Heritage on the Hill: Parliamentary committee studies federal framework for the conservation of cultural heritage

A logo reading "House of Commons, Chambre des Communes, Canada" with the Canadian coat of arms

We’ve been following Bill C-323 — legislation to provide income tax incentives for heritage property, which has been referred to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development but not yet taken up.[1

Presumably in part to give them context for the coming Bill C-323 debate, the committee is currently in the midst of a milestone study on “Heritage Preservation and Protection in Canada.”

Starting on September 19th and wrapping up last week, the committee devoted six days to hearings and discussion of heritage issues in the country. The focus is naturally on the federal role; the 23 witnesses invited to address the committee have some connection, present or past, to federal heritage programs (Parks Canada, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada), national organizations (National Trust for Canada, ICOMOS Canada), and national historic sites (Buxton National Historic Site and Museum near Chatham, Ontario). Or to efforts to conserve Canada’s indigenous heritage (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, Indigenous Heritage Circle).

The committee also heard, via video conference, from the Executive Vice-President and Chief Preservation Officer of the (U.S.) National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Remarkably, the study is moving ahead very quickly with the committee already moving into the report-writing and recommendations phase. In addition to the witness testimony and supporting briefs, the committee is also open to public comments (see the National Trust’s alert about this[2], but at this point you’ll have to hurry!).

The audio of the witness presentations and question-and-answer with members of the committee can be found here, along with transcripts of the discussion.

For the heritage advocate most of it is pretty absorbing stuff. To give you a taste I’ve selected a few favourite bits, grouped according to some of the main issues that emerged.

The need for federal action

Christina Cameron, formerly with Parks Canada, Historic Sites:

What I have attempted to briefly outline are what I consider to be the main components of a comprehensive heritage conservation program for Canada's historic places. The pattern of loss and neglect has not changed in decades. The Parks Canada Agency Act, I remind you, charges the minister responsible for Parks Canada, who is the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, with responsibility for national historic sites, historic canals, heritage railway stations, heritage lighthouses, federal heritage buildings, historic places in Canada—hence the [Canadian Register of Historic Places]—federal archaeology, and the design and implementation of programs that relate primarily to built heritage writ large. The agency act emphasizes that it is in the national interest to protect and commemorate these special places “in view of their special role in the lives of Canadians and the fabric of the nation”, but the minister cannot accomplish this work without a more robust suite of legislative, financial, and fiscal tools.

The need for federal heritage legislation

Gordon Bennett, formerly with Park Canada, Historic Sites:

“I don't think I am the only person who has ever wondered why it is that the Government of Canada has sponsored and passed comprehensive legislation dealing with national parks, national marine conservation areas, national museums, wildlife, migratory birds, species at risk, and general environmental protection—to cite only a few examples—but there is no comprehensive federal legislation—with the emphasis on comprehensive—dealing with national historic sites and historic places. To be sure, there is legislation on heritage lighthouses and heritage railways, but significantly, both were initiated by private members, whereas the former were all government bills.

This is not to say that there are no statutes that deal with historic sites. In fact, there are three: the Historic Sites and Monuments Act; a single section of the Canada National Parks Act that deals with some national historic sites administered by Parks Canada; and the Parks Canada Agency Act. However, … none provide the systematic or comprehensive type of statutory protection that is required.

Why legislate? Parliament is the highest policy-making authority in the country in respect of matters falling under federal purview, and legislation is the highest expression of that policy-making authority. It is essential that Parliament legislate in the area of built heritage in order to signal to Canadians, as well as federal departments, agencies, and crown corporations and other orders of government, that the federal government values this heritage. Policy that is not expressed in, and hence sanctioned by, legislation does not possess the same degree of credibility, stability, or predictability as legislation, not only outside government, but equally important, inside government as well.”

The need for federal incentives

Natalie Bull, Executive Director, National Trust for Canada:

… [T]he carrot and the stick are at the heart of most jurisdictions' heritage strategies. We know that incentives are rarely available in amounts sufficient to influence an unwilling owner's decision to invest or demolish, and heritage designation generally does not bring absolute protection against demolition. …

Number one [of the priority actions she recommends], the federal government can join municipalities, provinces, and territories in offering much needed incentives to attract investment. A range of approaches may be appropriate to reflect the different ownership types and property types. For example, a predictable go-to source of federal matching funds like the cost-share program works well for heritage properties owned by charities and non-profits. Consideration might be given to a mechanism where donations by private individuals and corporations are matched by the federal government as an interesting way to encourage philanthropy. A federal rehabilitation tax incentive like measures recently proposed in Bill C-323 is a proven way to attract corporate investment to revenue-generating historic places, and gives older buildings vibrant, new uses.

