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Why Heritage and Sustainability Go Hand In Hand


Part of the cult of modernism is that new is always better, and we are easily hoodwinked into thinking that any and all change is progressive. Yet when you walk in Regina or Saskatoon’s downtown you don’t always find the newer buildings more visually pleasing than the ones they replaced. As the number of older buildings shrinks, our eyes are often drawn to their old stone work, the rounded windows or other unique design features. This may even give us a rest from the frenzy of the consumer society. There is something deeply human about wanting to keep track of our heritage, which can help orient us to the future. Indigenous peoples value traditional sacred sites, which can help recover a sense of identity after the cultural devastation of colonialism. I was deeply moved seeing thousands-of-years old Aboriginal cave drawings while hiking to sacred sites in Australia’s Grampian Mountains, and on past trips to Europe I have been impressed how buildings that are centuries older than Canada continually get refurbished and used as public space.

Meanwhile settler societies such as ours seemingly want to move ever-onward with little attention to the past, which is often associated with oppression in “the old country”. But this futuristic orientation without regard for heritage is not sustainable. There may actually be a connection between disregard for heritage and disregard for what we are doing to natural systems.


We’ve become accustomed to seeing older buildings fall. But it is worth asking: who will we be if all the reminders of our past are gone? What happens to our identity if the reminders of our history slip away? Don’t we need to preserve buildings so we can better tell the upcoming generation stories about their roots?

We should celebrate our heritage success stories. In the 1980s I worked with Regina’s Core Community Group to preserve the original Fire Hall No 1, the historic site of the Regina Riot. Thankfully the building remains and is in full use, and no one can tell me that their eyes aren’t drawn to this impressive structure when they drive down 11th Avenue. But for every success story there are many losses. Regina’s old Capital Theatre which fell under the wreckers ball would still be an impressive cultural draw to Regina’s downtown, compared to the 9 to 5 office tower that replaced it and which could have been built on an empty lot nearby.

Such successes and failures also occur at the provincial level. At the end of Grant Devine’s term the provincial sanatorium near Fort Qu’Appelle was being privatized. The newly elected Romano NDP government put a stop to this and the Sanatorium went back into public use. But NDP governments weren’t proactive in establishing options for stable public use, so by the end of the Calvert government the Fort San property was again being privatized. The province refused to make this provincial landmark into a heritage site and it was slated for demolition. Had the Village of Fort San under the leadership of Mayor Alf Zimmerman not declared it a municipal heritage site the magnificent lake-side buildings would be gone. The private developers have changed hands several times and challenges about reuse remain.


There are many myths about heritage protection, the biggest one being that it blocks development. We’ve been slow to catch on that in some places adaptive reuse of heritage buildings is the norm. What is considered heritage value of course depends on the architectural significance and quality of the original building and its upkeep. But it also depends on local meaning. Other communities need to follow the lead of Wolseley which thankfully preserved its original Opera House. Old central School in Fort Qu’Appelle has value because it is now 100 years old (1911-2011) and is the first two-story four-room school designed by the renowned architects Storey and Van Egmond. As construction historian Frank Korvemaker said at a January 10th community forum, this school is “virtually unaltered and most pristine”. The reason it still stands is because the design, engineering and building materials were all top-notch and we can show our indebtedness by continuing to care for the building and bringing it back into reuse.

Korvemaker was involved in the restoration of the 130 year old Bell Barn at Indian Head. He suggests that heritage projects need to ask: Is it the right project? Is it the right reuse proposal? Is it the right time and place? And are the right people involved? The Bell Barn project succeeded because it met the need for an interpretive centre about dry land farming on the prairies. And it was “now or never” as the building was quickly deteriorating. The decision to move it from private to public land enabled promoters to fund raise widely, giving people from across the region a sense of ownership. Further, the project had a diversity of partners. Other Saskatchewan communities not wanting their history to slip away can learn from this.


Another pioneer in the reuse of heritage buildings is Ross Keith, whose latest project was restoring the headquarters of Regina’s original daily paper, the 1911 Leader Building. This was a huge commitment as the building sat empty for 13 years, and we all know of instances of “demolition by neglect.” At the Fort Qu’Appelle forum Keith reminded us of the importance of preserving community landmarks to remind us of our roots. He noted that Fort Qu’Appelle’s Old Central School reflected the past settlement boom; in just 12 years Saskatchewan’s population went from below 100,000 to above 600,000. Prior to this boom the one-room school was how education was delivered to the dispersed rural population. Preserving and reusing a building that symbolizes this change helps keep the historical consciousness alive. Community support grows for making Old Central School into a Centre of the Arts, which could bring back a Summer School of the Arts in the Valley.

Keith noted that heritage preservation is now being seen as cultural planning. People take pride in showcasing their heritage and adaptive reuse can bring new energy and purpose to the community. He also noted what a loss it was when Regina’s original, immaculately crafted City Hall was bull-dozed to make room for a uniform commercial mall, which is now a federal office building. The short-sighted mentality at the time was that Regina was “starved for development” and needed to bulldoze the old to make way for the new.

This mentality still exists among some politicians and businesses. But we are slowly realizing that the old can be renewed. When a member of the Fort Qu’Appelle committee wanting to stop demolition of the 100 year old local school contacted Davidson, and found their sister school, built in 1912, had been torn down, the person at the town office admitted “we regret that decision”. Many Saskatchewan communities gave into the myth that new is always better and they have forever lost important community landmarks. But many communities still have important heritage buildings which they can preserve and reuse. This shift in priorities encourages us to think in a more integrated way, where past and future are better connected. This is an important part of moving towards a sustainable society.

Next time I’ll look at what sustainability means for challenging how markets operate.