PEI

Buddhist nuns living on P.E.I. appear before legislative committee

A group of Buddhist nuns appeared before a legislative committee Thursday to answer questions from politicians about their activities and plans on P.E.I.

'Especially in the first few years we were here, we did overpay for some properties'

Nuns from the Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute spoke before the legislative committee on natural resources and environmental sustainability Thursday. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

A group of Buddhist nuns appeared before a committee of the provincial legislature Thursday to answer questions from politicians about their activities and plans on P.E.I.

Nuns from the Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute have made their home on the Island for a decade. They've grown now to 500 people living on properties in three eastern P.E.I communities. Their average age is 29. 

A month ago, Three Rivers town council denied them a permit to build a new dormitory for 200 more nuns on their property in Brudenell. It's part of GWBI's plan to build a monastery that can accommodate 1,400 nuns to come study Buddhism. The council cited concerns about what those expansion plans would ultimately mean for housing and land in the area. 

The three nuns who spoke to the legislative committee Thursday said those concerns come from misunderstanding. They blame themselves for not doing more to build trust with the community. 

"Islanders are not thinking of us in a bad way — it's just we're very new here. We're very foreign, and we're not the best storytellers either," said Venerable Yvonne Tsai. "And then we're being too quiet the past few years.  So I think it's our responsibility to go and be visible and explain that."

Committee members Steve Howard and Darlene Compton listen to the nuns' presentation Thursday at the Coles building in Charlottetown. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

The nuns told the committee that GWBI owns 667 acres of land — 183 in Vernon River and 484 in Brudenell. Of that, 290 acres are in agricultural production, 366 are natural areas such as forests and gardens, and 11 acres are being used for infrastructure or buildings. 

One of the concerns raised at the Three Rivers council meeting in September was that GWBI has purchased some houses that are sitting empty. The committee echoed those concerns.

I feel it also unfair to think we're a bunch of a rich and heartless criminals coming to take over.— Venerable Yvonne Tsai

"We have a housing shortage, and when we see a bunch of vacant houses, it is a concern," Darlene Compton, P.E.I.'s minister of finance, told the nuns during the meeting. 

The nuns explained the institute owns seven homes in Brudenell that are used for institute activities and seasonal accommodations.

There are other properties — they didn't say how many — owned by some of the nuns' family members, who are only able to stay on P.E.I. part of the year. The nuns acknowledge they need to work out how to have family close by without contributing to the housing crunch.

Venerable Joanna Ho, left, Yvonne Tsai, centre, and Sabrina Chiang from the Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute spoke to a government committee Thursday about the group's plans to expand their monastery in eastern P.E.I. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

'We did overpay'

And they did say they have made mistakes, from which they are trying to learn.

"We're not saying Buddhists are perfect and don't make mistake[s]," Tsai told the committee."Sometimes we can be ignorant because we lack local knowledge. But after reading some online comments, I feel it also unfair to think we're a bunch of a rich and heartless criminals coming to take over."

"Especially in the first few years we were here, we did overpay for some properties," Tsai told CBC News after the meeting. "And then we were told that some of the behaviours we did seemed like we're avoiding [the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission's] regulations. And all of those are something that we make sure that we have the proper knowledge, and make sure we don't ever do similar things again."

Yes, we pay taxes just like everyone else.- Venerable Joanna Ho

The nuns addressed a question they said they get asked a lot.

"Yes, we pay taxes just like everyone else," said Venerable Joanna Ho. "Our property taxes are determined by the government, and the only parts of our facilities [that are] tax exempt are the prayer halls in Vernon River and Brudenell."

The nuns said they are still contemplating what to do next. But they said they realize it will take more buy-in from the community to reach their expansion goals. 

"We hope this is the first of open communication and just getting to know our community and our community getting to know us," Ho said.

"We want to build the trust relationship, and at the same time, figure out a way for the Buddhist nuns to have a place to live," added Tsai.

There is also a community of Buddhist monks living in eastern P.E.I., in Heatherdale and Little Sands, under the Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society. Many of the nuns have brothers there. 

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With files from Steve Bruce

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