Grant programs versus tax measures

Chris Weibe, National Trust for Canada:

Essentially there are only two mechanisms for the federal government to intervene in the commercial property market, and those are income tax measures or grants and contributions. You've heard about the CHPIF[Commercial Heritage Properties Incentive Fund] fund and its success as a pilot program for a tax credit program. Analysis by Deloitte and Ernst & Young concluded that refundable tax credits would be more effective than would a grant program. A refundable tax credit offers a number of advantages to the private sector that a contribution program does not. It offers predictability and timeliness. Contribution programs often require more than double the time for approvals on the front end. It leverages existing familiarity with the tax system, creating investor confidence. It also offers flexibility: it works well for large or small projects.

Julian Smith, Willowbank Centre for Cultural Landscape:

I would hope the emphasis, if there are tax credits, is on income-producing properties. Among the concerns that have been raised about somebody owning a beautiful historic home in Westmount or Rockcliffe or Shaughnessy or whatever is whether they should be getting a tax credit for work on that house. The idea that the U.S. adopted, that it should be for income-producing properties, has put the focus on tax credits for the rehabilitation of commercial buildings, of main streets in little towns, of urban neighbourhoods, abandoned industrial places. … It’s in income-producing properties that you get the real swings in urban areas that are either going to allow places to continue to exist or not.

How indigenous peoples see heritage and its protection

Karen Aird, Indigenous Heritage Circle:

But [in addition to sacred sites] for many indigenous groups, [indigenous heritage] can mean intangible things like laws, stories, and oral histories. It can mean places that may have no physical objects but that are sacred, where people go for ceremonies. It can be artifacts that many of you see in museums. It can be even things like intellectual properties that are passed: our stories, our songs, our totem poles. Those are all just some of the many things that represent indigenous heritage.

Madeleine Redfern, Indigenous Heritage Circle:

… [I]ndigenous heritage is simply not part of most of the conversations. … I’m listening to the proposals for tax credits and the value of having systems that protect heritage sites, and while I understand and appreciate that it is important, it does not include our indigenous realities. [W]e’re almost having two different conversations ….

The systems that are in place are not set up for our communities to actually access. We do not meet the criteria. The tax credit system is beyond what we are able to access in being able to not only have our heritage sites recognized but protected in the way we want. … [I]t’s often brought up in a developmental context, and even then it focuses usually only on archaeology. If there are some sort of traditional burial grounds or some sacred sites, they're to be preserved. But outside of that, everything that we know we need....

There's a mindset, and it's challenging to begin to expand it: how do we have ourselves included? Not even in an existing system that we find ourselves that we don't fit in; how do we create a parallel system or integrate those systems that allow indigenous communities across this wonderful nation to be able to have the resources, outside of a development project, to actually begin to have national funds that allow us to begin to have our sites or our practices designated, recognized, and financially supported?

The committee’s report is expected in November.

Note 1: See previous OHA+M posts: "Finally, a federal tax incentive for heritage?"; “Debating Bill C-323”; ”Bill C-323 clears a hurdle”; and “Probing Bill C-323.”

Note 2: See http://www.nationaltrustcanada.ca/get-involved/hcf-news/5-minutes-your-time-today-can-help-change-game-historic-places-canada

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About Dan Schneider

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Dan Schneider is a heritage enthusiast, policy wonk, writer and professional heritage consultant. Formerly senior policy advisor with the provincial culture ministry, Dan has much experience with the Ontario Heritage Act and heritage policy issues. A lawyer by training, he was lead policy expert on major changes to the Ontario Heritage Act in 2005 and 2006. His advice is frequently sought on questions related to Ontario's legislative and policy framework for heritage. Based in St. Marys, Ontario, Dan is Principal of Dan Schneider Heritage Consulting. He can be reached at danschneider@live.ca.