Farmers market awaits talks between feds, Mi'kmaq over Crown land

The future of the Charlottetown Farmers' Market is somewhat unclear, because of discussions over who should own the Crown land it has been leasing.  

The market co-operative has leased a corner of the former Experimental Farm land on Belvedere Avenue — one hectare, or 2.3 acres — from Agriculture Canada for 34 years, but its lease ran out. 

The market applied last year to renew its lease for five years, which triggered a process under which governments must consult Indigenous people on Crown land transactions. 

Now the co-op, which owns the building, is waiting for Agriculture Canada and P.E.I.'s Mi'kmaq people to meet, discuss and decide the future of the land. 

The co-op wants to carry out renovations and improvements including new bathrooms, a new eating area and deck, and covering for more vendors in the parking lot. 

Any funders including governments and banks want to see a long-term lease in place before they will commit funds, said market manager Bernie Plourde — so major improvements are on hold until the lease issue can be worked out. 

"Our lease is on a month-to-month at the present time so it's difficult to access monies," he said. 

"We feel hopeful. We've been here 35 years," said Ploude, adding that the parties the co-op has met with agree the market should remain there.

Duty to consult Indigenous people

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada would not do an interview with CBC News, but media relations spokesperson James Watson responded via email to questions. 

Contributed

"AAFC is aware that the Farmers' Market is interested in renewing its lease," Watson wrote. "We are currently exploring options in alignment with the Government of Canada's policy framework. As part of this process, AAFC will be consulting with Indigenous communities."

Watson said the process government must follow concerning any activities on federal lands that may be of interest to Indigenous communities "is systematic and thorough. For this reason, it takes some time to complete." 

He said the consultation will include all Indigenous communities in the region, although he would not say which groups the department plans to meet with or when. He also would not say whether the consultations would include the entire farm property or just the hectare the market is on, "to respect the confidential nature of ongoing discussions."

Watson added that "the local Indigenous community is aware of the ongoing negotiations."

'No issue with the farmers market'

P.E.I.'s Mi'kmaq people have said for years they are interested in owning the entire approximately 35-hectare farm property.

Laura Chapin/CBC

A decade ago, the Mi'kmaq Confederacy even submitted a proposal for the property that included green space, a convention centre and apartments for seniors. Agriculture Canada decided instead to keep the land, where Watson said it now conducts important research.

Jenene Wooldridge heads L'nuey, a newly-formed sister organization to P.E.I.'s Mi'kmaq Confederacy that deals with rights-based issues on P.E.I. such as land.

She said neither her organization nor the confederacy has heard from the federal government about the property. 

"The Mi'kmaq have had a long history with regard to Mi'kmaq interest in this land." said Wooldridge. "The P.E.I. Mi'kmaq have reached out a number of times to Agriculture Canada requesting a good-faith negotiation process and have not yet received a response." 

"There's no issue with the farmers market and their good work," she added. 

She said L'nuey is interested in having the entire farm for the Mi'kmaq people, but would be happy to enter into a lease with the farmers market. 

"The P.E.I. Mi'kmaq recognize the benefit of the farmers market and if the Mi'kmaq were in control of the land, they would support a long-term lease with the farmer's market," said Wooldridge, reading from a statement from Lennox Island Chief Darlene Bernard. 

'Another 35 years'

For now, the farmers market will remain where it is, Plourde said. 

He said the co-op is hoping the lease can be secured within the next year.

"We hope that we'll be here for another 35 years," he said.  

Plourde said the co-op had shopped around in the last few years for a larger space to accommodate the market's long waiting list of vendors, but it was not able to find anything in its price range.

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