Black advocacy group concerned about consultations with province after Bill 225 passes

The leader of a Black advocacy organization says she wants to know the goal of future consultations between the province and the Black community with respect to land allocation, expropriation, or development in the province’s Black communities. Those concerns about consultations come after recent amendments to Bill 225.

“Is it just for them to inform the community of the decisions that have already been made, or are they actively going to listen to the community and use the recommendations from the community before they make decisions?” said Vanessa Fells, the director of the African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent Coalition (ANSDPAD).

“And so, it’s concerning because we don't know.”

Bill 225 gives authorization to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing “to nullify a by-law of the Halifax Regional Municipality within six months of its passing.

Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr argued he needed the new law to switch the cut-off time for construction in Halifax back to 9:30pm instead of 8pm in an effort to speed up the construction of housing during the housing crisis.

Halifax regional councillors and Mayor Mike Savage spoke out publicly against the bill, saying the amendments are “not about construction and blasting hours,” but rather “about seizing new ministerial powers.”

The amendment in Bill 225 also says the government “shall conduct consultations” with representatives of marginalized and racialized communities that could be “exclusively” impacted by changes to municipal housing and development by-laws set forth by the province.

The amendment, however, doesn’t specify or define the nature of “consultations.”

The topic of Bill 225 was addressed on several occasions during a hybrid in-person and virtual meeting in Cherry Brook last week on the topic of a community land trust development in the Prestons.

Curtis Whiley, the manager of the provincial Land Titles Initiative, said the amendment could have used “stronger language.”

“I think the word ‘exclusively’ affecting African Nova Scotian communities is complicated because there are no by-laws or laws that often ‘exclusively’ affect our communities, but they’ve certainly disproportionately affected our communities. And so that’s a big one.”

Carolann Wright, the director of strategic initiatives and capacity building at the Greater Halifax Partnership, echoed Whiley’s thoughts, saying the term exclusively “means the onus is on us [Black people] to then prove how it would then impact the community. So, that’s another thing for us that we would have to ensure.”

A letter written by Fells to Premier Tim Houston did not specify the nature of what consultations would look like. However, in debate about the bill in the legislature in November, Preston MLA Angela Simmonds read a detailed definition previously set forth by ANSDPAD and the African Nova Scotian Justice Institute. That definition of consultations includes public meetings.

The amendment also doesn’t include ANSDPAD’s proposal for an advisory board of African Nova Scotia (ANS) members from all HRM historic ANS communities when any application for deeds or development [are] proposed in any historic ANS communities.

In the legislature, members of the opposing NDP and Liberal parties proposed amendments to the bill.

They said they heard from members of Black communities in HRM who were concerned the bill could lead to the displacement of Black people in those communities by way of land expropriation and the development of unaffordable housing.

Residents said this is already an ongoing issue in places like Beechville and Hammonds Plains.

The Progressive Conservatives voted down all of those initial amendments.

“The changes proposed to Bill 225 would allow the provincial government to bypass Halifax Regional Municipality’s procedures for obtaining land deeds permits and allow the province to authorize developers' permits for land.” Fells said, in part, in a letter to Premier Tim Houston on behalf of ANSDPAD.

“Without safeguards within Bill 225 to protect the historic ANS communities in HRM the outcome could be disastrous. If this bill passes as currently proposed, it will allow the further gentrification and possible erasure of our historic ANS communities within HRM.”

Fells then proposed two safeguards::

In a rare move, the PC government amended its own bill after Lohr received a copy of ANSDPADs letter to Houston and as Black community members mobilized, wrote letters, and put out calls for people to show up to the legislature to sit in on the final vote,

The vote was then delayed four days following the amendment.

The amendment read:

In debate over the bill in the legislature, Preston MLA Angela Simmonds and Halifax Needham’s Suzy Hansen also criticized the fact that they said the bill didn’t go through the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs or the Office of Equity and Anti-Racism Initiatives.

“There's a reason that community folks mistrust because the same thing continues to happen. Our perspective, our voices are not included until after the fact,” Simmonds said. “And then for some reason, they turn around and blame us for showing up, for not trusting. When it all could have been avoided if the necessary work was done beforehand.”

Hansen pointed out the fact that she had spoken to several previous amendments the week prior and asked why the government voted each of them down if their intention was simply to deal with noise and construction by-laws.

“[This is] one of the many reasons why the African Nova Scotian community was so up in arms about the minister's role as a white male," Hansens said. "How are we as African Nova Scotians supposed to feel like you have our back if you're not able to recognize these types of harms?”

Lohr, who introduced the bill and the final amendment was last to speak and said it was never his intention for the bill to cause harm.

“I just want to stress that I can't imagine how it would be in the public interest in any way, shape, or form to manage to damage or injure or further marginalize these historically marginalized communities,” Lohr said.

Lohr said the nature of consultations within Black or other marginalized communities would be figured out in the moment.

The amended version of the bill was then passed.

Fells said she believes Lohr when he said he didn’t intend to harm any marginalized communities, but that “intent and impact are two completely different things.”

“We're happy that the amendment went in because at least it meant that the government heard some of what the community was saying,” Fells said.

“If they're very serious about not wanting to create any harm and to negatively impact these communities, then I think listening to and taking them seriously and even putting into this bill our definition of what consultation means would be important,” Fells said.

Matthew Byard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Halifax Examiner