GUYSBOROUGH – A joint meeting of members of the African Nova Scotian community and the Municipality of the District of Guysborough (MODG) council was held at the Chedabucto Lifestyle Complex in Guysborough on Feb. 2. The meeting, which will be an annual event, was set to hear directly from community members about their concerns and issues.
At the outset, MODG Warden Pitts noted that the municipality was the only one in the province that had a designated seat at council, held by Mary G. Desmond, representing African Nova Scotian communities. He added that the theme for African Heritage Month this year — Through our eyes: the voices of African Nova Scotians — is “a reminder to me and all of us, of the importance of not only hearing from you but also actively listening … We want to listen to you today, to hear you, to work with you and councillor Desmond and the entire African Nova Scotian community on an ongoing basis to gain a more meaningful understanding on how to make our world a better place. And we know … action is how our word will be measured.”
Community member Sabrina Skinner raised the first issue – housing.
Skinner said, “We have a big issue with housing … we find that if we have some land trust that keeps our lands within us, that we can actually then start to apply for some housing to be in the African Nova Scotian communities that are in desperate need of housing.”
Desmond presented some comments from a community member detailing the barriers to housing for members of the African Nova Scotian community, including systemic racism, high unemployment, unavailable housing and “even the financial barriers that are facing African Nova Scotians to get funding to even get a mortgage. It’s really hard for people in a small, rural community to get housing.”
“The Nova Scotia Affordable Housing Commission did give the mandate — in their commission report — to empower the municipality to be key partners in affordable housing,” said Desmond, asking what the MODG would do with that empowerment.
MODG CAO Barry Carroll said that housing would be on the upcoming municipal planning session. He went on to say that housing falls under the jurisdiction of the provincial and federal levels of government.
The MODG has always been willing to be a partner and that traditionally has looked like making land available, said Carroll, adding, “The difficulty for municipalities is that I don’t think anybody wants to get into building and being a landlord. That’s not the role of municipalities. So, that’s the challenge — how far does the municipality go?
“Right now, coming out of the commission that was referenced, they’re going out for an RFP (request for proposals) … to look at housing in every municipality in the province. And they’re not looking at reporting back until next January,” said Carroll, who suggested the Department of Nova Scotian Affairs could do a housing needs assessment for African Nova Scotian communities in MODG.
In the real estate boom that has swept through Nova Scotia since the pandemic struck, African Nova Scotian communities across the province have voiced concerns about gentrification in their communities. This scooping up of land by non-African Nova Scotians in traditionally Black communities is a concern outside of the Halifax Regional Municipality, including the African Nova Scotian communities in the MODG, said Desmond.
Skinner said, “When it comes to land trust, you could actually help us out by not selling off our land and making sure that our land is not being sold off, that it is being first offered to our communities. Cause that’s what’s going to end up taking place because we have a lot of aging seniors and when they leave their land to go on to the next generation, if they’re not knowing the situations that happen, it’s going to go up for tax sale. We are going to have people come in here and take away Sunnyville, Lincolnville and Upper Big Tracadie right in front of our eyes.”
The issue of clarifying land ownership has a long history in African Nova Scotian communities. The provincial government has recognized this stating, “For more than 200 years, many African Nova Scotians have been living on land passed down by their ancestors without clear land title. Without clear title, they can’t get a mortgage, bequeath or sell their land, or access housing grants. Clarifying land title can be an expensive legal process. Under the Land Titles Initiative, all fees will be covered at no cost.”
The provincial Land Titles Initiative is ongoing and includes lands in Lincolnville and Sunnyville.
Speaking for the MODG on this matter, Shawn Andrews said, “On that file, the municipality was approached about what we could do to assist with that. Through council’s discretion and policies, it was recommended that we want to do our part so there are properties that were up for tax sale, if you will, or going through the title verification process, that have many years of outstanding taxes, outstanding interest … when it’s gone through land title verification, when it’s issued its certificate then the municipality has now, by policy, agreed that any back taxes, any interest, anything outstanding will be written off. So, there won’t be expectation for a new property owner to have to come up with $5,000 or $2,500 in back taxes. That’s all been agreed upon to be written off.
“That is something that council has approved this past year, unanimously, for that program,” concluded Andrews.
After further discussion, it was agreed that MODG staff would look into the possibility of creating a land trust within municipal boundaries.
The next item on the agenda was employment. Desmond told council that the African Nova Scotian community would like to see more community members working in public-facing roles within the municipality. “We do not see any minorities in the front line of the municipality. We see them over at the landfill and that’s it. We don’t see them over in the office…we don’t see ourselves reflected in the town of Guysborough and it would be nice.”
Carroll responded by stating that the MODG actively seeks to employ members of the African Nova Scotian community, “That is a priority for me; diversity.”
In a review of the past 10 full-time jobs advertised, Carroll said, only three members of the African Nova Scotian community had applied, and he added, in one instance the job was offered and declined.
Despite advertising on social media, the MODG website and the local newspaper, listening to what community members said about employment within the MODG, Carroll responded, “I think we are not getting the message out to people. We advertise … but we’re not getting applications.”
With further discussion, Carroll said, “Now that we know it’s not getting to you [notice of employment opportunities], we’ll try some other ways to do that.”
At the end of the meeting – Warden Pitts presented Desmond with a framed copy of her children’s book, Good Morning, Mr. Charlie, to be hung in the Chedabucto Lifesytle Complex.