Friday, November 3, 2017

Bill C-323 at committee

Just a few weeks ago in mid-late October, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development (ENVI) took up detailed consideration of Bill C-323.  This is the private member’s bill we’ve been following that would provide income tax incentives for heritage property. [1]

Heritage enthusiasts have been advocating for such measures for decades.  For heritage conservation in this country the incentives in the bill would be a game-changer.

Much of the argument for the income tax measures included in Bill C-323 relies on the experience of our neighbours next door.  The U.S. historic tax credit, which goes back to the 1970s, is in fact the main model for the tax credit proposed in the bill now before Parliament.

Very ironic, then, that just as Canada may be finally groping its way toward such a measure, the United States is proposing its elimination!

No comment … except what should surprise us coming from the current U.S. President and Congress?

While the poor National Trust for Historic Preservation south of the border rallies the troops to beat back the wacky proposal to ditch the (historic) U.S. historic tax credit, our own National Trust for Canada is engrossed with a national effort to urge Canadian parliamentarians to seize the day — and spring for key income tax and other tools for preserving our heritage.

Here is where things stand.

The ENVI committee held two days of hearings on Bill C-323, the last stage of its more fulsome study of the federal role in heritage conservation that we got a taste of last time. [2] The study was a smart move, as it gave the committee background and context for considering the particular income tax policies on offer in the bill, while also looking at the need for a broad suite of legal, financial and other measures to address the generally stingy and laggardly federal approach to cultural heritage.

Over the two days the committee heard from several more witnesses.  First up was Peter Van Loan, the bill’s sponsor, who gave a vigorous plea for the proposed tax measures.  Then came officials from Parks Canada and the Department of Finance.  Just after Mr. Van Loan, a former cabinet minister in the Harper government, had given the committee a pep talk about standing up to the bureaucrats [3], they politely poured cold water on the bill, although not in very convincing fashion and not without some squirming under questioning.

More officials, this time from the office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, offered guesstimates as to the potential cost of the bill’s tax measures (in the $60M range); they too fielded some pointed questions.  Lastly, the committee heard a generally supportive presentation by a former director for tax policy legislation at Finance, who had worked with former Parks Canada executive director Christina Cameron on the unrealized early 2000s efforts to develop a tax policy for heritage.

And that was it.  At the following meeting, last week (October 26), the committee went in camera — members would have been discussing their findings and conclusions and the next steps in producing the report on their study of the federal role in heritage.

And likely how they will proceed with clause-by-clause consideration of Bill C-323, which is reportedly scheduled for November 20th to 24th. [4]

Sources say the committee’s report on its study — which would presumably include its recommendations with respect to Bill C-323 — is expected November 28th.

Meanwhile … the government continues to say it is not supporting the bill.

What will the ENVI committee say in its report and could that change the government’s mind?

The answer may depend on the public response — the response from all of us who believe the time has finally come for game-changing tax incentives for heritage!

Watch this space.

Note 1: See previous OHA+M posts, starting with ”Finally, a federal tax incentive for heritage?"

Note 2: The two days of ENVI hearings on the bill can be found here.

Note 3: In response to a question about why the previous government hadn't acted, Mr. Van Loan said:

My assessment at the end of the day is that we have something called the Department of Finance. Their default posture is always no. It's no to additional tax credit programs. The only way things like this happen is when politicians choose to exert political will and exercise their authority to give that direction and say, “This is a priority for us. We want to see it happen.” We are in the position of being able to do that.

I think we've seen that dynamic at play here already. I don't put it down to a partisan dynamic at all. I put it down to the natural bureaucratic response of a Department of Finance that will say that to any program like this, anywhere.

When you've talked about tax credits in the past, I think it probably would not surprise anyone that none of those came as initiatives from the Department of Finance. They all came as initiatives of politicians, political platforms, finance ministers, prime ministers, whoever thought it was important to do these things. I think we're in a similar situation here in terms of the tax credit.

Note 4: At clause-by-clause consideration a committee studies each clause of a bill and votes to adopt it, delete it, or amend it. When this is done the committee is ready to report the bill back to the House.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

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

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.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Ruins in the Ontario landscape, part three

Railway bridge abutments, near Milverton, Ontario

The aesthetic value of a ruin is pretty obvious (or, depending on the observer, it isn’t).  What about its historical value?

Looking at ruins and how they’re created, we can say they are a result of two, sometimes three, historical decisions.  It is these decisions, and the circumstances surrounding them, that give ruins their historical significance.

As with intact structures, the first is the original decision to build the (now ruined) building and use it for certain purposes.

