The past empowered

Fort York, Toronto. © Ontario Tourism 2008


Sean Fraser

Buildings and architecture

Published Date:14 Feb 2008

Photo: Fort York, Toronto. © Ontario Tourism 2008

The buildings, structures and landscapes that comprise our cultural heritage are products of the intricate interplay between people and place over time. What is preserved and how this is achieved is a creature of community and opportunity.

This is especially true in Ontario. This province has a history, an economy, a physical landscape and settlement patterns that are as diverse as they are vast. Given the large, colourful and generally decentralized tapestry that is the cultural landscape of the province, it is not surprising that the legal and planning mechanisms developed to protect the province’s built heritage took on a community-based structure in the early 1970s.

The Ontario Heritage Act (OHA) – introduced in 1975 and substantially amended in 2005 – enabled grassroots conservation. Rather than a top-down system that might implement decisions of senior government or impose the judgment of academics and experts, the Act relies on the simple democratic premise that citizens, using a transparent and public process, are best able to identify the locally significant cultural resources in their own communities.

This simple idea of community involvement relies on three factors that cannot be legislated – awareness, interest and investment. If these factors are necessary for the OHA to achieve full efficacy, then how is this achieved and by whom? More significantly, what happens in a community if no one steps forward to volunteer, or if the community is collectively unaware of its heritage or the tools available to protect it? The actions of individuals – advocates, volunteers, professionals, donors, etc. – heritage organizations and local residents have the potential to awaken a community to its heritage and, as the following examples demonstrate, all three are important to heritage conservation in Ontario.

Almost since it was constructed in 1793, Fort York has been under attack, first by the Americans in the War of 1812 and later by industry, commercial interests and various levels of government. In the late 1950s, planners and politicians in Toronto, the media and the province stated their intent to relocate Fort York National Historic Site to the edge of Lake Ontario to make way for the Gardiner Expressway. Provincial historical societies and the Toronto Civic Historical Committee (later the Toronto Historical Board), supported by volunteers and advocates, argued for the preservation of the Fort in situ. For more than a year, the debate raged until finally conservation, economics and reason prevailed. The Gardiner was re-routed around the Fort and the site was saved. This successful preservation against almost insurmountable opposition remains one of Ontario’s most inspirational stories of community advocacy.

In 1972, an individual donated funds to the Ontario Heritage Trust for the acquisition of McMartin House – a National Historic Site built in 1830. This major Perth landmark has been restored and is operated in partnership with the Town. Two years later, another individual was inspired to donate the historic Inge-Va (also in Perth) to the Trust, ensuring its long-term preservation. Countless other individuals – whether donors or advocates, heritage professionals or volunteers – have made contributions of property, funds, time and talent in the name of conservation in Ontario.

In the early 1970s, the City of Stratford was at a critical juncture in its development. It was proposed to replace the historic Town Hall with a 100-unit modern concrete apartment block and a shopping mall. Luckily, the late-Victorian landmark was saved by a citizens group. The building was renovated in 1974 and remains in municipal use today – recognized by all three levels of government for its heritage significance. The leadership shown by the citizens and the municipality was a catalyst for community conservation.

In the years that followed, property owners reused the Victorian commercial blocks rather than replace them. The municipal heritage advisory committee found city council support for a range of research, designation and commemoration activities. Building on the success and growth of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, cultural tourism grew exponentially. Today, Stratford boasts a remarkable heritage infrastructure that includes local heritage awards, a heritage conservation district, walking tours, a Doors Open Ontario festival and one of the most picturesque riverfronts in Ontario.

In Ontario, heritage conservation is a community-based activity supported by the tireless efforts of heritage organizations, politicians and citizens. It is important to understand that, on its own, the OHA doesn’t protect or preserve our heritage – it is only a tool. In reality, our heritage is preserved and protected, conserved and celebrated by the actions and efforts of individuals and the community for the benefit of everyone.

Stratford Town Hall. © Ontario Tourism 2008

Photo: Stratford Town Hall. © Ontario Tourism 2008

McMartin House, Perth

Photo: McMartin House, Perth