This snapshot of the Toronto skyline crowding the historic Fort York can be viewed as a microcosm of larger developments, showcasing problems the heritage field is facing when it comes to preserving historic buildings. I have grown up in the Greater Toronto Area and like many others have witnessed firsthand the vast changes that Toronto has experienced in the past generation. What was once a picturesque skyline, marked with iconic buildings, now resembles a dystopian science fiction novel. Modernist, large, ubiquitous, and often poorly built condos and corporate towers have sprung out of the earth at an alarming rate, forever changing the characteristics of the neighbourhoods they occupy.
There have been countless examples of Toronto buildings being demolished so that new condos, often built by foreign developers with little care for local communities, can go up in their place. When driving into the city along the Gardiner Expressway twenty years ago, the once prominent Rogers Centre (formerly the Skydome) and CN Tower were on display for all visitors to see, creating a grand but inviting picture of the city, showcasing its reputation for innovative architecture. Now, those landmarks are mostly hidden behind ugly condominiums that resemble prisons or apartment blocks from the former Soviet Union.
What does this trend say about contemporary Canadian culture? Where is the sense of permanence? Where is the pride in our history? Perhaps most importantly, if this trend continues, will our cultural heritage survive at all?
A few months ago I was reading an article that M. Denhez published in 1978 called “Defining the Canadian Heritage: Existence, Aesthetics, Ethos.” In the article he had very prophetic insights when discussing the transient nature of contemporary culture. He explained that we have entered the age of disposable architecture, stating that this trend was a product of consumer society where things have become “mass producible, mass usable, mass disposable.” He went on to state: “The heritage movement stands for the principle that man has consciously attempted to bring lasting improvements to his environment. A society which is not capable of appreciating that effort is not capable of understanding the meaning of initiative and creativity in particular, and lasting values in general. Such a society is consequently not likely to produce any lasting achievements of its own.”[i]
These statements were meant as an encompassing account of Canadian culture and what could happen if we are not more careful with our heritage. I believe that Toronto offers a perfect example of what can occur if we invest in “disposable architecture” at the cost of historic buildings. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that there are many institutions and individuals who work towards preserving Toronto’s heritage, and they should be applauded. We can only hope more like them will pop up, and hopefully at a faster rate than the condominiums that now threaten to destroy the beautiful character that once defined Toronto’s downtown core and surrounding areas.
CBC Video, New Condos Rise from Historic Toronto Facades
A list of demolished Toronto buildings
CBC, Growing List of Potential Heritage Buildings Threatened by lack of funds and Maintenance
A List of the Oldest Toronto Structures
[i] Denhez, M. Defining the Canadian Heritage: Existence, Aesthetics, Ethos. In M. Denhez, Heritage Fights Back. Heritage Canada. Toronto: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1978, 66-67.
A modest lighthouse and keeper’s cottage sit on the banks of Hamilton Harbour, unnoticed by the thousands of cars that cross on the bridge above it each day. The lighthouse was constructed in 1858 as a means for directing steamers along the Burlington Canal, a throughway connecting Hamilton Harbour (formerly Burlington Bay) with Lake Ontario. Before the Burlington Bay James N. Allan Skyway Bridge was erected in 1958 the lighthouse sat as a visible reminder of the past. Now, the bridge hides the building beneath it, and unless you take the less popular underpass (Eastport Drive) as a route on your journey, it sits largely forgotten.
George Thomson, a retired sailing master, was the first lighthouse keeper, serving until 1875. I had the pleasure of spending approximately thirty hours transcribing George Thomson’s journals (1858-1863) for the Burlington Museum. These diaries were significant because he meticulously described the weather, and his recordings have become important historical documents largely for this reason. Working with Thomson’s journals was a delight because he described a time and a place that feels foreign today. This area is now bustling with large residential neighbourhoods to the east and west, heavy industry to the north and voluminous traffic resulting from the Queen Elizabeth Way. In his writings, Thompson often spoke of walking across the Bay during the winter to reach Hamilton, and how he could hear bells ringing in downtown Hamilton while he lay in bed. The serene, simple environment that Thomson described was a strong contrast to the frenetic and noisy scene that greets one when standing at the lighthouse today.
Currently, the Beach Canal Lighthouse Group (BCLG) is working to get the lighthouse protected under the Lighthouse Protection Act (2008). This Act prevents the unauthorized alteration or disposition of designated lighthouses. Any alterations must be in keeping with the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada. Lastly, it facilitates sale or transfer to promote new uses for the lighthouses while ensuring their protection.[i] Once BCLG reaches an agreement with Fisheries and Oceans Canada to acquire the structure they can move ahead with the designation.[ii]
Beach Canal Lighthouse Group
Lighthouse Friends, Burlington Canal Main, ON.
A very interesting video entitled, Berwick and the Beach Canal, featuring Sandy Thomson, great grandson of George Thomson and member of the BCLG.
The historic Great Western Railway Station may face difficult times to come. This station was built in 1885 and since its inception has been a vibrant fixture in downtown Grimsby. The owners, Marsha Cox and Daniel Brenner, have run a successful pottery studio inside the station for the past eighteen years. They have taken care to keep the station’s integrity, making as few changes to the structure as possible. This has benefited the community because it attracts tourists, adds character to the downtown, and makes Grimsby’s history visible. Recently, Cox and Brenner have decided to sell the old railway station due to the high costs of running their business out of this structure. I fear for the station’s future because it is not a protected building. The Grimsby Heritage Advisory Committee has recognized the historical significance of this structure, although it has not been designated a heritage property. The Great Western Railway Station, located at 53 Ontario Street, has been added to the Municipal Heritage Registrar (MHR) on February 4, 2008. The MHR offers no protection to heritage structures but notes what buildings are worth saving.