The second is the decision to abandon, responsible for the metamorphosis of the structure into a ruin.  As we’ve seen, an apparently “healthy” and functional building is sometimes deserted by its owner, left to fall down and moulder.  In other cases a precipitating event such as a fire or other natural or man-made disaster has damaged or destroyed the building.  But even here the source of the ruin lies not so much in the calamity as in the failure to repair or rebuild or otherwise re-use the site — to abandon the remains to their fate.

Mill, Glen Morris, Ontario

In either situation, with or without a calamity, the decision to abandon would almost always have been the result of the owner/user’s determination that the repair and continued use of the structure, or the re-use of the site, was not economically practical.

Behind such a determination would be one or more potentially far-reaching historical factors.  These include things like changes in industry conditions, such as depletion of natural resources; technological obsolescence; change in market conditions; decline in population (most likely to affect buildings such as schools and churches – St. Raphael’s, for example); and changes in land use patterns and transportation routes.

Road bridge piers, Elora, Ontario

For any ruin the association with these larger social and economic factors — those responsible for the futility or inutility of the old use, as well as any new or adaptive use — are a key part of its story.

The ruin, then, is uniquely the product of both decisions — to build/use and to abandon — and stands as a reminder of the fateful and often poignant change in historical circumstances that resulted in the second decision effectively reversing the first.

Interpretive signage at Maitland windmill ruin
Windmill, Maitland, Ontario

For some (lucky?) ruins there is a third decision. This is the decision to intervene, to do something to conserve the structure and its values. Intervention runs the gamut from a plaque or other form of interpretation, to the isolation of the ruin for safety purposes (through the erection of barriers to access), to the stabilization of the structure (by capping and repointing of masonry walls, for example), to selective demolition or re-construction of the structure.

Mackenzie printery in ruins, Queenston, Ontario circa ?
In the extreme, very rare case the ruined structure is completely restored!

Mackenzie Printery & Newspaper Museum today

Intervention, especially in its more major forms, also becomes an important part of the history of the ruin property.

But — and herein lies the paradox of “saving” ruins — just as a ruin is a destroyed structure, so intervention inevitably destroys the ruin qua ruin to a greater or lesser extent.  Something is lost.

Mill, Rockwood, Ontario

Of course, without active intervention, a ruin, by its very nature, will ultimately disappear, or at least disappear more quickly.  So, the question about what to do, or what not to do, must first look at all the values of the ruin site — aesthetic, physical, historical, contextual — some of which will be competing.

The Maitland windmill ruin in its landscape setting

To put it starkly, would you rather have hoary remains or an all-cleaned-up archaeological site?  A structure melting under the “green waves of time” or one preserved indefinitely?  A site redolent with “spirit of the place” or an “open air museum”?  (Perhaps my bias is showing.)

In practice, some middle ground can usually be found.  But, with ruins, active preservation will mean a challenging compromise. [1]

St. Raphael's church ruins, St. Raphael's, Ontario

Note 1: Interestingly, the “Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada” does not directly mention ruins. The document does address structural remains under “archaeological sites” but little attention is given to above-ground remnants.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Ruins in the Ontario landscape, part two

We’re ruminating on ruins, exploring the meaning and value of Ontario’s ruined structures.

Part of ruins' appeal is their perversity.  The very existence of a ruin seems to defy the norms of a society where land is real estate, its value determined by the real estate market.  Not functional or useful through this lens, a ruin has no worth.  What “value” it has is basically aesthetic and historical.

In the common lexicon:
    • “building” signifies a structure that gives shelter within which a human use can operate
    • “abandoned” or “derelict” building means one which isn’t used but retains the basic prerequisites for use — especially a roof; this is an intermediate stage on the transition to …
    • “ruin,” a structure that has lost, usually irretrievably, its ability to shelter or maintain use — and is therefore use-less.

Farmhouse, near Iona, Ontario

As we well know, without active use an old building can go downhill fast and the normal outcome is demolition and replacement, skipping the ruin stage entirely.

But now and then a building reaches the point of no return, and is just allowed to keep going — through a long falling-down process into ruination and, unless there is some form of intervention, ultimate dissolution and disappearance. [1]

The most common example in our landscape is farm buildings.

Barn foundation, near Campbellville, Ontario

Old, unused barns start to lose their siding; then more and more pieces fall away.  The timber structure with its massive beams can survive for decades before complete collapse.  Eventually what remains are stone walls, foundations, often a cement silo.

Silo, near Shakespeare, Ontario

Stone barn, near Eden Mills, Ontario

Farmhouses are sometimes left to rot away too.

Farmhouse, near Campbellville, Ontario
Farmhouse, near St. Agatha, Ontario

And what’s left of old stone walls and rail fences — these too are remnants and reminders of our farming past. [2]

Fence in the woods, near Bobcaygeon, Ontario

Instead of a protracted mouldering-away, the ruinous state can come suddenly, the result of a precipitating event like a fire or other calamity that destroys the building.  Old mills especially were notoriously subject to fires.  Economic conditions and changing technology sometimes meant it was not feasible to rebuild a mill following a conflagration, and if no other use for the property presented itself ….

Mill, Rockwood, Ontario

Fire was also the culprit in the creation of what is perhaps Ontario’s most spectacular ruin — the hulking shell of St. Raphael’s Roman Catholic Church northeast of Cornwall.

St. Raphael's Church, St. Raphael's, Ontario

Unlike many of the ruins we’ve looked at, the “open air museum” that is St. Raphael’s today is the result of major intervention.  After the church, built in 1821, burned 150 years later in 1970, the Ontario Heritage Foundation (now Ontario Heritage Trust) was responsible for the stabilization and restoration of the surviving stone walls and the landscaping of the site.  The magnificent National Historic Site is protected by one of the first OHF heritage easements. [3]

Transept, St. Raphael's, courtesy Cathy Nasmith 

Nave, St. Raphael's

Note 1: The frequent use of the word “fall’ in describing ruins reminds us that there is something about a ruin which implies a losing battle with the force of gravity. In fact, “ruin” is derived from the Latin verb ruere, to fall.

Note 2: Fences figure in another part of Al Purdy’s poem, “The Country North of Belleville”:

And where the farms have gone back
to forest
     are only soft outlines
     shadowy differences –
Old fences drift vaguely among the trees
     a pile of moss-covered stones
gathered for some ghost purpose
has lost meaning under the meaningless sky

Note 3: For (much) more on heritage easements see the four-part OHA+M series beginning “Heritage easements 101 — Easements come to Ontario.”

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Ruins in the Ontario landscape, part one

Did I ever tell you about my passion for ruins?

What is a ruin? For now let's think of it as a “built heritage remnant.” The “landscape” in which we find ruins includes countryside, riverscape, even streetscape — although, as structures go, ruins tend to be anti-social and off by themselves.

On this side of the Atlantic, and compared to intact historic structures, the value of ruins is little understood and appreciated. Their potential as assets to the landscape is seldom recognized and exploited, and all too often ruin sites are deliberately degraded or destroyed.

But it’s August, the dog days of summer, so let’s eschew the analytical and just savour the aesthetic — the appeal to the senses and the imagination which is the basis of the poetic and picturesque associations of ruins, particularly of the “old world” kind.  While Ontario is lacking in ruinous castles, monasteries and temples, we do have more than a few ruins worthy of this romantic tradition. 

The Augustan Bridge at Narni, by Camille Corot

Indulge me while I show you some of my favourite ruins.  Today it’s bridges and viaducts, or what’s left of them.

Ruins of railway viaduct, near Paris, Ontario

If a ruined building is one without a roof, no longer able to give shelter, than a ruined bridge is one without a deck, no longer able to provide passage from one side to the other.

What remains are the bridge supports — the piers, abutments, wing walls.

On the Grand River just north of Paris, Ontario, is one of the more spectacular remains of a railway viaduct in the province.  I have yet to find out which rail line it once carried and why it was abandoned.

View of the viaduct from downstream

The ruin of another massive stone viaduct can be found in Niagara, crossing Twenty Mile Creek at Jordan Station.

Ruined railway viaduct next to current rail bridge, Jordan Station, Ontario 

The isolation of elements, when the linking pieces are no longer present, can have a strange, arresting quality.

In Glen Allan, west of Elmira, the old bridge across the Conestogo River was removed, but the stone abutments and cement parapet walls of one of the bridge's approaches survive.

Bridge ruin and plaque, Glen Allan, Ontario

Near Sebringville, just west of Stratford, is an old steel truss bridge, deckless but with its stringers and floor beams intact, more or less.  It crosses Black Creek, a tributary of the Thames, and once connected two parts of a farm.

Truss bridge near Sebringville, Ontario

One of the distinctive effects of many ruins is a gradual softening over time of the hard angularity of the structure.  The Sebringville bridge, half-swallowed in the encroaching verdure, reminds me of a line from Al Purdy’s poem “The Country North of Belleville”, about the vestiges of old farms:

the undulating green waves of time are laid on them