(This article has been translated from French.)

In 1978, two years after it submitted to UNESCO the instruments of acceptance of the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage – the “World Heritage Convention” – Canada had the Parks Canada sites of L’Anse aux Meadows and Nahanni included among the very first properties on the World Heritage List. In that international context, Canada enjoys a clear prestige. It was twice elected to chair the committee appointed by the States Parties to meet on a yearly basis to oversee and take part in the implementation of this convention connecting 194 states and for which UNESCO supplies the Secretariat.

For a long time, the World Heritage Convention was implemented by professionals and scientists trusting they upheld the founding spirit of its text. Nowadays, it increasingly attracts the attention and interest of the States Parties and their political class. The growing politicization of its implementation has become an issue of concern along with mass tourism, climate change, conflicts or infrastructure investment projects. Some will be surprised to learn of such political interference. But a convention is a condominium of states whose political nature regularly reveals itself, fed by economical interest or media pressure, or animated by more objective and factual motivations such as correcting the imbalance and partial representation of the World Heritage List, which still falls short of reflecting the heritage of humanity, in particular its cultural heritage.

The British and Canadian School in Montreal. Several buildings on the block bordered by St-Urbain, de la Gauchetière Ouest, Côté and Viger streets were acquired by Investissements 1000 St-Urbain Ltée. Heritage Montreal is concerned about the risk of densified redevelopment of these buildings in Chinatown. Courtesy : Dinu Bumbar

An incomplete definition

Should we be surprised by this politicization? Not really. It’s been obvious for ages at the local and provincial levels. What is notable is the lack of preparedness of the scientific and professional sector in this context. So much attention has focused on the concerns of management that the sector seems to have forgotten its fundamental purpose to serve the well-being of heritage and act as a sentinel and prospective strategist in its defence. For example, how many publications deal with management whereas we have basically no working definition of protection itself?

We could continue at great length on the World Heritage Convention and the remarkable laboratory it offers, but let’s get back to Canada, where this convention is entrusted to the Parks Canada Agency reporting to the minister of environment. Beyond the successful nomination of a few sites, most of them natural or reflecting the colonial period, submitted by Canada and listed by the World Heritage Committee, implementing this major convention could serve as a basis for strong and innovative policies reflecting the diversity of views of Canadian society and of experiences from the provinces, territories, cities and metropolitan areas, all of which are, in the end, on the heritage front line.

Indeed, the World Heritage List, with its 1,154 registered sites, including 897 that are cultural, remains the most prestigious instrument of the convention, but its greatest benefit might very well flow from one of its less known articles. Article 5 invites States Parties to ensure effective protection and conservation of heritage on their territories, in particular by adopting “a general policy which aims to give the cultural and natural heritage a function in the life of the community and to integrate the protection of that heritage into comprehensive planning programmes.” Written 50 years ago next year, this sentence is worth noting. It could help reconcile heritage conservation and social and economic development, being embedded in the various governmental jurisdictions in Canada, including those of municipal authorities closely associated with planning and land use.

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Article 5 also mentions the necessity of adequately staffed institutions, training and scientific research as well as effective legal and financial measures “necessary for the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and rehabilitation of this heritage.” (Nowadays, we would include repurposing.)

In short, it sounds like a great road map for a country like Canada, which has a general pretense of doing things right in a federal-provincial-territorial ecosystem with a diversity of traditions, experiences and legal systems. Illustrating this long and diverse history, 2022 will mark the centennial of the first heritage protection law adopted by a Canadian province (Quebec), focusing on the collective value of private property.

Yet, what is Canada itself doing? Sure, we have a ministry of Canadian heritage established in the aftermath of a national meeting convened in 1990 in Edmonton by the federal ministers of environment and communications, but it doesn’t really care for built heritage. Yes, 20 years ago, we launched the Canadian Register of Historic Places, which led to the cocreation by the federal, provincial and territorial governments of a set of standards and guidelines for their conservation. But the tax incentives component – highly necessary and long awaited – was cancelled for lack of political will. Indeed, mandate letters from 2019 specified that the minister of environment and the minister of Canadian heritage should work together to provide clearer direction and introduce new comprehensive legislation on heritage protection and conservation. (The 2021 had not yet been published at the time of this text.) But here also, not much seems to have been accomplished.

