Monthly Archives: February 2009

Is Our Earliest Methodist Church Nationally Significant?

Over the last forty years, Canadians have revealed the bad old bias in favour of things White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant as the nasty attitude which it is.  We have struggled to make our country more inclusive. -And that’s a good thing.

We should be preserving things which help us tell the stories of multi-cultural Canada, whether it is the sad experience of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War or the evolution of the West Indian neighbourhoods of Toronto just yesterday. These are all chapters in the one, great Canadian Story.

-But I observe of late a dimished appetite to explore our earlier history. It is as if there is a national hesitation to recommend elements of our Anglo-Saxon past (unless there is an important First Nations connection, or something to do with the underground railway).

The United Empire Loyalists, the farmer-founders of Ontario (1784), were refugees having found themselves on the loosing side of the American Revolutionary War. Those who came very shortly after the Loyalists were part of an economic migration in search of a better future,  just like emigrants from the third world do today. But those sturdy, eighteenth century agrarian pioneers were White, and Anglo-Saxon and Protestant.

Hay Bay Methodist Church

Hay Bay Methodist Church

The meeting house which they built on the shores of Hay Bay in 1792  (enlarged in 1835) is still there.   It is a frame building, elegant in its simplicity and expressive of an unpretentious and very personal piety.  It is a reminder that the founders of Ontario were loyal to the Crown, but reserved the right to opt out of the official state religion.  Indeed, they wanted freedom of choice in many things which evolved into a steady pressure to organize and govern themselves, which is at the root of how Ontario is organized and governed today.

The church is respected as a monument by descendants of the original Loyalists who remain in the county of Lennox and Addington.  It has been designated under the Ontario Heritage Act, and recognized as a National Historic Site by the Department of Canadian Heritage (2000)  but without passion.   It is difficult not to believe that the church squeaked through the designation process based on a convenient opportunity to share out the cookies combined with, “Well, we guess so…   It’s really old.”    This site deserves more.

Somehow, we need to overcome our reluctance to eulogize the accomplishments  of settlers who happened to be White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant.  We need to encourage our educators to continue to teach this history, as part of what Canadians call, “the cultural mosaic”.  To fail to do is a national disservice.  A lack-lustre interest in our Anglo-Saxon pioneers is not contributing to an inclusive Canada.   It is in fact diminishing a very large and signicant part of our cultural heritage.

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Possibly the greatest asset that any historical society possesses is direct connection to the public. From documenting built heritage, to capturing our personal stories (and offering a haven for amazing collections), historical societies are incredibly effective engines for engaging our communities with the past.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is that the “public” is absolutely everybody.

The phenomenon which is the greatest strength is also the greatest weakness.

1. Authenticity. Ever since “Roots”, the general public has been engaged as never before in heritage through the very personal interface of family history. This is a good, perhaps a great, thing. However, it has resulted in a perception that all input is equally valuable, which it isn’t. From vast data banks of poorly transcribed materials, full of mistakes to bulletin boards which offer information which is totally wrong, the work of simple folk who are really good at history is mixed and muddled with the work of simple folk who haven’t got a clue. Historical societies are more and more under pressure to represent and publish everybody, which means that the quality of offerings is diluted, authority is increasingly suspect and respect diminished.

To me, this has always seemed akin to cutting ice time and funding for the Ontario Hockey League and diverting all resources to free skating.

2. Political activism. Communities always include passionate individuals who want to storm the bastille. Usually, this is in defence of built heritage. Of course, all historical societies occasionally compose letters or send representation to hearings on compelling issues. -But activists see this level of participation as weak, a “cop out”. Societies are more and more often asked to “take a stand” – by which is usually meant involvement with the media, rallies and placard-waving and some very strong words.

Since preservation decisions are made at the municipal level in most jurisdictions, this frankly means making life hell for elected municipal officials. Now, these are the same officials who decide local funding for our museums, archives and heritage sites. The existence of these institutions is hard-won, usually the result of years of work by our predecessors. This fight is not over. In the early twenty-first century, the survival of many of our small heritage facilities is very fragile. Can we, should we, risk losing old political allies and established good will for new battles? Perhaps societies should, but it is by no means clear to me.

No doubt about it. In the early twenty-first century, the role of historical societies is being questioned. A delicate balancing act may be insufficient to meet the challenge. What’s an historical society to do?

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A Toothless Dragon?

When the municipality signals intent to “designate” a property under the Ontario Heritage Act, there is a right to object. As Designation is in fact, a legal lien, objections happen quite frequently and usually originate with the person or company who owns (or intends to own and develop) the property. Sometimes, initial resentment and distrust is resolved amicably by some small changes in expectations from both sides, but if this does not work, if the municipality is unable to resolve the objections, then the matter is taken to the Conservation Review Board.

