– Matthew Farfan
About a hundred participants crowded the seventh floor of Concordia University’s Hall Building this past Saturday for a conference called “Ways of Memory: the Montreal Experience.”
The one-day event was organized by the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network (QAHN) in partnership with the the Greater Montreal Community Development Initiative (GMCDI), with assistance from the Quebec English-Speaking Communities Research Network (QUESCREN), Concordia’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, and the Quebec Association for Adult Learning. Financial support came from the Department of Canadian Heritage and GMCDI.
The conference got under way with an address by Helen Fotopulos, Montreal city councillor for the Côte-des-Neiges District and member of the city’s executive committee responsible for culture, heritage and women’s issues.
Fotopulos, who has been involved in numerous files pertaining to culture and heritage, congratulated QAHN for this networking initiative.
“The proposed new provincial law,” Fotopulos said, “includes heritage that is intangible, cultural. My wish for today is that we look beyond traditional definitions of heritage to heritage that is less concrete and more intangible.”
Following Fotopulos’ speech, a keynote presentation was given by Dinu Bumbaru, policy director of Heritage Montreal, which Bumbaru referred to as a “promoter of heritage rather than a protector” — the real protectors, he said, being property owners and governments.
Bumbaru, whose name is practically a household word in Montreal, and who has been the public face of Heritage Montreal for nearly twenty years, spoke of how the concept of heritage has evolved since the 1960s, and of how Montrealers’ views have evolved along with it.
The first great heritage preservation movement in the city, Bumbaru explained, was the “Save the Mountain” petition of the nineteenth century.
Bumbaru spoke of the sometimes divergent, culturally-rooted views of heritage in the 1800s, pointing out the differences in outlook between English-speaking and French-speaking Montrealers. “The first architecture chair in Canada was created at McGill, which was, after all, the only university on the island to not have Jesuit affiliations.”
Cultural differences notwithstanding, Bumbaru said, over time, the understanding of what constitutes heritage has changed dramatically — especially over the past few decades. Increasingly, he said, we have become aware that while single buildings are important, “the forest is more important than the single tree.” In other words, neighbourhoods can be as important, or even more important, than buildings.”
Like Fotopulos, Bumbaru emphasized the importance of Quebec’s expanded definition of what constitutes heritage. He outlined some of the spheres of activity that Heritage Montreal has focused on, including, of course, built and archaeological heritage, but landscape and memorial aspects of our heritage, as well.
“Landscape heritage,” Bumbaru explained, includes many things — things such as a tree-lined street, which is more important than one tree. “One tree is not so important; you need a whole row of them. Just like the staircases on the Plateau. You need to preserve the whole row.”
In terms of “memorial heritage,” Bumbaru cited a few more examples. The concept, he said, can include whatever involves the collective memory of the city — everything from a popular or ethnically-rooted tradition (the St. Patrick’s Day parade, for example), to the name of a street or neighbourhood (Griffintown, for example), to a specific business or landmark (Schwartz’s Deli or the Montreal Bagel Factory, for instance).
The new provincial definition of heritage even encompasses institutions, Bumbaru said. “So the Royal Montreal Curling Club, which is the oldest sports association in the Americas, would be recognized as a part of our heritage.”
Clearly then, it would seem that there is a growing sense that heritage should and does constitute much more than the brick and stone and mortar that make up lovely old buildings.
Following Bumbaru’s talk, there followed a series of well-attended workshops dealing with everything from heritage resources in Montreal to digital storytelling techniques.
At lunch, an award was presented by QAHN president Kevin O’Donnell to Montreal architect and pioneer heritage conservationist Michael Fish, who has championed the conservation of some of Montreal’s greatest heritage landmarks, buildings such as Windsor Station and the Grey Nuns Convent on René Lévesque Boulevard.
Fish, who co-founded Save Montreal in 1974, said that early in his career he came to realize that it was more expensive to demolish old buildings and build modern ones in their place than to restore and renovate existing structures. This, he said, along with his appreciation for heritage architecture (of course), was why he became such an ardent conservationist.
One of Fish’s current campaigns involves the conservation of the dilapidated Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine Mansion, whose present owner would like to demolish the building and replace it with a housing development.
“Many historians would agree,” Fish said, “that for his role in the establishment of responsible government in British North America, Lafontaine deserves to be considered one of North America’s most important political figures. We need much more than just a statue and a tunnel named after him. We need a Mount Vernon!”
To preserve Lafontaine’s house, Fish said, Montreal needs to recognize the portion of the large lot that the Lafontaine House sits on, which represents about 1 per cent of the total property, as “a condominium house.”
Following lunch, conference participants again divided into workshops, where topics ranged from Montreal heritage and schools to oral history and new media techniques.
“Ways of Memory: the Montreal Experience” wrapped up with a series of lively panel discussions on new initiatives, including a presentation by QAHN of the Montreal Mosaic WebMagazine, launched in 2010 by QAHN, GMCDI, and several other partners.
Judging by the positive feedback after the conference, participants were delighted with the event, which they found to be interesting, stimulating, and entertaining. Summing up that sentiment, QAHN’s Kevin O’Donnell called the conference “an outstanding success.” Participants, he said, “unanimously praised the high quality of the workshops, both in the Hall Building and next door at the Oral History Centre. Many said they needed to split themselves in two or more to take in everything that interested them.”
For more photos of the conference, click here.