Nova Scotia Housing Minister John Lohr has heeded concerns expressed by community leaders and amended a piece of legislation related to Halifax Regional Municipality bylaws in order to give clear protection to historic Black communities.
At issue is a bill before the legislature that gives Lohr and future ministers the ability to nullify any new bylaw in Halifax Regional Municipality within six months of second reading if the minister deems that bylaw an impediment to housing development and construction.
Lohr has said the move, which has drawn the ire of municipal officials, is related specifically to an amendment to the HRM noise bylaw that would curtail how late construction crews are permitted to work. The minister has said the change is necessary to help address the province's housing crisis.
However, the bill does not explicitly refer to the noise bylaw, and that was cause for concern for residents of historic Black communities.
In an open letter addressed to Premier Tim Houston and copied to Lohr and African Nova Scotian Affairs Minister Pat Dunn, Vanessa Fells, director of operations for the African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent Coalition, said the change is "deeply concerning as it could nullify all the work African Nova Scotian (ANS) communities have done to protect and preserve their historic communities in favour of land developers."
"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 writes that any efforts to expedite and streamline the building process cannot come at the expense of African Nova Scotian communities.
"We are among the founding settled people of this country and this province and despite having endured sustained oppression to this day, we have helped to build this country and province into what it is today," Fells wrote.
"This new bill as is currently proposed is another form of structural discrimination and anti-Black racism which will have dire consequences for the ANS historic communities if nothing is done to protect them."
A move to reassure
The amendment Lohr tabled Thursday evening states that any bylaw that "exclusively impacts marginalized communities, including African Nova Scotia and Mi'kmaq communities," would require the minister to consult with representatives of the impacted communities to ensure their protection before any changes could be made.
After the amendment passed and the bill moved to third reading, Lohr said he recognized the historic concerns expressed by Fells and other people who contacted the government and he wanted to ease their minds.
"I have no interest at all in impacting those communities negatively. In fact, we want to build them up and help them," he said in an interview.
"It was a desire just to reassure them."
New Democrat MLA Suzy Hansen welcomed the amendment by the government and said it shows Lohr and his colleagues are listening to community concerns.
Hansen said the lesson from all of this is the importance for the government to tap into available expertise when it comes to changes that could affect marginalized communities.
"You have a number of people from different communities that could actually give you valuable information on how to move forward with a number of pieces of legislation and yet we continue to see legislation that lacks that lens of the different communities in which we serve," she said in an interview at Province House.
WATCH | Residents of a Black Nova Scotian community are concerned about increased development
Earlier in the day, Lohr was asked by reporters about the community's concerns and he attempted to allay them. The amendment was drafted not long after that.
"Sometimes things happen quickly in government," he said.
Hansen said the change by Lohr shows the importance of the public paying attention to what's happening at Province House and how bills moving through the legislature could affect different communities.
"The communities need to be paying attention to what's happening right now," she said.
"Your voices are powerful."
Liberal MLA Angela Simmonds, who represents the district of Preston, likewise lauded the efforts by community leaders to bring concerns to the minister's attention.
She noted the quick turnaround from when letters started being delivered to government members and the amendment being tabled in the legislature.
"The very issue with that shows that there was no consultation or consideration of even what the concerns were in community," she told reporters on Friday.
Simmonds said she's concerned the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs might not be consulted the way it should be on issues such as this before government members bring forward legislation. She wants there to be some kind of advisory process that includes all 52 historic Black communities in Nova Scotia.
"We should be listened to in the beginning of conversations and not in the end."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
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