Canadian Heritage Minister offers collaboration on Lunenburg’s pitch for UNESCO funding

(L-R: Deputy Mayor Stephen Ernst and Mayor Jamie Myra present Pascale St-Onge, Minister of Canadian Heritage, with a book of Ernst’s photography. Photo: Jesse Ward)

The Barnacle was present for the Minister of Canadian Heritage’s first visit to Lunenburg, when Pascale St-Onge met with Town of Lunenburg leadership at Town Hall on Monday.

St-Onge was in Nova Scotia to attend the Juno Awards held in Halifax on Sunday, where she announced a renewal to the Canada Music Fund and fulfilled the tradition of handing over the award for Breakthrough Artist of the Year. (This year, Ottawa singer-songwriter TALK joined the likes of Drake and Alanis Morisette.)

Outside of the show’s venue, the Scotiabank Centre, more than 100 people held a protest with signs and chants calling for housing affordability – and opposing Halifax clearing out designated encampment sites in February.

(Protesters gather outside the 2024 Junos in Halifax. Photo: Jesse Ward)

Halifax has experienced a one percent vacancy rate for the last four years, with the price of rent increasing above the national average at 11.9 per cent over the last year. In early February, the town de-designated five encampment sites including Parade Square – adjacent to the Scotiabank Centre – and 55 people moved to other housing or shelter options. More than 1000 people in Halifax experience homelessness.

Amidst our national housing crisis, housing was the topic on St-Onge’s itinerary Monday afternoon, during her first visit to Lunenburg.

Following a closed meeting between St-Onge and Town leadership, the Barnacle had the opportunity to ask the minister about local housing challenges, and what role the federal government should play in providing regular funding for costs associated with maintaining the Old Town Lunenburg UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Minister’s visit follows federal housing funding for Lunenburg

St-Onge’s visit to South Shore–St Margarets was on the heels of the March 11 announcement that Lunenburg, Chester and King’s County were successful in their applications for the federal Housing Accelerator Fund (HAF).

Lunenburg is scheduled to receive “more than $1.1 million” over three years through the program, subject to satisfactory progress reviews.

Lunenburg applied for the Housing Accelerator Fund last August in an application prepared by Hilary Grant, then Senior Planner & Heritage Officer and now Director of Community Development.

In a release, the Town says this fund “will result in a total of 135 new units over the next three years.”

The provincial government’s five-year housing plan released last October estimated Lunenburg’s housing unit shortage at 65 as of the end of 2022, with the shortage projected to rise to 120 units by 2027.

The release says the Town intends to use the funds for these six initiatives:

  • “Work to establish comprehensive development districts and a new policy to transfer municipally owned land to developers to build new homes including 10% affordable housing.”
  • “Implement an incentive program to increase the number of affordable homes.”
  • “Roll out a policy that provides a rebate on municipal fees for creating new accessible units to help meet the needs of an aging population.”
  • “The Town will also implement a heritage conservation plan and bylaw to promote redevelopment of underused sites close to amenities.
  • “Develop a new sustainable infrastructure policy to subsidize infrastructure costs that align with housing targets.”

The Barnacle emailed Michael Best, Communications Manager with the Town of Lunenburg, asking how it was calculated that these initiatives will result in 135 new units within three years.

“The number of 135 comes from the province’s housing needs assessment for the Town of Lunenburg. Every municipality had to submit a housing needs assessment with their application,” writes Best.

“The six initiatives are not housing development projects. They are systemic reforms aimed at diminishing obstacles to the housing supply, thereby expediting the construction of more residences. The monies are not awarded by CMHC to fund specific building projects. Any monies given to builders by the Town of Lunenburg from this funding for future development projects will be awarded by Council through competitive grant and incentive programs.”

Town leadership holds closed meeting with Minister

Local media were invited to attend a meeting between St-Onge and Lunenburg Mayor Jamie Myra, CAO Jamie Doyle, Deputy Mayor Stephen Ernst, Councillor Peter Mosher and Director of Community Development Hilary Grant.

The meeting was scheduled on the topic of Lunenburg’s Housing Accelerator Fund action plan.

The group held a conversation on solutions to housing challenges in rural Canada. St-Onge related stories from her experience as Member of Parliament for the Quebec riding of Brome—Missisquoi, which has 35 municipalities. Lunenburg’s leaders shared details on current challenges associated with maintenance of heritage properties, and with accelerating development while maintaining UNESCO World Heritage Site status for Old Town Lunenburg.

