A multi-million dollar luxury lodge project near Dettah has been shelved amid a land claims lawsuit filed by the Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN) against the territorial government.
The suit concerns the government’s alleged lack of consultation in its use of traditional YKDFN lands going back 31 years.
The lands in question were the site of the old Somba K’e Treatment Centre, about five kilometres up the Dettah Road from the Yellowknives community of Dettah. The centre has been demolished and the luxury Skywatch Lodge and Spa project was slated to be built there in 2018.
Vancouver-based Coromandel Properties and Pure North Lodges & Camps (previously working as Solstice Destinations for the project) were the initial partners in the scheme.
Lack of consultation
“(The GNWT) did the land transfer without telling us. They had a 30-year lease and it expired. In the agreement it says the land should revert back to the First Nation. But they didn’t tell us that they sold it to somebody. And that somebody turned out to be the guy who was doing the resort,” as Edward Sangris, chief of the Dettah YKDFN told Yellowknifer.
The First Nation is suing the GNWT for transferring the land to third parties – including Coromandel – without consultation, according to the statement of claim filed with the NWT Supreme Court on July 21, 2017.
Document phase of case
Even though the case was filed almost three years ago, the government and YKDFN’s counsel are still gathering their documents, said Magnolia Unka-Wool, one of the lawyers representing the First Nation.
“We’re in document phase now. The parties usually work together on the preparation of those documents and getting them together so all the evidence is presented to court. You never know where it might go. When a statement of claim is filed it could be a trial or it could settle,” said Unka-Wool, who works with the firm Olthuis, Kleer, Townshend LLP.
The statement says the project site is located on traditional Yellowknives Dene lands, still used for hunting and trapping and within Dettah’s proposed community boundary.
YKDFN is also seeking $5 million in damages for the government’s failure to honour the First Nation’s Section 35 rights under the Constitution Act of 1982, which safeguards Indigenous and treaty rights.
31-year-old land issue
The First Nation said in the statement that the government’s lack of consultation over the land’s management goes back to 1989 when the GNWT issued a 30-year lease to Northern Addiction Services to build the treatment centre.
The land changed hands several times without the First Nation being consulted, YKDFN said, including in July of 2015 when the NWT Housing Corporation sold the land to Arctic Outback Corporation for $880,000, and in November of that year when Arctic Outback transferred it to Coromandel for $1.5 million.
Coromandel assumed freehold tenure over the land, according to a report from the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board (MVLWB).
The real estate firm still legally owns the two plots of land at the site, according to the certificate of title issued by the NWT Land Titles Office.
Luxury lodge put on hold
Construction of 41,000 square feet of new buildings for the $25 million lodge was reported by NNSL Media to have begun in May of 2017, with the first guests expected to be booked by 2018.
A land and water board report confirms that a construction permit was issued to Coromandel that month.
But by October of that year construction had paused and Coromandel CEO Jerry Zhong said the project was on hold, though he anticipated work would resume in 2018.
By May 3, 2019 the permit had expired and in fact it “was never activated; as in, they never started activities that triggered the need for the permit,” said Shelagh Montgomery, MVLMB executive director.
Attempts to reach Zhong for this story were unsuccessful and Pure North CEO Deneen Allen told NNSL Media she couldn’t comment on the project.
As the document phase of the lawsuit slowly unfolds, Sangris said it’s hard to know how things will turn out.
“We don’t know what this current government is thinking of doing about it, we still have to talk with them.”