This situation at the doorstep of Environment Minister Catherine McKenna’s riding should be a call to action for her, as the federal leader on national historic sites, to address this blatant disregard for our collective expectation.
It is now official: With Ottawa Council voting in favour of the design of a controversial addition to the beloved Château Laurier, a national historic site a mere hundred metres from Parliament Hill and the Rideau Canal World Heritage Site, nowhere in our country are our national symbols safe from abuse and neglect.
Council’s majority vote on a design that by its own account is “an abomination,” “ghastly” and “pretty ugly” is based on the argument that the hotel is private property. In doing so, council inadvertently put a spotlight on one of our country’s shameful secrets: Our national historic sites are not protected.
A few weeks ago, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, the body of experts that advises the minister of the environment on places of national significance, held an event to celebrate its centennial. During that event, former chief justice Beverley McLachlin spoke eloquently about the impact these sites had on her personal appreciation for our country and our values. The irony of her statements was not lost on those in the audience who knew that in Canada, unlike the vast majority of countries, national historic sites are not protected by law. In fact, unless they are owned and administered by Parks Canada, essentially a fraction of the close to 1,000 sites, these are not protected from market forces, environmental impacts and development pressures.
Most national historic sites are found in cities. Cities are also where most people live, and where development pressures are greatest. In the absence of federal legislation, this leaves other levels of government with the task of protecting that heritage.
Proponents such as the château’s owner, Larco Investments, who wish to improve their historic properties, are not the exception; they are the norm, and regulators need to respond reliably and consistently to the proposals. While private property is sacred in our country, so is public interest and we long ago decided that some things, such as healthy living conditions, safe building codes, and now environmentally sustainable approaches are essential conditions that constrain private initiative.
The same has been decided about heritage, which is why it is regulated provincially and municipally. In the case of the château, with the argument that the hotel is in private hands, legislators washed their hands from their responsibility to the public interest, and showed that they had no obligation to protect a national historic site.
Change is not an issue at historic sites, nor is modernity, where accepted methods to determine the compatibility of additions to historic buildings exist. The messiness of their application in this case and the inability to come to an acceptable conclusion is perilous for all national historic sites that, like the Château Laurier, are not protected federally. This is why the failure to lead on the part of the municipal and federal agencies and their elected officials is so disheartening.
Most Canadians would expect that their national historic sites are protected; otherwise why identify them? One would expect the federal government to lead by example, particularly in the national capital, and yet here we are, with an addition that Ottawans and probably many Canadians will not be proud of. Major deficiencies were recently highlighted in a House of Commons report on the state of cultural heritage in Canada, especially a need for legislation and funding.
This situation at the doorstep of Environment Minister Catherine McKenna’s riding should be a call to action for her, as the federal leader on national historic sites, to address this blatant disregard for our collective expectation. It is time for Canada to catch up with the world and enact legislation, and provide funding and incentives. It is also time for federal agencies to have the resources and authorities to act on the needs of these national places. And as we’re approaching a federal election, all parties should be asked about their commitment.
In the Château Laurier debacle, all the players have worked together to demonstrate that the places our country, our citizens, and in this case Ottawans, care most for, are in fact without protection. Without the expected leadership from our elected officials, the château, like other similar sites, is defenceless.
Christophe Rivet is the President of ICOMOS Canada, the Canadian National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites.