Lynn Jones wanted to preserve the spirit of the Truro, N.S., neighbourhood known as “The Marsh” — once a thriving community of Black families, most of whom have moved away over the years.

She and her family members each owned a small plot of land in The Marsh and, over time, Jones began to purchase land from her relatives as people left. But she hadn’t figured out what to do afterward. 

“I was not selling to developers for them to reap the benefits of a traditional African Nova Scotian community and there be nothing left for the community,” she said in a recent interview. 

Jones has received the Order of Canada for her decades-long work on labour rights and human rights, and comes from a large family with a long tradition of anti-racism work. 

Two years ago, Jones learned about a concept of collective land ownership called a community land trust, and something clicked.

“This land can stay in the hands of the community and the people can live on the land or develop things on the land that benefit the community, forever and ever,” Jones said. 

“For me, that was perfect.” 

Jones and a group of other leaders in Truro set up an organization called Down the Marsh community land trust, and investigated how to transfer the ownership of Jones’s land to Down the Marsh for it to hold in perpetuity. 

A community land trust is a type of non-profit organization that owns land which is used for the benefit of a group. Five years ago, it was a concept that was almost unknown in Nova Scotia. But as the challenge of finding affordable housing increases, at least four new trusts have begun to organize to meet that need. 

A “fragmented” community

Curtis Whiley says a land trust is the right fit for Upper Hammonds Plains, N.S., a community just outside Halifax settled in 1815 by Black refugees from the War of 1812. 

He says many local young people want to live near where they grew up, but increasing housing prices are forcing them to move anywhere they can afford. Without a land trust, he feels that trend will accelerate.

“I believe that our community would be gone,” he said. “It would just be really fragmented.” 

A bald black man with a microphone addresses a room full of people.
Curtis Whiley speaks during the Upper Hammonds Plains Community Land Trust launch event in Nova Scotia, in January 2024. (Upper Hammonds Plains Community Land Trust)

Whiley’s group is holding a series of meetings to answer questions about what the community wants to do with land, how it will acquire land and who’s eligible to be a member of the initiative. 

The Upper Hammonds Plains land trust doesn’t own any property yet, but has identified a few parcels of Crown land that are appealing. For now, organizers are concentrating on figuring out what the community wants. 

They expected 50 people at the first meeting, but 85 showed up. 

“The room was set up almost like how they hold wedding receptions here,” Whiley said. “You could barely walk through.” 

“I feel like what we’re doing is deeply resonating with people.” 

A Black man and a white woman listen during a community meeting about the land trust.
People from Upper Hammonds Plains, N.S., listen during a community meeting about the land trust. (Upper Hammonds Plains Community Land Trust)

New Communities Inc. 

According to the Canadian Network of Community Land Trusts, there are more than 30 trusts established in cities that include Whitehorse, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, and even more are being set up.

In Toronto, the downtown area of Kensington Market has used a land trust to provide two buildings with housing at low rents like $850 a month. In Vancouver, a community land trust called the Hogan’s Alley Society wants to use the model to offer services like rental housing, a cultural centre, and child-care spaces. 

All four new land trusts in Nova Scotia started in areas where a historic Black community has roots. The modern-day community land trust concept is attributed to a Black farming community in Georgia during the American civil rights movement — a history that adds special meaning for the organizers in Nova Scotia. 

A Black women and man prepare to split a wishbone at a group dinner.
Shirley and Charles Sherrod were founding members of New Communities Inc, the first modern-day community land trust in Lee County, Ga. (The Sherrod Institute)

New Communities Inc. was founded by a group that included Shirley Sherrod and her late husband Charles Sherrod. 

In 1969 the group established a land trust on 6,000 acres of land in Lee County, Ga. Their vision developed into the current concept recognized as a community land trust, with the farm “leased from a community controlled nonprofit.”

They spent a year discussing how they would farm, and how their community would take care of health, business and railroad connections, and education. In the early years, the farm was home to about five or six families. 

 WATCH | Shirley Sherrod shares her advice for people who wish to start a land trust today:  

“It was very empowering to actually be able to plan how we would operate in this new community,” Sherrod told CBC in a recent interview. 

