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Forty Years of Built Heritage Preservation: Heritage Caledon’s Formative Years

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This year, 2016, marks forty years from the foundation of a municipal heritage committee in the Town of Caledon in Peel Region in Southern Ontario. Municipal heritage committees are responsible for advising their Council on matters affecting the preservation and recognition of the visible evidence of that community’s past, especially its historic buildings.

The passion for urban renewal after WWII, involving bulldozing whole blocks of historic downtown cores to replace their buildings with new ones, was widespread throughout the Developed World. In some countries where urban war damage was extensive and the case for funding wholesale restoration hard to make, this is understandable, but in countries like Canada barely touched by military destruction, it now seems folly.  Influential historians and architects began to talk about heritage conservation measures for buildings with historical and/or architectural merit that were fast disappearing.

The post-War urban sprawl onto rural landscapes was removing evidence of pre-Contact and pioneer settlement, and archaeologists too began to speak out. In Peel alone it was estimated ten known sites a week disappeared without any documentation.

Eventually our Legislature passed the Ontario Heritage Act, a first in Canada, in an attempt to provide some protection for the best of the Province’s buildings. However this first piece of heritage preservation legislation proved largely toothless in that it placed all the responsibility for implementation on a poorly funded volunteer-driven Ontario Heritage Foundation or on local municipalities with no budget for the necessary planning and administrative expertise. Nevertheless the Act did mark the start of a trend to introduce heritage considerations into subsequent land use legislation.

At the municipal level volunteer Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committees began to be created but this process went slowly. Like so many initiatives that aim to change the way we run our communities, heritage conservationists with both vision and training were few and far between. Caledon’s LACAC was the forty-eighth formed, although with Mississauga’s and Brampton’s LACACs, for another twenty years this made Peel the only Ontario District, County or Region to have complete heritage committee coverage. This was the result of a small group lead by Russ Cooper delegating to all three municipal councils in sequence.

The first meeting of Caledon’s LACAC was held in September of 1976 with no dedicated budget as yet. The group, comprising Councillor and Chair Alex Raeburn, Councillor George Wright, Heather Ghey-Broadbent, Mary Cassidy, Cyril Clark, Rowena Cooper nee Colman, Doug Dourr, Harold Egan, Norman Irwin and Russ Cooper as Special Adviser, began taking on heritage initiatives that no paid staff had any time or background to tackle. An early victory was assisting a former Town mayor, by then Chair of the Niagara Escarpment Commission (NEC), fight the demolition of the historic Cheltenham Brickworks by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources without an NEC permit and despite the site’s documentation as an important industrial archaeological site.

Although we still today occasionally hear of government agencies disregarding heritage preservation considerations, such behaviour was all-too-common in those early years, and at various times the committee engaged MTO, Ontario Hydro, Peel Region, (M)TRCA, CVC and others over their ignorance about legislated heritage conservation. Some eventually did appoint their own heritage officers.

Just about every LACAC faced (and many still face) the need to persuade both the powers-that-be and the citizenry that heritage conservation is a financial asset for the taxpayer. For Caledon this got a bit easier when, during the economic downturn of the mid-1990s, ‘Days in the Country’, involving regional tourism visits to scenic villages with their quaint old buildings and craft and antique stores, was just about the only local growth industry. But this battle is not yet fully won in Caledon, as the recent appeal to the OMB by some downtown Bolton businesses to stop implementation of the Town Council-approved Bolton Village Heritage Conservation District illustrates.

As a construct of the Regional Government experiment involving several historic townships formed into the largest Town geography in Ontario, Caledon’s heritage committee had to manage the difficulty some long-time resident members had in identifying with preservation issues beyond their original township’s boundaries. The solution the committee adopted was annual bus tours that gave both members and staff an improved sense of the built inventory treasures contained throughout the Town’s rural landscapes and villages. In later years the concept of Town-wide bus tours was picked up by the Caledon Heritage Foundation as a public education service.

The early volunteers were a doughty lot and their hard work was eventually rewarded by firstly a dedicated budget and then the appointment of Heather Broadbent as Caledon’s first full-time heritage officer. Over the years, as the Town’s population has grown, the Committee increased in numbers and came to be called Heritage Caledon. When heritage pioneer Broadbent eventually retired after many fruitful years of service, Sally Drummond took her place, and, like Heather, has become a well-regarded planning asset to the Committee’s and the Town’s preservation efforts.

With grateful thanks to Heather Broadbent for access to her notes on LACAC and Caledon municipal heritage committee history

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