The historic railway station should be protected under the Ontario Heritage Act so that present and future generations can enjoy the heritage structure as well as feel pride in their municipal and provincial history. This matter requires immediate attention because we do not know if the new owners will provide the same level of care for the structure. The community would not benefit from large changes made to this building, or even worse, its demolition. If demolished, I fear that the impact will be similar to the Salmoni case. The Salmoni building in Amherstburg, Ontario, much like the Great Western Railway Station, was an important symbol in municipal and provincial history. Its destruction in 2004 devastated the community and resulted in it being added to Heritage Canada Foundation’s list of top five losses in 2004.[i]
Placing The Great Western Railway Station in Heritage Policy Context
If the station is designated there are many existing legislations that would benefit both the owners of the building as well as the community. The most important piece of legislation used for the building’s protection would be the Ontario Heritage Act (1975). The Act was developed as a means for giving both municipalities and the provincial government powers to preserve Ontario’s heritage. The Great Western Railway Station falls under Section IV of the Act, which specifically addresses the conservation of property with cultural heritage value.[ii]
The Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport states that the, “designation of heritage properties is a way of publically acknowledging a property’s value to a community. At the same time, designation helps to ensure the conservation of these important places for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”[iii] The Great Western Railway Station has already been acknowledged as historically significant within the community. For instance, the station has been a participant in the yearly Doors Open Festival. This festival offers tours of historical and cultural sites in Grimsby.[iv] The Niagara Greenbelt website also lists Forks Road Pottery as a popular tourist attraction, and notes the impressive historic railway station it is housed in.[v] Dorothy Turcotte, journalist for the Grimsby Lincoln News, has also commented that, “We can’t afford to lose any of them [Grimsby’s historic buildings] if we want our town to be considered interesting and historic…people come from out-of-town now to visit Forks Road Pottery. We need to build on that to create the Ontario Street tourist district for Grimsby.”[vi] It is clear that the Great Western Railway Station is important to the Grimsby community for historic, cultural and economic reasons. Thus, it should be enjoyed by both present and future generations because it adds considerable value to the city.
Additionally, under the Ontario Heritage Act, municipalities can pass a by-law offering tax relief to property owners under the Municipal Act (2001). In order to be eligible for tax relief a property must be designated under Part IV or V (heritage conservation districts) of the Act and be subject to a heritage conservation agreement. This agreement can be made in three ways. The first entails a heritage easement between the property owner and the Heritage Trust. The second is an easement between the property owner and the municipality. The last consists of a non-easement agreement made between the property owner and the municipality.[vii] This conservation agreement operates to protect the heritage attributes of the property. Municipalities can set the amount of tax relief they wish to offer an owner (between 10 and 40 percent).[viii] In many instances, tax relief has aided owners of heritage properties with the upkeep of their structures.
How this will Help
If this structure becomes protected the community would benefit from increased tourism to its downtown. This region is especially popular in the summer due to its proximity to the Niagara Wine Route. Historic structures, much like the Great Western Railway Station will aid in Grimsby being a tourist destination in its own right, instead of a throughway en route to vineyards.
Protecting the station is also important because it creates a visible history. This is significant because it reminds community members of Grimsby’s history and helps foster a stronger municipal and provincial identity. It binds the people of Grimsby together in space and time because it offers a reminder of the town’s origins. Visible history is also important because it can foster a love of history in the younger generation. Being able to step inside the railway station during the Doors Open Festival is much more impressive and memorable than reading about a railway station that no longer exists.
Lastly, I recognize that the federal government has issued a Heritage Railway Station Protection Act in 1988 to protect historic railway stations across Canada from demolition. This Act stipulates that a railway company must currently own the railway station being considered for protection.[ix] I propose that this Act be amended to include any railway structures once used as railway stations but no longer owned by a railway company. Railway stations are important symbols of Canadian identity because they were once important social and economic centres. It should not matter if the structures in question are operational, or if railway companies currently own them. These factors do not alter the structure’s meaning and importance within Canadian history.
This structure should be protected under the Ontario Heritage Act. This station is an important symbol of municipal, provincial and national history, and deserves to be enjoyed by present and future generations. The station’s protection will result in continued tourism to Grimsby and the Niagara region, bringing economic benefits and increased appreciation for the region’s history within a larger national narrative. The station will continue to interest both local citizens and tourists in Grimsby, and Niagara’s dynamic history.
[i] Don Proctor, Halting Demolition: Does Ontario Now Have a “Binding Law?” Heritage Magazine (Summer, 2005)
[ii] Ontario Government. Ontario Heritage Act, R.S.O. 1990, c.o.18.
[iii] The Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. "The Ontario Heritage Act," (accessed June 20, 2015)
[iv] A. Cooper. "Doors are opening in Grimsby," (accessed June 22, 2015)
[v] Niagara Green Belt. "Forks Road Pottery/ Grimsby Train Depot," (accessed June 15, 2015)
[vi] Turcotte, Dorothy, “Historic railway station is at a fork in the road,” Niagara This Week, March 17, 2015.
[vii] Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. "Heritage Property Tax Relief and Sample Agreements," (accessed June 20, 2015)
[ix] Parks Canada. "The Heritage Railway Station Protection Act," (accessed June 25, 2015)
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