Government slams multicultural heritage in flagrant attack on heritage protections

Tuesday, November 8, 2022
by Dan Schneider

Bill 23, the More Homes Built Faster Act, 2022, takes a sledgehammer to key parts of the Ontario Heritage Act and Ontario’s cultural heritage protection system.1

One of the more insidious proposals — not getting nearly enough attention in the slew of outrageous changes — takes aim at how we define cultural heritage itself.

It’s almost Orwellian.

The proposed change would effectively narrow the places our cities and towns can recognize and protect to favour those of more traditional (read White) communities. 

Ironically, it is the new “minister of heritage,” the Minister of Citizenship and Multiculturalism, Michael Ford, who is abetting this travesty.

The question is whether this is deliberate — or (to be charitable) inadvertent, the product of rushed and addled thinking? But the result is the same. The seemingly simple proposal to redefine our cultural heritage — based on TWO legislated criteria rather than one — means that many of the places of value to Ontario’s diverse communities risk exclusion from the official “heritage” of the province.

As world events remind us every day, how you treat the history and culture of others says a lot about how you view them. In Bill 23 the government seems to be signalling that much of your and my heritage is decidedly second-rate and not worth considering. Why? Because it (somehow) gets in the way of housing starts.

Let’s unpack this if we can.

The Ontario Heritage Act, going back to 1975, provides a suite of tools for municipalities, and the province itself, to use to identify and protect our cultural heritage resources. The main protection tool is heritage designation, which comes in two forms — designation of individual properties under Part IV of the Act and designation of heritage districts under Part V.

Because the Act is primarily concerned with land or real property, there are a great many different kinds of places that could be subject to designation. A not-so-short list includes: buildings, bridges, battlegrounds, cemeteries and other burial sites, gardens, parks, ruins, archaeological sites, landscapes, streetscapes, trees and other natural features (at least those with a cultural component), memorials, and engineering works. Definitely a case of “includes but not limited to!”

But lists like this don’t tell us which buildings, bridges, etc. are heritage buildings, bridges, etc. and eligible for designation. And there is no definition in the Act to help.

In the 1975 OHA, designation of property under Part IV was based on “architectural or historical value or interest” — period. Over the years there were constant calls for a better, more encompassing definition of what could be designated. In 2002, the by-then accepted term “cultural heritage” replaced “architectural or historical” in describing the kind of “value or interest” designated property should have, but the new term was not defined.2

Finally, with the 2005 comprehensive amendments to the OHA, a property was eligible for designation if it met specific criteria “for determining cultural heritage value or interest” — and these were set out in Regulation 9/06 adopted the next year. The regulation provides a now almost universally used definition of heritage in Ontario.3

The criteria themselves — nine in all, with three in each of three clumps: physical/design, historic/associative, and contextual — didn’t come out of nowhere.

Indeed, the introduction of the designation criteria can be seen as part of a broader move to standardize and codify processes for the identification and preservation of cultural heritage. What had been developed and fine-tuned over decades as best practices used by heritage organizations and professionals from UNESCO on down gradually gained official recognition as governments adopted this professional praxis. The Standards for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada and Ontario’s Standards & Guidelines for Provincial Heritage Properties are other examples of this.

The designation criteria don’t stand alone of course. As important as the criteria themselves is how they are applied: Following a systematic evaluation process in which all are considered, one or more must be met.

Why (just) one?

Well, these are not like the loose criteria you might use to decide to date someone — attractive, charming, sense of humour, and so on — where two (or more) are certainly better than one.

How about criteria to help you decide you need to boil your water? Bad smell, discolouration, strange/bitter taste. Here obviously one would be enough!

Don’t like that example? Here’s a better one: membership admission criteria for an orchestra. To join an orchestra you only need to play one instrument well, not all of them.

Or this one… to be considered marginalized you only need to belong to one marginalized group, not all of them. To say you have to belong to two or more marginalized communities to be considered marginalized would verge on the absurd.

Is it clear now why requiring two or more heritage criteria be met — to provide further “rigour” in designations, says the government — is such a bad idea? Why not three, five (a majority) or all nine? Any number other than one is arbitrary and professionally unintelligible. The opposite of rigour.

And then there’s the on-the-ground consequences, intended or not. Speaking of marginalized communities…

With the early and widespread emphasis in the preservation field on buildings, on architecture more generally, use of designation has historically been skewed in favour of the homes and buildings of Ontario’s settler societies and mostly well-to-do, White communities. Physical or design values such as the style of a mansion or town hall were uppermost in the minds of municipalities embarking on designation programs. As the field progressed, other, less obvious values of heritage places came to be better understood. Historic/associative value and contextual value received greater attention.

The criteria in Reg. 9/06 reflect this evolution.

Take historic/associative value. Currently a property can be recognized and designated for its historic/associative value alone — by demonstrating that it has "direct associations with a theme, event, belief, person, activity, organization, or institution that is significant to a community.” In many cases there may be no building on the property or no physical/design elements that would satisfy the physical/design criteria (no “rare, unique, representative or early example of a style, type, expression, material or construction method”). Nor may there be contextual value (where a property is “important in defining, maintaining or supporting the character of an area”).

fugitive slave chapel

Fugitive Slave Chapel, London, awaiting restoration

Consider the Fugitive Slave Chapel. This little, dilapidated, apparently insignificant building sits on a temporary site in London, Ontario.4 Making the case for its physical/design value would be astretch (and remember, all your claims about heritage value could be put to the test before the Ontario Land Tribunal if there is an appeal). And there is no contextual value at all because the chapel has been moved and will be moved again. Yet this modest structure is highly significant for its historic connections with the Underground Railway and the early Black presence in London. It is of great importance to the local Black community today and indeed all Londoners.

The one-to-two change in the criteria will pretty much rule out designation and legal protection of the Fugitive Slave Chapel — and countless historic places like it.

Similarly with buildings of “only” contextual importance in places like Kensington Market and Little Jamaica.

On the one hand: We have Ontario municipalities large and small — egged on by local groups of all kinds and heritage organizations like the Ontario Historical Society and Architectural Conservancy Ontario — making slow strides in recognizing and celebrating the unsung heritage places of Ontario’s diverse communities.

On the other: We have Mr. Ford, Minister of Citizenship and Multiculturalism — who has just taken over the heritage portfolio and responsibility for the Ontario Heritage Act, and whose ministry “leads the government’s anti-racism and inclusion initiatives to build an equitable Ontario”— who wants to make this harder.

The contributions of Black, Indigenous, Franco-Ontarian, multicultural, and 2SLGBTQIA+ communities to the heritage of Ontario? Largely second-class, says the government, and don’t look to provincial policy and legislation for help with their protection.


Note 1: The bill is here (see Schedule 6) and the Environmental Registry posting is here.

Note 2: See the OHA+M article ‘“Cultural heritage’ and the fuss with definitions”: For background on the development of the criteria regulations, see “The test for designation — Regulations 9/06 and 10/06” at

Note 3: See

Note 4: See