31st Annual Conference of the Heritage Canada Foundation
As a Greg Clark Internship Award winner and as a writer-photographer and documentary filmmaker with a passionate interest in Canadian heritage, I am very grateful to the Canadian Journalism Foundation for having enabled me to attend the 31st annual conference of the Heritage Canada Foundation, held in Saint John, New Brunswick, from September 9 to September 12. I can say in all honesty that, from start to finish, the conference exceeded my expectations and deepened my understanding of heritage issues regionally, nationally, and internationally.
Being Canada’s oldest incorporated city, Saint John was a particularly apt site for the proceedings, which focused on the theme of stewardship of heritage buildings. My introduction to the history, and, in particular, the heritage architecture of Saint John began with a nearly three-hour tour. Our guide, a dynamic local journalist named Valerie Evans, gave us a wonderful overview of the origins and evolution of the city. She also recounted colourful anecdotes about specific buildings, such as the one erected by a man who had clashed with the town fathers and, in retaliation, commissioned portraits of himself and his wife, as well as unflattering portraits of some of his political enemies, that were sculpted in stone and placed on the side of the building kitty-corner to city hall.
The conference gave me several other opportunities to learn more about Saint John’s past and the challenges the city faces in terms of heritage preservation. I attended a reception at the 1889 Union Club, where I spoke to the mayor of Saint John about the controversial commission that he has appointed to study heritage preservation and its impact on economic development. I also attended the foundation’s awards ceremony at the 1913 Imperial Theatre and chatted with one of those responsible for raising the funds to buy and then to restore this landmark.
On my final evening in Saint John, I had dinner with four other conference participants at a home that dates to 1815. The owner has done a painstaking job of restoring it and furnishing it with period artifacts. He has never opened the house to the public, so it was a real privilege to be given a tour and to look at photos tracing the building’s restoration.
The core of the conference-formal presentations followed by question-and-answer periods-took place in the Saint John Trade and Convention Centre and brought a national and international perspective to heritage conservation. I went to all of these plenary sessions, which ranged from an overview of Canadian legislation relating to heritage preservation, given by a lawyer working for the Historic Places Initiative, Department of Justice, to case studies of the financial rewards that can be reaped from restoring heritage buildings, given by Michael Tippin of the Tippin Corporation in Toronto.
The highlight for me, and, I believe, for all of the conference participants, was a two-part slide-lecture delivered by New York architectural historian Anthony Tung, the author of Preserving the World’s Great Cities. In his first lecture, Tung described what he terms “the culture of destruction,” tracing how the world has lost approximately fifty per cent of its built heritage since 1900. In his second lecture, he looked at “the culture of conservation,” citing three cities-Amsterdam, Beijing, and Charleston-that have made concerted efforts in recent years to restore heritage buildings, and, indeed, entire historic districts. Tung’s wide-ranging knowledge of his subject and his dedication to heritage preservation made him one of the most compelling speakers that I have heard in a long time.
In addition to all the scheduled events that took place at the conference, I was able to have informal discussions with other participants and exhibitors at lunch and during coffee breaks. I met heritage-minded people from across Canada, including the editor of the Heritage Canada Foundation’s quarterly magazine. I have written and illustrated several stories for the magazine, but I have never been to the Foundation headquarters in Ottawa to meet the editor in person.
Living as I do in a hamlet in the Eastern Townships and working largely in isolation, I really appreciated all the exchanges that I had during my stay in Saint John. I even met an Australian-the national conservation manager of the Australian Council of National Trusts. When she heard about the video documentary that I am making about the history of farm fencing here in the Townships, she told me about someone she knows in Australia who is doing his doctoral thesis on the history of farm fencing there. On her return to Australia, she is going to email me the man’s coordinates.
I returned home from Saint John yesterday with notes and photographs that I had taken, business cards that I had exchanged, brochures that I had picked up, and books that I had purchased. More than anything else, however, I returned with a renewed sense of commitment to the work that I have been pursuing for many years in documenting rural Canadian heritage.
I would like to reiterate my thanks to the Canadian Journalism Foundation for sponsoring what proved to be a meaningful and memorable trip to New Brunswick.