Supporters of Woodwynn Farms sat at St. John the Divine Church on Feb. 27 to learn more about the farm and therapeutic communities. (Hugo Wong/News Staff)

Woodwynn town hall brings therapeutic communities to light

At a town hall meeting at St. John the Divine in downtown Victoria, supporters of Woodwynn Farms heard the current state of the farm and the value of therapeutic communities more generally.

The meeting was organized by Rob Reid, owner of Frontrunners and a former board chair at Woodwynn. The crowd, which filled about half the pews, was largely supportive. During the meeting, Leblanc said he would be making his case to the B.C. Supreme Court March 6 to try and delay the sale of the farm. The board of the Creating Homefulness Society has decided to sell the property after the original funders pulled their financial support, and a serious buyer has emerged.

“I personally am doing what I can to delay the sale process,” said Leblanc.

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Leblanc said a current public consultation on the Agricultural Land Reserve could allow supporters to weigh in and push the province to allow therapeutic communities onto ALR land, which would be another reason to delay to sale and persist on their current property. He hoped the process would move out of the courts and into mediation, where broader issues could be discussed instead of narrow questions. At multiple points, panelists and questioners asked if current board members of the Creating Homefulness Society attended the meeting; no one from the crowd visibly identified themselves as board members when such questions came up.

Moderator Bruce Williams read out some letters of support, including one from Catherine Holt, CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, and another from Victoria mayor Lisa Helps. In her letter, Helps mentioned another therapeutic community in the works in View Royal organized by the Our Place Society.

During the question and answer period, Leblanc was asked what would happen to the farm and the society if the property were to be sold.

“I guess it’s my question to answer but I don’t have an answer,” said Leblanc.

As the general practitioner for the farm, and as a doctor for 25 years, Dr. Vanessa Young said that working at Woodwynn Farms “is the most rewarding work I do, and I am prepared to advocate fiercely for them.” She was critical of provincial and municipal bodies who were “acting in silos” rather than together. For example, BC Housing has offered to help while the Agricultural Land Commission has twice denied their application to build housing for program participants who would eventually farm the land. She also said “words cannot express the disappointment I feel with the sale of the farm.”

Michael Young said he was involved since 2008 when the farm was originally purchased. Prior to that, he worked as a contractor for offenders in therapeutic communities. He has also toured San Patrignano and other therapeutic communities in Europe. He said in an ideal situation, the inside of the farm would mirror the outside.

“The outside community does not function which is why we have the problems we have,” he said.

As a management consultant who worked on problems of homelessness, Eileen Pepler said she was focused on the future, and wanted to see what could be done today to stop youth from ending up on the streets. She said later that those sleeping rough frequently go through 22 ministries and government services, and wanted a spoke-and-hub model for service delivery with Woodwynn included as part of the mix. She said she had phoned the provincial ministries of finance and health to ask how many people needed services like a shower or shelter, and they could not give her the inventory.

“What if it was a village that could work the land, learn some skills and came home to some mental health supports? That’s the kind of world I work in with deputy ministers and other levels of government,” she said.

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A woman asked the panel why Leblanc did not want to rent a smaller plot of land to help people in the meantime, as Leblanc acknowledged earlier the current site was not working to its full potential. Leblanc said prior to purchasing the farm in 2008, he and Michael Young visited the site of a former nursing home in North Qualicum. It was a 60-acre plot of ALR land, zoned institutional, with an existing building, dining room, and even cutlery, so they could be “operational in weeks.” He said they were prepared to buy, but the real estate agent at the time informed them neighbours threatened to “do everything possible to lobby mayor and council” to stop them from operating. Leblanc said he was discouraged by that, so they passed on it. Leblanc said given the obstacles, he chose the site with the highest potential upside.

Leblanc remained focused on the end goal, and felt there was no time for “excuses around zoning or the ALC or bylaws leading to their child being out there, struggling. [Parents] have no patience for this while their child was playing what is called ‘fentanyl Russian roulette.’”

“The program doesn’t need to be changed,” said Leblanc. “It needs to be fully realized.”

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