Chelsea has no ‘real choice’ in taking soccer field
Chelsea council has voted to move ahead with plans to expropriate land belonging to the Chelsea Foundation, a move that some residents fear could set a precedent for the province and possibly the country.
At an extraordinary meeting on Oct. 30, Chelsea council met to vote on two resolutions: the first, to adopt an agreement on the management of operations at the Meredith Centre, and the second, to hire the services of the Gatineau-based law firm RPGL Lawyers in order to begin the process of acquiring a plot of land located in the centre-village, which has been chosen as the site of a new French-language school.
The land is partially owned by the municipality but also includes a soccer field belonging to the Chelsea Foundation, a non-profit charitable organization, which aims to support culture, sport, leisure and a sense of community in Chelsea.
At the meeting, Chelsea Mayor Pierre Guénard explained that, since the adoption of Bill 40 three years ago, municipalities in Quebec have been required to provide school service centres with land free of charge. Bill 40, enacted in 2020, is the Quebec government’s legislation that turned French school boards into service centres run by non-elected officials.
The municipality has stated that it wishes to “acquire” the land and have avoided using the word “expropriate,” although by definition expropriation refers to action by the state of taking property from its owner for public use or benefit. At the meeting, councillors reiterated their desire to work with, not against the Chelsea Foundation.
The Centre de services scolaires des Portages-de-l’Ouataous (CSSPO) has specific requirements for the site of a school building, which includes size, proximity to infrastructure and the existence of services like water and electricity.
Guénard told residents that the municipality initially put forward several options for consideration, but CSSPO made it clear that it would only consider one site, located at the intersection of Chemin du Relais and Chemin Cecil near the Meredith Centre.
“We are really caught between a rock and a hard place,” Guénard said, adding, “if we delay the process, we might lose the school.” He explained that Chelsea is the only municipality in the Outaouais to have been awarded a new school building by the province’s Ministry of Education.
Chelsea has estimated that by 2026 – the year the new school is expected to open – there will be a surplus of 300 students in the municipality requiring placement at a French elementary school.
Guénard expressed concern that any setback in plans could result in the province pulling support for the new school building. All councillors said they worry about the 300 students who may otherwise have to be bussed far out of the municipality if they cannot be accommodated in Chelsea.
According to president Fiona Duguid, one of the Chelsea Foundation’s first actions after its creation in the mid-1990s was fundraising over $150,000 within the community to purchase 20 acres in the centre of the village, which is now the site of the Meredith Centre and adjoining recreational facilities, including the soccer field the municipality is seeking to acquire.
Residents who spoke during the meeting’s question period said they are in support of a new school, but opposed the expropriation of charity-owned land that has become a hub for the community.
The first question of the night came from Stephen Woodley, the president of Action Chelsea for the Respect of the Environment (ACRE), a non-profit that has fundraised to buy and conserve hundreds of acres of land in the Hills. Woodley asked Mayor Guénard if the land take-over would be a precedent in Quebec, to which the mayor said he does not have a clear answer.
Several residents, including Chelsea Foundation treasurer Peter Sudermann and Duguid told council that the process has already eroded the community’s trust in its municipal government.
“It’s hard to contemplate wanting to ever do business with you again,” said Doug Taylor, who told council that he represents a company that has put “tens of thousands of dollars into that land. That’s wasted money now that needs to be replaced somehow.”
Some residents, including long-time community volunteer Sheilagh Murphy, expressed frustration with the municipality’s communication about the process and encouraged council to consider ways to work together with the community to push back against the province’s requirements.
Mayor Guénard and several councillors said they feel their hands are tied when it comes to dealing with the province. Coun. Christopher Blais told residents, “we are outraged with this process…but I don’t feel we have a real choice.”
“It’s not the municipality putting the gun to anyone’s head…it’s the province doing that to Chelsea,” Blais said.
Coun. Rita Jain echoed the sentiment, adding that “the ability of the province to expropriate land is a problem. I’m afraid for the land that we’ve conserved, supposedly in perpetuity.”
Coun. Cybèle Wilson and Enrico Valente are both board members of the Chelsea Foundation. Valente gave the only dissenting vote among council, explaining that, “I don’t believe the government would not be accommodating in some way.”
Valente added: “We shouldn’t rush into any decisions. Good decisions require good data…but I believe we have put the horse before the cart here.”
A petition, put forward by Sabrina Howe on Oct. 28, is calling for individuals to support saving the Foundation’s soccer fields, which it calls “unique and irreplaceable community assets under community ownership and stewardship.”
“It is extremely unfortunate that the municipality did not acquire any suitable land for the new school when it approved the three large, new residential developments in the Centre Village,” the petition reads.
As of publication time, the petition has garnered 248 signatures.