Canada is a decentralized, multi-tiered federated state like the U.S. or Germany. Yet, it remains the only G7 county without a heritage legislation. In the U.S., the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 arranged for federal government expenditures on historic sites and a tax system to support rehabilitation. In 2016, France adopted a law relating to freedom of creation, architecture and heritage integrating UNESCO’s conventions. Meanwhile, in Canada, despite the governments, their declarations and the many reports from the auditor general or the Commons’ Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development on reinforcing the heritage protection framework (2017), nothing seems to shake the passive indifference of the federal authorities. Yet, an existing building is the greenest building, and the conservation and rehabilitation of our built heritage are acknowledged as contributing factors to decarbonize the Canadian economy and reach our international goals. To create and implement a consistent policy, we’ll need to stop reducing heritage to a collection of a few remarkable buildings that bear witness to a national narrative that is increasingly being called into question. We need to recognize heritage’s full dimension as a built environment.

The sign for the Wing’s Noodles pasta and cookie factory in the British and Canadian School building. The sign has been recognized as having heritage value by the City of Montreal. Courtesy: Dinu Bumbaru.

Proactive provinces and municipalities 

As with other countries, federal authorities can seem passive. But provincial and municipal governments, including those in metropolitan areas, are not. They deal constantly with public scrutiny, something the federal government seldom does. Rare instances include the proposed addition to Ottawa’s Château Laurier, next to the Rideau Canal World Heritage site.

For example, at the municipal level, the City of Montreal set up a permanent roundtable (“table de concertation”) in 2005 with municipal, institutional and civic stakeholders to help enforce the protection status decreed by the government of Quebec for Mount Royal in response to pleas from organizations like Heritage Montreal. Incidentally, it was this roundtable that generated a proposal to include the civic and institutional ensemble of Mount Royal on the tentative list of World Heritage sites in Canada. The proposal was flatly rejected by a committee of Parks Canada experts.

At the provincial level, following the publication in June 2020 of an audit on the protection of the built heritage by the auditor general of Quebec, the National Assembly diligently adopted in March 2021 amendments to the Cultural Heritage Act. These amendments include acknowledging UNESCO’s World Heritage considerations for authenticity and integrity, and the establishment of a permanent panel of partners, which was just inaugurated.

Solutions also come from our society and communities themselves. Let’s think of the interdenominational regional round tables on the major issue of the religious heritage of Quebec. Or how a group of young professionals formed Entremise, a community organization that introduces transitional uses and occupancy as a way to grant a new life to heritage buildings or ensembles, for example, the convent and orchard of Montreal’s Hôtel-Dieu. There are also consultancy work co-ops like L’Enclume or Passerelles. And there is Heritage Montreal’s Memento, a web-based platform providing the public with a heritage radar screen on which citizens can identify cases or issues.

These levels of governments and organizations respond in part to the demands and expectations of the populations they serve. Longstanding public debate has demonstrated how heritage buildings and landscapes contribute to our identity and carry the memory of the communities that make up Canada’s fabric. Such debate doesn’t seem to prevail at the federal level, except possibly in the areas of the environment and great wilderness, which are part of the Canadian national myth.

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Fifty years ago, the fight against widespread demolitions was at the core of the efforts to save heritage. Governments also led major restoration projects. Today, the demolition pandemic has been brought under greater control in many places thanks to improved regulations, but many heritage buildings – even heritage ensembles or entire landscapes – are stricken by the lack of maintenance and redundancy. In addition, this is an era that calls for concrete, urgent, unifying and forward-looking actions. Many components of Canadian society care and are taking action, and there would be much benefit in holding a national heritage summit meeting to share, compare and enhance all these experiences, and hopefully draw up a genuine Canadian action plan reflecting our diverse built and landscape heritage and a worthy answer for the 21st century challenges.

Within its jurisdiction, the federal government has an important role and contribution in this necessary endeavour. If anything, it could honour its acceptance of the World Heritage Convention’s Article 5. It will need to substitute its current policy of silence with a genuine commitment. For example, it must engage in the fields of tax incentives and heritage impact assessment. The formation of a permanent round table on heritage, its protection and appropriate revitalization would be very timely as well.

It is time to move on from nice intentions and well-chosen images to concrete actions. It is necessary to make a distinction between the necessary examination of history in our contemporary society and built heritage, the value of which is not just historical. Heritage happens where place, societies and time meet, each one bringing its dimensions, values and issues to that confluence, commanding a global view and a commitment to the future that are too often lacking.

To know, to promote, to care for and to enrich our built and landscape heritage has to be part of the Canadian strategy for the 21st century, whether it is to carry out reconciliation, to face climate change or to transform our economy so that it better serves our communities and our future generations. Otherwise, how can we possibly talk of sustainable development?

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Dinu Bumbaru
Dinu Bumbaru is policy director of Heritage Montreal and a former secretary general of the International Council on Monuments and Sites.

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