Canada is losing heritage sites while other cultures are still missing stolen artifacts. Here’s what you can do.

By Craig Kielburger

 

Built in 1925, the Minchau Blacksmith Shop in north Edmonton doesn’t have awe-inspiring stained glass windows or soaring towers haunted by gargoyles. The squat red-brick façade with its faded black sign is about as different from Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral as you can get. Yet to locals, it’s still a treasure from the past—although its future is in doubt.

In April, the whole world watched Notre Dame burn. Millions felt the loss as though a line anchoring us to the past had suddenly been severed. Many felt the need to do something.

Enough donations have already poured in to fund Notre Dame’s restoration. The rapid fundraising did ignite controversy about the Eurocentrism of mainstream history, with some noting that other historical sites and artifacts around the world are equally endangered. For Canadians who still feel compelled to save a piece of history, there are plenty of other treasures in need of our help.

Between 1970 and 2000, Canada lost 20 per cent of its heritage buildings and sites. The number may now be as high as 40 per cent, according to the National Trust for Canada, a non-profit that works to save historic places.

“Spectacular fires are a rarity. Most historic places are lost by choice,” says Chris Weibe, Manager of Heritage Policy with the National Trust.

Many sites, like the Minchau Blacksmith Shop, are owned by private developers who want to knock them down to make way for new office buildings or strip malls. Other publicly-owned sites like the Muscowequan Residential School in Lestock, Saskatchewan, and New Brunswick’s iconic covered bridges, suffer from neglect and a lack of funding to preserve them.

The National Trust publishes an annual list of Canada’s top ten most endangered heritage places. Maybe a site in your community will make this year’s list, which comes out in June. What can you do about it?

Heritage preservation organizations like the National Trust and other community conservation groups are always in need of donations. They sometimes need volunteers to assist in restoring or cleaning up a site. Urge your local government to enact bylaws that require developers to convert and repurpose historic buildings instead of demolishing them. Repurposing not only protects heritage sites, but is more environmentally sustainable than erecting a whole new structure, Weibe says.

We can also help others around the world recover their historic treasures. Over years, colonists carried off uncounted artifacts from other cultures. French museums alone still hold an estimated 90,000 cultural items stolen from African countries. In Canada, some museums have made commendable efforts to return items taken from Indigenous nations, but many more remain hostage. Support campaigns like the Haida Repatriation Committee—crucially, this group is led by the peoples whose culture was affected—to return heritage artifacts to their rightful owners.

Humble 100-year-old blacksmith shops and antique Nigerian bronze statues can hold as much historic significance as a grand cathedral, and deserve equal protection. They tell us where we came from, our shared past as communities, nations, and the human race. Preserving and repatriating history should be everyone’s responsibility.

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