New Communities operated in Lee County between 1969 and 1985, when a severe drought struck the area. New Communities was denied an emergency relief loan, but it joined a lawsuit that successfully argued Black farmers had been denied loans which white farmers received. The organization received a settlement and purchased a different piece of property, which is still used today as a farm and conference retreat. 

However, Sherrod didn’t know until 2015 that others were duplicating the same model. That’s when she attended the screening of a documentary about New Communities and spoke with other attendees. 

In a black and white photo, a group of Black men and women gather on a porch and are having a conversation.
Members of New Communities Inc. took a year to discuss their goals for their farm, in what Shirley Sherrod calls an “empowering” process. (The Sherrod Institute)

“I learned for the first time that they were using the model we created to help deal with housing issues in New York City. I was blown away,” she said.  

“I couldn’t wait to get back here to tell folks,” she said. “We had no idea.” 

The story is still spreading. Whiley remembers when he first learned about it.

“I was like, wow, this is such a missing narrative, especially in the Canadian landscape,” he said. “And then it set me on a course of always telling people this.” 

When Jones first started research for “Down the Marsh” community land trust, she wasn’t aware of the history, either. 

“I was so happy when I did find out: ‘Oh! This was started by Black people,'” she said. 

A black and white photo of a group of Black churchgoers seated on the ground.
The congregation of the Weymouth Falls African Baptist Church gather for a picnic in this photo, circa 1900. (Dalhousie University Archives)

Rural land trust

In late February, Shekara Grant was thrilled to close on what she hopes will become the first property of the Weymouth Falls Community Land Trust. 

It’s a piece of vacant land south of Digby, N.S., that was her great-grandparents’ homestead. After their right to the deed was challenged in the 1980s, Grant’s family lost the land. 

A Black woman wearing sunglasses stands in a field under a blue sky.
Shekara Grant’s grandmother, Moleta Grant (née Jarvis), standing on the land where she grew up in Weymouth Falls, N.S. This photo was taken before the Grant family was able to negotiate to purchase the land. (Shekara Grant)

“My grandmother has tried for 30 years to get this property back,” Grant said. Her family was able to negotiate the sale only within the last year. 

She incorporated the trust in May 2023. Now, she’s starting a consultation process to determine the community’s priorities. Weymouth Falls is a deeply rural area, with a population of roughly 100 people.  

“These communities have been stripped of jobs. They’ve been stripped of services. There’s really nothing left for them,” she said. 

Grant hopes a land trust will be able to reverse some of this decline. 

“The idea that I can take my family’s legacy and put it into the land trust for the wider community to benefit from — that’s really the dream,” she said. 

Urban land trust proposed in Halifax

Meanwhile, Treno Morton is preparing to incorporate a community land trust in the heart of Halifax. 

He and the 28 active members of the North End Community Land Trust hope to grow their membership and represent the communities of Uniacke Square and Mulgrave Park. 

Many families in those communities have ties to Africville, a historic Black community the city of Halifax demolished in the 1960s. The city relocated hundreds of residents and razed the buildings, including the church that was the centre of the community. In 2010 the city officially apologized for the destruction and it’s now a national historic site. 

Morton’s organization wants to acquire a $50 million parcel of Halifax’s Cogswell redevelopment area in order to create mixed-income housing. He has started discussions with city councillors and staff about how to do this, but the discussions are at early stages.    

A young Black man in a black winter jacket stands beside a construction zone.
Treno Morton stands beside the Cogswell redevelopment project in downtown Halifax. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

“We know they’re not giving the land away. They’re trying to get full value for it, which is about $50 million,” he said. “Which is no small task.”

Morton hopes the community will get behind the project. 

“We’re just hoping to open ourselves up to more opportunities for funding, particularly crowdfunding,” he said. “Getting community members to want to invest in this project and have it all community-run and owned.”

Capacity building

The four young community land trusts acknowledge there’s a lot of work ahead. 

Jones says community members are eager to pitch in, but don’t have the same capacity as professional developers. 

“We’re all working off the side of our desk — or no desk at all,” she said. “I’m supposed to be retired and I do more work now than I’ve done in my life.”

But she believes the community land trust movement is already a success. 

“Because we’re doing it,” she says. “We’re there, we’re doing the best we can. We’re learning as we go along.”

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

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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