“…[T]he biggest battle for the forces of heritage in the mid-1970s was against an arm of the provincial government itself, and it was a battle that was lost.” (Note 1)
In 1976 architect John Howard’s masterpiece, the original central building of the Queen Street mental health facility in Toronto — the old Provincial Lunatic Asylum, better known as 999 Queen Street West — was demolished. The Ministry of Health had decided the building, constructed in 1846-50, had to go. In the face of opposition by the City of Toronto and heritage groups across the province, and despite strenuous efforts by the new Ontario Heritage Foundation (beefed up with the passage of the Ontario Heritage Act the year before), the Ministry of Government Services, then responsible for the province’s realty management, proceeded to tear down the structure.
Watercolour of John Howard's Provincial Lunatic Asylum, Toronto
When I started at the (then) Ministry of Culture and Recreation in early 1980 the wounds of this battle were no longer raw, but the reek of heritage catastrophe still lingered.
By the way, and as is often the case, it appears the huge controversy over the old asylum helped to preserve another Toronto landmark in provincial hands — the iconic Don Jail. When the jail’s future was threatened a year or so later, the government thought twice and ultimately decided to save the building.
The experience with the Howard building highlighted a significant defect in the 1975 Ontario Heritage Act — there were no powers to designate or otherwise protect provincially owned properties. As noted previously (see “The Ontario Heritage Act at 40” from February 16, 2015), this was likely because lawmakers were wary of allowing municipalities, mere “creatures of the province”, to impose controls on government-owned assets.
While other provincial laws — and indeed heritage legislation in other provinces — sometimes stipulated that “This statute binds the Crown”, meaning that provincial authorities would be subject to its controls, there was no such provision in the Ontario Heritage Act.
Before 2005, what amounted to a huge loophole in our legislation — the Ontario government is the largest owner of cultural heritage property in the province — was partially addressed in two ways. First, the culture ministry in its various guises was able to negotiate, from the early 1980s, bilateral agreements with the Ministry of Government Services (MGS) and its successors charged with management of much government-owned land and buildings. The protocol with MGS required consultation with the culture ministry on decisions affecting MGS-owned heritage property. A similar agreement was developed with the Ministry of Transportation with respect to MOT heritage bridges. The protocols were periodically renewed and became more detailed over the years. While important steps forward, these arrangements were limited and lacked teeth.
In 1990 A Strategy for Conserving Ontario’s Heritage — the “black baby book” I wrote about last time — recommended that the Government of Ontario “should lead by example through a co-ordinated, government-wide approach to the protection and use of Crown-owned resources” (page 43) and, under the goal of strengthening provincial leadership, set as an objective, “To develop policies and standards for the conservation of Crown-owned heritage resources" (page 57).
Second, on the flimsy pretext that the Ontario Heritage Act did not expressly prohibit the designation of Crown property, a number of more venturesome (and frustrated) municipalities went ahead and designated buildings owned by the province under Part IV of the Act. These “designations” were usually tolerated — and ignored — by the provincial owner, but they did serve to send a message that provincial realty assets were also community heritage assets.
Calls for the province to lead-by-example and “put its own house in order” only mounted over the years. For the culture ministry the policy question became not whether the government should respond to this pressure, but how.
Note 1: From “Ontario Heritage Foundation History”, an undated and, as far as I know, unpublished manuscript by William Kilbourn, page 28. Next time: Policies for the conservation of provincially owned property (part two)
The heritage movement in this province has been around long enough now — we should have some good, thoughtful writing about what it is, where it came from and where it’s going. But this seems in short supply. Or maybe it's just hard to find.
We have a few important articles about the history of the preservation movement in Ontario and the development of our heritage legislation. I’m thinking especially of Mark Osbaldeston’s article, “The Origins of Heritage Preservation Law in Ontario”, published in 1995 in the The Law Society Gazette; and Victoria Angel’s 1998 thesis paper, “The Ontario Heritage Act and The Provincial Program: An Alternate Model for Heritage Conservation.” Both of these should be read, or re-read, by anyone interested in the history of our heritage policy and legislation.
And there are a handful of government publications, all likewise old, but not necessarily dated. Perhaps the most significant of these was released 25 years ago this spring: A Strategy for Conserving Ontario’s Heritage: The Report of the Ontario Heritage Policy Review.
I’m a bit biased, because I was part of the Ontario Heritage Policy Review team that worked on this report. (In fact, the review, which ran from 1987-1990, gave me my first real policy job.)
The report — known in-house as the “black baby book” because it had a black cover with a cherubic baby face in one corner — was the first government document to look at cultural heritage in Ontario in a big-picture way, providing a coherent policy framework for the conservation of our heritage, before getting down to the “strategy”, the details of who-does-what.
Like most government reports it had a limited shelf life, especially as the Liberal government of David Peterson, which produced it, was defeated later that year by Bob Rae’s New Democrats.
But there are a small number out there — including some who did not work on it! — who still remember this report and think highly of it.
Maybe a quote or two from the report would help give you a flavour:
Ontario’s heritage is that part of the collective heritage of all humanity for which we have particular responsibility….
[W]e are coming to see our heritage as the dynamic and ever-changing context within which we live our lives. We add to it and subtract from it daily, continually interpreting and reinterpreting it in ways that deepen our understanding of ourselves and our world. It is all around us and within every one of us. “A fish is the last to discover water’'; our heritage is the “water” in which we live. (p. 19)
Heritage provides rootedness, an often underestimated and neglected human need….
Its heritage is a society’s network of touchstones. Familiarity helps society cope with change. Studies of stress suggest that individuals can cope with only a certain amount of change, even positive change, at any one time. Beyond a particular threshold our mechanisms begin to break down. Without networks of familiar touchstones — both tangible and intangible — communities, like individuals, suffer various breakdowns of social order and well-being. (p. 9)