Build Together

This article, published in the Spring 2021 edition of The Beacon, was written by StFXAUT Communications Officer Philip Girvan.

The leaders of the Antigonish Movement saw cooperation as a means to establish robust and democratic communities. The initial focus was on farming and fishing, but miners living in company housing1in the Cape Breton community of Reserve Mines, and participating in study clubs organized by StFX Extension, stressed the need to explore methods of cooperative building.

There has been a renewed effort to address housing needs

The leadership of the Antigonish Movement did not possess this kind of expertise. Few people in North America did. The arrival of Mary Arnold, a leader with the Cooperative League of the United States, who had been involved with a cooperative housing project in New York, changed this. Arnold “became a voluntary staff member and the housing advisor for the St. Francis Xavier Extension Department in Reserve Mines, Cape Breton”.

This spurred the development of Tompkinsville, the first cooperative housing group in Canada. Enthusiasm for cooperative housing diminished somewhat during the postwar boom as the owner-builder model gained strength, but StFX Extension continued to be involved in cooperative housing well into the 1980s. With the Government of Canada’s 10-year, $40 billion National Housing Strategy launched in 2017, there has been a renewed effort to address housing needs nationally. The bilateral agreement between NS and the federal government covers 10 years and invests $394.2 MM locally. The agreement proposes to protect the existing 11,625 community housing units in NS, expand their number by 15 percent, and repair 20 percent of social housing units2.

A significant opportunity for Nova Scotia’s community housing

This is a significant opportunity for Nova Scotia’s community housing sector. Recognizing this, StFX Extension and the Community Housing Transformation Centre have partnered to launch Build Together: Strengthening the Community Housing Sector in Nova Scotia.

Build Together is an engagement process designed to support and strengthen non-profit and co-op housing groups. It builds on the community of practice that arose from the first contemporary people’s school on housing in Antigonish in 2018 that Extension held in partnership with the Antigonish Affordable Housing Society (AAHS). A second people’s school was held in Port Hawkesbury in 2019 in partnership with AAHS and the Strait-Richmond Housing Matters Coalition.

The Build Together project has several objectives:

• Create a database of non-profit and co-op housing groups, coalitions, and organizations working either as volunteers or professionals in the sector.
• Identify and share community housing sector successes, strengths, challenges, helpful factors, hindering factors, and areas where capacity could be strengthened.
• Affirm community housing sector priorities and develop a vision for the sector.
• Based on input as well as research findings, facilitate an exploration of options for working together as a community housing sector.

The partners have created a Community Housing Sector Engagement Team. The team, numbering 25 and growing, is geographically diverse and includes members from Indigenous and African Nova Scotia communities, Nova Scotians living with a disability, and Newcomers. Build Together’s website, where you can find monthly project newsletters, is live and its social media streams are active. A province-wide survey, online engagement sessions, a focus group meeting, and interviews took place from March 15 – May 14. Input provided during the spring sessions is being analyzed, and findings will be presented early in June. A prioritization survey will follow shortly thereafter. In September, Build Together will reconnect with involved and interested parties to discuss approaches for working together. Learnings from this will inform action planning and a project wrap-up will take place in December 2021.

The significance of housing as a human right

Pauline MacIntosh is the Extension Department lead on this project. When asked what prompted her interest in housing issues, Pauline noted the significance of housing as a human right that was instilled in her as a child – although it was not legislated in Canada until 2019, and volunteerism with the AAHS rekindled this interest. The success of the AAHS has inspired other community housing groups to come together and connect, and Build Together is an opportunity to strengthen collaboration and work to secure adequate, safe, affordable housing for those who are most in need.

Pauline is very pleased to have her Coady International Institute colleagues involved in this project: Catherine Irving, Julien Landry, Cathy Sears, and Eric Smith in addition to Build Together team members Nancy O’Regan, Molly den Heyer, Susanna Haas Lyons, and Renée Hébert.

  1. Description of company built housing stock:

    “Some of Cape Breton’s coal miners and their families were housed in poorly maintained, dilapidated duplexes built by mining companies at the end of the nineteenth century. A Royal Commission on Coal in 1925 interviewed a number of Cape Breton miners about their homes and one mentions to the commissioner, “there was three rooms downstairs: kitchen, dining room and front room. Upstairs there was two bedrooms, but there is other two holes in the wall. I would not exactly like to call them bedrooms, they are too small, one you cannot get a bed in at all unless you saw it off.”

    MacKinnon, R. (1996). Tompkinsville, Cape Breton Island: Co-operativism and Vernacular Architecture. Material Culture Review, 44(1). Retrieved from

  2. Thomas, R. and Salah, A. (2019). The Preservation of Social Housing in Halifax: Limitations Facing Non-Profit & Co-operative Housing Providers. Retrieved from