The Ontario Ministry of Culture offers the following explanation for the work of the Board:  “The Conservation Review Board is a regulatory tribunal that hears disputes on matters relating to the protection of properties considered to hold cultural heritage value or interest or of archaeological significance to a municipality or to the Minister of Culture, as defined by the Ontario Heritage Act (Act). ” Ontario – CRB

Both sides are invited to argue their case before the Board and interested third parties may also make presentations at the hearing.   When all arguments have been heard, the Conservation Review Board rules on whether the property should be designated under the Heritage Act.  There is no question that the Board takes the job seriously, as their reports (which are public documents) show.

So, on the surface, this is good stuff, and a fair way to get out of an impasse. -But consider this. The Board may consider the heritage merits of the property, and only the heritage merits of a property. Related disputes are beyond their jurisdiction.

The Ministry of Culture states: “Once a Notice of Intention to Designate is issued by a municipality …. enforcement of these provisions is the responsibility of the municipality or the Minister of Culture, whichever is applicable. The Board has no role in the protection of a cultural heritage property, outside of its mandate as an adjudicator in disputes over decisions made under the Act.   As it is an independent regulatory tribunal tasked with assessing the merits of designation without any apprehension of bias, the Board’s sole role is to conduct a formal hearing process.”

For instance, if the owner of the property has turned off the heat, and left the building vulnerable to all that the elements can deliver in the expectation that it will become so unsound that the neighbours will demand demolition, the Conservation Board has nothing to say, even if they agree with the municipality that the structure is of historical importance. The recent ruling in regards to the City of Burlington and Seaton House (April, 2008) is a case in point.  The Conservation Review Board agreed with Burlington that: “the values or interests prescribed in Regulation 9/06 of the Act to be well manifested in this property” and recommended Heritage Designation.  However, the Board could do nothing for the City in the matter of the landlord’s seemingly deliberate neglect of the property and ignoring the City’s requests for inspection. It was left to the City of Burlington to decide whether they should take further legal action.

This seems to be a classic Pyrrhic victory.

As Designation, with required public notices, followed by mounting a defence at the Conservation Review Board is not without cost, municipalities might well be excused for baulking at further investment to attempt to stop angry owners from destroying built heritage by neglect.
So, the decision of the Board only has teeth if the municipality gives it teeth. Exhausted Heritage Committees (“LACAC’s”) must find the energy to push and push again to defend the built heritage, even after a positive ruling from the Conservation Review Board.

Consider also the role of the Conservation Review Board vis a vis the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). Developers may take their planning problems to the OMB, even after a ruling by the Conservation Review Board has gone against them. The OMB takes a much wider look at the case. “Decisions are based on the evidence presented at the hearing, the relevant law, provincial polices and the principles of good planning.” (Website)

 Although there is no question that the OMB would treat a recommendation to Designate from the Conservation Review Board very seriously, it does not consider heritage as the principle issue in requests for planning permission. In recent years, the OMB has listened to accusations from developers that the Heritage Act may be used to impede otherwise good planning initiatives. In the current economic situation, it is doubtful that the OMB will put history and culture before job-creation and infrastructure growth.

The expertise on the OMB team does not normally include heritage, or even architecture.  However, “Members of the [Conservation Review] Board can be cross-appointed to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) as members with full standing to hear disputes under other sections of the Act.”  So, the Ontario Municipal Board may invite colleagues from the Conservation Review Board to provide heritage input on a property.  However, the Ontario Municipal Board out-ranks the Conservation Review Board in the government hierarchy and, “Decisions of the OMB are final.” (Ontario Municipal Board official website)

Beleagured Heritage Committees, having rallied to convince their Municipality, and then fought the battle at the Conservation Review Board, may wake up the morning following an OMB Hearing to find that all they have saved is the facade, after all.

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150 Years of Visual Democracy may be Coming to an End.

What glimpses into the late twentieth century will survive?

Since paper photographs became affordable in the 1860’s we have been supplied with a wealth of images of folk, remarkable and unremarkable, and a supply of views of day-to-day life. Of course, historians and journalists might argue that is never quite the right particular photograph available when you need it, but in reality never has so much been documented to such an extent, by so many.

Those of us who work with historic images like to complain about our ancestors most of whom seem had a mighty aversion to labelling snaps. If only they had given us a clue as to who, when and where! However, archivists are not totally lacking in tools. Old photographs are physical entitites. Photographic technique, size of the print, and membership in a body of related materials (“context”) are all of help in identification, not to mention history of ownership (“provenance”). So the farmer’s wife may have known nothing about durability of her photograph, or of the tapes, glues, mounts and fingers with which it would have contact, but despite this, something which we can use remains.

Today’s amateur shutterbugs are now almost completely converted to digital photography. They are confused, challenged and seduced by a range of options for storing pictures. Many of the options use the words “archive” or “archival”. The word suggests survival for the future. The truth is that most early 21st century processes and products are so new that we do not know if or how they will endure.

Even if the best case is true, and floppy disks, cd-roms, hard drives and memory devices do not deteriorate, will the hardware and software still be around to read them in fifty years, or will data retrieval be the domain of specialists?

