Canada @ 150

From the battlements of Nova Scotia’s Fortress Louisburg to the gables of Laurier House in Ottawa, Canada’s history has been displayed for decades for those who seek it out. But seekers of heritage may have to look a little harder these days, beneath layers of peeling paint and crumbling stone.

As a result of decades of neglect, Canada’s federal heritage buildings are in a precarious state.  The official estimate for repairs, which stems from a 2011 report, says only 39 per cent of Parks Canada’s heritage buildings and structures are in a good state of repair. An internal report obtained by the Toronto Star in 2014 is more pessimistic, revealing more than 60 per cent of cultural assets are in poor or very poor condition.

The Rideau Canal, one of 168 national historic sites manages by Carks Canada. As of 2011, the canal was found to be in fair condition. ©JenHalsall

The Rideau Canal, one of 168 national historic sites managed by Parks Canada. As of 2011, the canal was found to be in fair condition. Photo © Jen Halsall

“They had in many cases been neglected for probably 25 years,” says Andrew Waldron, a heritage conservation manager at Brookfield Global Integrated Solutions. “I think the last push was maybe in the 80s to work on them.”

For now, the decay will be reversed. As a result of the 2014 Federal Infrastructure Fund, a $2.8 billion-dollar bonus that targets Parks Canada assets, work is underway to bring many of the crumbling buildings back into good condition. This year’s budget allocates another $191 million over the next two years to improve the agency’s tourism and highway assets. But while federal historic sites may be cleaned up in time for 2017, a larger problem still lurks unaddressed.

Above the Law

Federally heritage buildings have no legislated protections or maintenance mandate. Even the big players – national historic sites like Fortress Louisburg and the Fortifications of Quebec – are vulnerable to decay and demolition.

“Those national historic sites? They’re just feel-good moral designations,” says Waldron. “They’ve demolished national historic sites before. They’ve been designated, demolished, and there’s no consequences.”

Source: Parks Canada, Government of Canada Open Data Portal

Though not all national historic sites are federally-owned, Canada remains the only country in the G8 that hasn’t implemented legislation to protect its federal historic places. The only existing legislation is restrictively specific, covering just lighthouses and railway stations.

“It just makes sense, it would be logical, to have some kind of overarching legislation,” says Joan Sanger, president of the Canadian Historical Association. “There’s already specific legislation about designating and protecting specific types of heritage, so why not extend this to a broader scope in the federal area?”

The National Trust for Canada has been trying for years. A nationally-registered charity, the Trust was formed by the federal government in 1973 as an arms-length protector of Canada’s historic places. The organization is calling on the government to legislate protection and maintenance standards for federally-owned historic places.

“There isn’t a whole lot of follow up or assistance in terms of making sure those important places are viable into the future, or even that their values are protected,” says Chris Weibe, the National Trust’s manager of heritage policy and government relations. “There have been a number of buildings demolished.”

It’s a story that’s been told time and time again. It’s played out on the tarmac at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Borden, first flying station for the Royal Flying Corps of Canada. The base was home to a row of 18 historic bi-plane hangars from WWI, 13 of which were protected by FHBRO. Despite their designations, only eight have survived repeated attempts at demolition by the Department of National Defense.

A precarious policy

In a statement, Kassandra Dazé, a communications officer at Parks Canada, said although the designation doesn’t offer protection, it does help focus attention on a particular site.

“The government of Canada trust that the protection of the heritage value of a national historic site is managed in accordance with sound cultural resource management principles and encourages the use of the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada.”

Currently, federal heritage buildings receive some protection through policy, which stems from the Federal Historic Buildings Review Office (FHBRO). Departments are supposed to consult FHBRO before making any changes that could impact the heritage character of classified buildings, or before demolishing or selling a federal heritage building.

However, Weibe warns FHBRO policy isn’t universally effective. “Crown corporations in certain parts of government, they don’t have to participate in the FHBRO process,” he says. “So there are some loopholes there.”

Susan Ross, an architect and assistant professor at Carleton University, co-authored the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada. Though there can be some exceptions, she says in most instances, the existing policy is an effective way to protect federal heritage.

“I was involved in a lot of federal heritage where the policy was quite effective,” she says. “So when you talk about the idea that it’s not protective at the federal level, I’m not sure I agree with that. Certainly there’s a lot of work put into enforcing and applying something like the standards and guidelines to federal buildings.”

Crumbling away

According to Waldron, who now works for a private company contracted to manage federal heritage buildings, there can also be issues with enforcing the policy. “Certainly I’ve noticed that before this company took over the contract, there were people going out and doing all sorts of stuff to the buildings without anyone knowing,” he says. “If you have an internal policy you can send it around, but there are no consequences to it …in most cases, everyone else would get away with it.”

Nearly 79 historic buildings either recognized or classified by FHBRO have been demolished since 1980, and another 277 have been sold.

“We’re kind of the embarrassing country of the G20,” says Waldron. “Most countries have a lot more support for historic places; Canada does not.”

Jen Halsall is a fourth year journalism student at Carleton University. Her interests include heritage conservation, science reporting, and wildlife biology. Follow her on Twitter @Jennhalsall.

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