“How can a Municipal Heritage Committee (MHC) sell conservation without compromising its role as an advisor to Council? Many MHCs have an educational role in their mandate. To carry out that role, they have undertaken walking tours, published brochures, held Doors Open events, produced videos, erected plaques, created or been part of municipal websites, given awards for good conservation, and held workshops.
Workshop topics range from heritage house maintenance to the implications of heritage conservation district designation. One municipal plaque program includes all properties that have potential heritage value and not just those on the Heritage Register. This builds community pride and shows the broad extent of heritage resources. New techniques for getting the message out include ‘Murmur’, which enables walkers to hear community heritage stories using their smartphones.
There is a fine line between education and advocacy. At all times, MHCs should keep their Councils informed and, wherever possible, involved in heritage education initiatives. Now may be a good time to review your education program, determine whether it is meeting its objectives, and explore different ways to get the message out and engage new audiences.”
Municipalities in Ontario are mandated by statute to set up a heritage committee, whose function is to provide advice to the elected Council on matters affecting built heritage in its jurisdiction. These committees are comprised of appointed volunteers from that municipality who have knowledge of matters within the committee’s remit. Where resources allow they are usually supported by one or more municipal staff members with heritage planning responsibility.
Individual municipal councillors may or may not support the objective of preservation of built heritage and the necessary corollary of educating local electors to appreciate and respect visible reminders of their community’s past. At every municipal election all Council advisory committees may well be faced with a new Mayor and Council with quite possibly a different collective view of the importance of their community’s heritage to their legislative priorities. Their degree of collective commitment affects the budget allocated, amount of staff support, composition and number of the committee membership, and Council’s willingness to have the committee accept responsibilities that lie outside a narrow mandate to advise Council, such as the citizen education activities described above by Mr. Morgan.
Quite often municipal heritage committees objectives directly confront the business objectives of the construction, property development and extraction industries within their municipality, especially in areas like the GTA where government policy is to support new residential and commercial development as an overarching goal. The current Ontario Government’s ‘Places To Grow’ policy agenda can place considerable constraints on our ability to preserve our villages and landscapes to reflect their physical evolution through time. The absence at the municipal level in Ontario of the kind of election contribution and spending controls that exist for higher levels of government, puts its election candidates in the position of accepting or rejecting campaign funds that derive from those in their community who have a commercial interest in housing and retail demolition or modernization to support intensification, or the degrading of landscapes through extraction of industrial raw materials. To reject this kind of support outright when alternative material sources of campaign funding are slight can significantly diminish a candidate’s options to connect with constituents at the local level.
Where a Council is supportive in both communication and budget terms of its heritage committee including in its activities public education, there is some hope that the concept of preservation and conservation our visible past connects with voters. Many Councils however contain members who see the role of council advisory committees as being limited to just that and no more. Where these councillors are in a majority, local heritage supporters among the citizenry cannot rely on their MHC being an effective instrument to ‘get the word out’ on the value of maintaining some visibility of our history through preservation of a diverse and representative selection of its finer or most typical built symbols. While local historical societies and charitable heritage foundations can go some way to help, the relationship that an active and appreciated MHC has with its community’s municipal administration and its resources is usually the best option for a coherent local programme to conserve our built heritage.
by Ian Keith Anderson