending sales and if they hear that title transfers can’t occur, then they don’t move.

“The government should deem it an essential service. There are a lot of government people working from home, but this is one office where you couldn’t do it from home.”

Simon Whitehouse

Simon Whitehouse came to Yellowknife to work with Northern News Services in 2011. Simon obtained his journalism education at Algonquin College and the University of Ottawa. Simon can be reached at...

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