(Mayor Jamie Myra, CAO Jamie Doyle, Pascale St-Onge and Councillor Peter Mosher. Photo: Jesse Ward)

After about eight minutes, the two journalists in the room were asked by Michael Best to go wait in the hallway so the group could speak without us present, at the request of Mayor Myra.

After approximately ten minutes of waiting in the hallway, The Barnacle and LighthouseNow were permitted to re-enter Council Chambers, where St-Onge was presented with a copy of Deputy Mayor Stephen Ernst’s book of photography, Lunenburg: A History in Pictures.

Minister and Mayor answer questions on housing challenges, UNESCO funding

Following the meeting, the minister was available for interviews.

On what the Town discussed with the minister

LighthouseNow reporter Keith Corcoran asked why the media had been asked to leave shortly after the meeting started.

Mayor Jamie Myra responded: “We just felt we wanted to have a bit of time between the Minister and ourselves and just have a little discussion, just in case there are some things we talk about number-wise – we don’t know numbers, per se – we were throwing around some pretty wide numbers and things, and the last thing we wanted was a number quoted that might not be an actual number, because we don’t have actual numbers for some things.”

“We were throwing out figures and facts that we’ve heard, that we think are pretty factual, but it might not be the real number. So we just wanted to talk in private, it was supposed to be an informal meeting and we wanted to make it a bit less formal for a bit, and it was only ten minutes.”

Corcoran asked what topics numbers were thrown around about.

Myra responded: “The main topic that we threw around from our perspective was the two buildings, this building [Lunenburg Town Hall] and the Old Fire Hall, and their age and the infrastructure that’s needed to remain in these buildings. And where that infrastructure money could possibly come from in the future, because as you’ve heard us say before, we have 2,000 people roughly in four square kilometres to pay, say, $20 million plus to fix this building up – it’s a number that the citizens of Lunenburg just couldn’t afford to do.”

“So, we were talking about the numbers we’re going to have to deal with in the not-so-distant future, and the fact these numbers have been brought up previously, but now we’re getting to the point where we actually have to do some action on these facilities, or we won’t be able to be in them.”

Corcoran then asked St-Onge why the Minister of Heritage was here to speak about housing.

St-Onge replied, “We’re talking about a bunch of different issues, but I’ve been in Halifax since Friday for the Junos. I took the opportunity to come here because it’s a town that looks a lot like mine. I come from a rural area also in the Eastern Townships in Quebec, and I know that there are many challenges that rural communities or smaller towns face, including maintaining heritage buildings and very important historic sites. I am all for collaboration and talking about challenges and figuring things out together.”

“Like we were saying, we always get involved in public service because we care for our citizens and we care for the community we live in. The best way to achieve success in completing projects and putting them in place is collaboration, and this is what this meeting was about. Hearing their challenges – because, urban areas but also rural areas, we all face challenges about housing, making sure people have an affordable place to live. We were talking about the Housing Accelerator Fund and the action plan the Town is putting in place to build those rental units and housing for the community, and to try to bring the price down, because that’s the goal that we’re trying to achieve.”

On federal commitments for infrastructure

Corcoran asked: “I know there have been commitments to housing units. The Housing Accelerator fund has been a popular topic. But a lot of these towns, including this one, have stuff that’s beneath the surface that’s really really old, or they don’t know that it’s there, or it appears and it shouldn’t be there. So how much of a funding commitment is the federal government prepared to make to towns like Lunenburg to help them to be able to service the housing promises you guys are making?”

St-Onge replied: “Absolutely. I definitely think this is a great thing about Sean Fraser being both Infrastructure Minister as well as Housing, because they are tied together. For sure in my own riding, where there’s 35 different municipalities, this is all part of the conversations we’re having. It’s not only about building the houses, it’s also about making sure there’s proper wastewater management, that there’s the water system and everything that’s in place for a municipality to actually build those houses. I don’t have numbers, but we know this is a challenge, and it takes all levels of government to be able to address these issues. A lot of municipal infrastructures have been built years ago, and a lot of them need to be renovated and renewed. We work in partnerships with provincial governments and municipalities to prioritize – of course, because we’re not capable of doing everything at once – but by prioritizing and addressing those challenges together, that’s the best way to accomplish it.”

On densifying rural communities that have no public transportation

The Barnacle asked about the challenge of densifying housing in rural Nova Scotia.

We asked: “Specifically in these rural areas – Chester, Lunenburg, Kings – there are very limited options for transportation, public transportation is almost nonexistent and private and community options are extremely limited. One of the goals of the Housing Accelerator Fund is increasing density, and decreasing or eliminating parking minimums wherever you can. That’s something this municipality has been facing. How can we increase density but still ensure transportation for our growing elderly population in rural areas – how can we accommodate both of those goals?”