Printing out is not the answer either, as home printing devices produce snapshots that are light sensitive, or with a tendency to become sticky or powdery.

These scary thoughts have prompted exploration of other possibilities. One idea which has gained in popularity is to store digital images far away, on a site run by a reputable company. The photographer is supposed to have complete access and to relax, assured that the visual information is ultimately safe. The picture archive is responsible for providing the tools to enable translation from one format to another, offering the best of new formats to replace obsolete ones.

Experienced photograph archivists worry about usefulness of these photo banks to posterity. Amateur photographers who label their work are rare. Uploaded photographs frequently are accompanied by very little data. At least one firm has suggested a software to record the GPS locator and time taken as part of the digital image, as well as the date. I suppose that this might help, but it will still not tell us that the occasion was the Millenneum Parade and that the person in costume is cousin Susie.

Off-site photograph banks which were initially enthusiastic about playing a role in historical preservation are now getting cold feet as the size of memory resource which must be offered to clients for free (or for very little) becomes apparent. The most recent cause celebre was the death of AOL Pictures Service on January 8th, 2009. AOL turned the function over to a commercial partner, PhotoWorks, and clients are asked to register for a PhotoWorks account by June 30th, 2009, in order to continue to access their images.

The idea that the photograph bank would one day be a resource for millions of wonderful images is revealed as not credible. The need to clear intellectual property considerations (copyright) requires knowledge about the date of creation. Even setting copyright aside, there is the need to know just what the subject matter of the image might be and cryptic codes don’t explain. Then there is the matter of retrieval. In order to make the pictures useful, people have to be able to search the image bank. Unlike genuine archives, large commercial companies are not interested in the investment of manpower to carefully arrange and tag, image by image. The financial return for amateur photographs is just not juicy enough. As the size of the photograph bank grows, private interests sometimes group the images in virtual boxes under themes: “ships”, “lighthouses”, “sailors”, leaving the researchers to hunt for themselves through the boxes.

There is no doubt that carefully tended digital banks of commercial images, such as those maintained by Associated Press, have a good chance of surviving a long time. The AP image bank contains celebrities, stirring events and evocative views taken mostly by skilled professionals. AP presently charges $40 for an 8″ x 10″ reproduction for personal enjoyment and more than three times that for commercial use. The revenue potential alone of these top end photographs would be an indicator for preservation.

The question is how much about the grassroots will have the same privilege. Will the snapshots of the opening ceremony at the new public school be available in one hundred years? Will future researchers be able to find photographs of small-town mayors and returning veterans? While we would probably all agree that it is unnecessary to keep an image of every Hallowe’en costume worn by every Canadian child, it is troubling to think that very little of our day-to-day lives and times may survive.


Filed under Archives, History, Ontario, Material culture, Photography

Heritage and the Home Renovation Tax Credit

As part of the economic stimulus package, the Government of Canada is offering Canadians tax credits for renovations undertaken between January 27, 2009 and February 1, 2010.     The guidelines emphasize that to be eligible, alterations “must be of an enduring nature and integral to the dwelling.”   Given the speed at which the legislation was drafted, it comes as no surprize that there is no recognition of the vulnerability of our built heritage to short deadlines and sales pressure.

Particularly at risk are original windows.  The bill favours broad-based contractors who sell mass-produced elements. These contractors can be in and out in a day.    Carpenters who  replicate elements using historical techniques will be at a disadvantage when bidding against firms that can guarantee homeowners a twenty-four hour turn-about.    Moreover,  restoration of heritage elements cannot usually be done in winter.  Replacement with vinyl or aluminum windows is now offered after the snow flies.

Heritage Committees (Local Architecture Advisory Committees) can expect to experience pressure from owners of heritage properties who are in a hurry to meet the deadline and get the tax credit.  In most Canadian jurisdictions, owners of such properties need municipal approval of alterations before they  can engage a contractor.  Typically, Heritage Committees only meet once a month and may take several months to sort out the options and make a decision.  Rural Committees are at a particular disadvantage in responding to requests as experts and resources are not usually close at hand.

Also disadvantaged will be the tiny cohort of stonemasons, woodcarvers, glaziers who work on heritage projects.  These skilled, niche trades have been encouraged by governments in recent years through job training initiatives and the like.  It is very doubtful that there are enough workers  to complete the summer’s avalanche of  jobs.  To make the deadline,  contracts  will be given to non-specialists which under other circumstances would be held until a specialist tradesman were available.

The heritage community like the rest of Canada was taken by surprize by the Home Renovation Tax Credit.  It is unfortunate, as an opportunity has been missed to offer owners of important properties an advantage.  The legislation could have been written to give owners of designated, heritage properties a longer time frame to complete alterations and still qualify for credit.  This would have enabled Heritage Committees and historical restoration specialists to encourage consideration of preservation through appropriate repair, or at least by historical replication.    A time extension would have recognized and rewarded the important role of property owners in looking after our built heritage, and would have cost Canada next to nothing.


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