Thoughts on Bill 149, An Act to Protect Ontario’s inactive cemeteries.


Gravestone, Napanee

Bill 149, a private member’s bill submitted by Jim Brownell, M.P.P. for Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry, has now passed Second Reading. This brief bill proposes that no one may relocate an inactive cemetery.

In Ontario, whipping the remains of our ancestors out of the ground and interring them elsewhere to make way for development has been common practice. I have been very unhappy about this for a long time.

In 2000, I spent part of the winter in Boston, Massachusetts. There are many interesting cemeteries in greater Boston, but what impressed me was the Old Granary Burying Ground, which dates from the 1600’s and is now deep downtown, surrounded by tall modern buildings. If this had been moved in the early twentieth century to convenience the business community, Boston would have lost one of its five-star attractions and America one of its greatest treasures.

So, the reader knows where my heart lies.

Back to Bill 149. When cemeteries are known and clearly marked I am in favour of stopping the current practice of moving the remains. Since developers know when they acquire the property that there is a burial site involved, they should be able to adjust their plans to comply with the legislation.

But what will happen when a developer stumbles on a formerly unknown burial site? He already has considerable investment in his project. The proposed development may simply not permit re-working to avoid the cemetery. Once the problem is public, the resale value of the land will drop significantly. The temptation would be to keep the bulldozers running and not report the discovery. It happens now. I fear that it will happen more often and we would loose more of our history, not less.

My worry is that Bill 149 is too much stick and no carrot.

The promotional material published about the bill claims that there will be future additions which: “will establish clear-cut regulations for potential developers to avoid unnecessary planning and additional costs”. (Office of Mr. Brownell.) These regulations are yet to be written. Has anyone with planning experience thought deeply about them?

I have worked defending material culture most of my life, and I can tell you that drafting such regulations will require the creative brain of a genius and the patience of a saint.

With all levels of government in 2009 insanely pro-development and averse to any new spending for heritage (which is seen in Canada as “nice, but not essential”) I do not know what can be offered to developers which will make them happy to stop the bulldozers.

The heritage site problem is world-wide. No magic fix has been discovered. In Vancouver, the developer may get more “air rights” in exchange for preserving heritage. He is permitted to build taller on another site. The jury is still out as to whether this is a good or bad system. Other things that have been tried elsewhere include swapping of lots with the municipality and tax relief, both of which require enthusiastic participation from local government.

In Ontario, municipalities are now supposed to be preparing archaeological master plans to map below-ground heritage so that developers will be able to learn where the sensitive areas are. Archaeological master plans don’t necessarily map everything, but where one exists there are fewer surprizes. However, municipalities don’t have the money to invest in the exercise and few archaeological master plans have been completed. I believe that the City of Toronto has one, and the City of Kingston and there may be a couple of others. With municipalities strained to the limit to cope with aging infrastructure, we are not going to see the province blanketed with archaeological master plans in the near future.

My other question is what will happen when the family or the first nations band actually want to move the remains.  This has not been acknowledged in the supporting materials either. However, I think that this will be a much easier problem to rectify through the regulations unlike the problem with developers.

A brief, simple bill such as Bill 149 has a much better chance of becoming law than a complicated draft. What alarms me is that the background materials presently provided show almost no familiarity with the history of heritage struggles in Ontario.  There is no evidence of any sophisticated thinking about how to improve the situation. There are no astonishing new suggestions. So, although I support Bill 149, I believe that some future, pro-business government will simply emasculate it, as Mr. Harris’s government did to our old Ontario Heritage Act, and we will be back where we started. I would put money on it.


Filed under Archaeology, History, Ontario, Material culture

2 responses to “Thoughts on Bill 149, An Act to Protect Ontario’s inactive cemeteries.

  1. Bill Lamb

    Grave markers are art as well as history. They reveal changing styles of the stone carvers’ work. Poems, hymns, scripture verses, humour, puzzles, admonitions, &c., are addressed to the public. The Cataraqui cemetery was a popular place for Sunday afternoon strolls in times past. A place to read, look, consider, and muse (as in museums), as well as enjoy the park-like atmosphere.
    At a recent meeting of the Association for Gravestone Studies a group of us came up with a list of over 40 professional and other persons who would be interested in gravestones–including epidemiologists, poets, and the gothic gang. Consider how many graveside services are included in movies and TV. It’s part of our culture, and reminds us of our mortality.

  2. newzeum's material culture

    There are plenty of folk e-publishing and paper publishing on the genealogical aspect of cemeteries, but very little on the political challenges. In the past (here in Ontario) the Ontario Historical Society has led the charge concerning protecting cemeteries.

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