St-Onge replied: “I think why public mobility and transportation is easier in urban areas is because there is the density, and there is the population. You can actually put in place some transportation programs that are affordable and cost-effective. I think by addressing the housing challenge we have, but doing it in a way where we plan our urban development differently, and have more density so it does become more affordable to put in place transportation and mobility projects and programs in place. It becomes easier for municipalities, and sometimes also having a few municipalities come together to organize transportation programs is part of it, especially in rural areas.”

Myra followed up, saying, “We haven’t really talked about public transit at the council level since I’ve been elected, but I know it’s been talked about in the past when I was here, and there is a joint group working on some plans. As we know, our neighbouring town Bridgewater has a great transit system, but again, they’re very dense compared to Lunenburg and there’s like 10,000 people there. So I think that’s definitely all municipalities have to look at to partner on in the future, because you can’t have 400 new homes with no parking and not expect anyone to not have a car. I think in rural Canada, the stat is still 1.4 cars per household. I would think in a place like ours with an older population it’s at least that.”

On whether the federal government should fund UNESCO heritage maintenance

The Barnacle asked: “A popular idea here in town is that the federal government should fund UNESCO World Heritage sites like Old Town Lunenburg and the Historic District of Old Québec on a regular basis. It’s something citizens bring up a lot, because the Town has significant heritage maintenance costs – it costs more than other towns may face because of compliance with World Heritage Site guidelines. Did you talk about whether the federal government should be funding World Heritage Sites that are in municipalities, and what that should look like?”

Myra said: “We gave our pitch, and it’s really the first time the Town has officially made a pitch at that level to a minister.”

“In fairness to the minister, it’s the first time she’s heard the pitch, so we didn’t get a cheque today or anything,” said Myra, laughing.

“But we definitely gave our pitch on what we need, or what we hope to receive, and we know it’s going to be a partnership down the road, but that has been talked about for, as we said – about twenty-plus years now – and hopefully, moving forward – we were able to get by over the last 20 years without significant support for these buildings, but we’re getting to the point where we’re not going to get by without significant support. So we made our pitch, and the minister received it very well.”

St-Onge followed up, saying: “I totally understand the challenge and how important receiving that designation was for Lunenburg. At the same time, it does come with heavy responsibilities on infrastructure – like this amazing building that has many issues. At the same time, that’s absolutely worth maintaining and making sure future generations can actually have access to this piece of history. So, I of course offered complete and total collaboration. We’re going to see within the Heritage Department if there is any short-term program that can bring in a little bit of support, and try to work with the municipality and provincial government as well on this very specific issue here.”

On how to communicate the value of the Housing Accelerator Fund investment

The Barnacle asked: “Something the National Housing Strategy recognizes is – it takes a long time to do housing right, to build the capacity that Canada needs, and there are a lot of things in play. The Housing Accelerator fund is specifically looking at ways to accelerate housing through decreasing regulations, making regulation processes more efficient, enabling increasing density – when you look at the funding announcements for these municipalities, they are all about bylaws and policies and efficiencies.”

“These all work as concepts in planning, but how do you effectively communicate to people that these investments in policies, bylaws and regulations are what will bring new housing, and not investments in infrastructure or actual public housing?”

St-Onge replied: “What’s important to understand is that the challenge we face in building housing, and building more affordable housing, won’t happen by magic. Municipalities and Mayors are doing the groundwork of trying to make this happen.”

“I think this is the first time there is such a fund in place to really support municipalities so they can put everything in place to accomplish this immense challenge we have. It’s not going to happen by magic, or by saying mayors are incompetent, or by bullying mayors, which I’ve heard, unfortunately.” 

“It’s really by collaborating and making sure that we support municipalities. Like we said, there’s infrastructure challenges, there’s policies and red tape that need to be changed, but if we don’t work collaboratively and put in place that winning combination, it’s just not going to happen. Just ignoring the fact that municipalities are at the forefront of that challenge is not going to work either.”

“And in Canada, we have faced past housing issues – looking at what we did after World War II when soldiers were coming back and there was a lack of housing at that time and seeing what was done then, and using great ideas such as pre-authorizing some architecture and buildings that can be re-used in different municipalities is part of the success that we’re going to achieve. But it is going to take a lot of work, and it’s work that I think we at all levels, prioritize.”

“And smaller municipalities, also – because I often have chats with Mayors in my own riding – very often don’t necessarily have the capacity to hire an urban planner, or make an action plan to review all these things. So having that financial support to hire people, hire specialists, to address real issues to build quicker, faster and at a more affordable price.”


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