In Canada “heritage conservation” is a fundamentally settler construct. As such it’s preoccupations are tied into Euro-centric ways of knowing, seeing, and understanding the world. One of these preoccupations is the need to delineate the spaces that can be considered “heritage,” even when this line is restrictive or unhelpful for our understanding of the site. In her 2013 article tracking the evolution and renegotiation of the definition of heritage at a global scale, Aurélie Elisa Gfeller says “[heritage] is a social construct, one in which a material artefact, a monument, a site, or a cultural practice is endowed with meaning. This implies that heritage is not immutable; quite the opposite” (Gfeller “Negotiating the meaning of global heritage: ‘cultural landscapes’ in the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, 1972–92” pg. 484). If we didn’t put as much importance on real property, in what ways does that change how and what we consider heritage?
Below are a few examples of ways in which the field of tangible heritage is changing, and examples of how these changes are already being played out.
The discussion around material re-use has grown in the past decade, especially as it pertains to sustainability and carbon budgeting. If we designated material rather than property how would that change our street-scapes? A warehouse building of no great architectural or associative significance is structurally beyond reasonable repair. It could be rapidly listed as a heritage property, but likely would languish under the bill for it’s repairs, brown site clean up, and rehabilitation. What if the old-growth timber frame and locally made bricks are reused in meaningful ways? The building itself may be gone, but it’s material still communicates at least some of the post-industrial values the space held, and less new material is generated for construction.
We might consider living non-human actors. Some jurisdictions in Canada can designate trees as heritage (see Forest Ontario https://forestsontario.ca/en/program/heritage-tree). The Ontario program is centered on pretty traditional heritage values; the tree must be associated with historically significant people or land which limits the usefulness for community building and place-making initiatives.
Bison play a vital role in native prairie ecology, and are of cultural significance to the Indigenous and Metis people of the prairies. In 1997 Newfoundland and Labrador designated the Newfoundland Pony as a “heritage animal,” giving it special legal protection (https://www.releases.gov.nl.ca/releases/1997/forest/0912n02.htm), and in 2015 the pony was designated as “Distinctive Cultural Tradition and Practice” (https://heritagefoundation.ca/discover/provincial-historic-commemorations-program-designations/the-newfoundland-pony/). The bison at Grasslands Provincial Park, or Wanuskewin Heritage Park could be given special heritage designation to promote and protect those lineages, their place in the ecology of native prairie grasslands, and their cultural significance.
Cultural Landscapes were adopted by the World Heritage Committee almost three decades ago. They were a contentious issue at meetings of the WHC in the decade leading up to their adoption, but have since been widely adopted as a useful instrument in the heritage conservation toolshed. Many of Canada’s recent or proposed World Heritage Sites are cultural landscapes.
The recent designation of the Shingwauk Indian Residential School site demonstrates the influence of a cultural landscape approach. Most heritage designations in Canada only cover the footprint of the building. Holy Trinity Church National Historic Site is a good example of this: the designation description from the Directory of Federal Heritage Designations includes the stipulation that “[t]he designated place is the building, defined by its footprint, at the time of designation” (https://www.pc.gc.ca/apps/dfhd/page_nhs_eng.aspx?id=761). The Shingwauk designation covers the school building itself, but also outlying buildings used by the school over the years. Residential schools covered a campus landscape, and the designation at Shingwauk has been tailored to fit the needs of the site, which in turn serves as a standing archive and evidence of the school system (see https://www.canada.ca/en/parks-canada/news/2021/07/the-former-shingwauk-indian-residential-school---sault-ste-marie-ontario.html).
As the field of heritage changes in response to community values, those of us who are in positions to gate-keep heritage should be open and adaptable to new ways of understanding what heritage and conservation consist of. It is important – indeed it is a human right - for all people to be able to express and preserve their heritage in a way that is consistent with their beliefs and values. If our focus remains too centered on the tangible, on old buildings as physical structures, and doesn’t incorporate other needs, expressions or values it is failing communities.
Heritage is already more than property, and the field of tangible heritage conservation is already changing, whether or not the gate-keepers are watching.