Will we ever learn that without a past we have no future?

by T.W. Paterson

What is it about recognizing, honouring and saving our heritage/ history that we Canadians just don't seem to get?

Everywhere I look, everywhere I turn, it's the same.

The few surviving icons of our past - they should be our pride and joy - are on the endangered species list, threatened by neglect, by development or by outright vandalism. It's almost as if we're ashamed of our blue collar past and we're so immersed in the present that we turn our backs on the nation-building efforts of our forebears.

I know, I've beat this drum before. I've been beating it for years, occasionally - rarely! - with good effect as in the case of our Kinsol Trestle.

But mostly, I'm sorry to say, it seems like I've been spitting in the wind.

Oh, many readers tell me they really do care and the media, for the most part, is very supportive of various efforts to, for example, save the last surviving headframe/tipple of the Island's coal mining industry at Morden, South Wellington.

So I and other motivated volunteers go on labouring to get the public onside, to get them to lobby the provincial government, the legal owners in this case as in the case of the Kinsol, to meet its obligation to repair and maintain this historic structure.

It's been a formally designated heritage park for 40 years now, for crying out loud.

But Morden is just one of many historic/heritage sites in need of saving from demolition by neglect.

Or demolition, pure and simple, in the case of Nanaimo's drop-dead gorgeous Colliery Dam Park. Motivated by concerns for flooding should these two historic structures fail in the event of a catastrophic earthquake, Nanaimo Council recently voted 5-4 for their destruction rather than for their reinforcing and upgrading.

On Sunday morning, we visited the park, which was alive with people and their dogs, including a young family fly fishing in the larger pond.

This isn't just a neighbourhood park, it's an oasis of mature forest and waterways. Its destruction, which will be the case if the dams aren't replaced, will be nothing less than sacrilege and, not surprisingly, has aroused intense opposition involving threats of civil disobedience on the one hand and threats of court injunctions and arrest (can you say Carmanah?) on the other.

We'll have to stay tuned to this particular drama; it will affect both the environment and history as these dams, built by the New Vancouver Coal Co., are of historic significance never mind their iteration as a park.

After taking some photos and speaking with several Nanaimo residents who expressed their concern for the course that the city has embarked upon, we continued to an abandoned coal mine that we've investigated several times over the years.

But this time was different. The idiots had been there since our last visit.

For the best part of a century the base logs, the so-called skids, of an abandoned steam donkey used for hauling the coal cars from the mine had sat there, virtually intact because the logs had been preserved with oil. But no longer.

Someone had set fire to them and sparks had leaped to some nearby trees.

The resulting blazes had obviously been extinguished properly as evidenced by the fact that the trees had been cut down and the burning embers scattered.

Too late for the donkey, though, which was all but consumed, only the drift pins left to stick up, spike-like, from the charred ground.

If the adjacent slack pile had ignited, that waste coal would have burned for years! That was Sunday. Monday, an email reminded me that the City of Victoria had to go to court to get the CPR to repair the roof of the E&N roundhouse on Esquimalt Road from the leaking that was seriously damaging the century-old landmark.

The 10-stall, red brick roundhouse with turn table is a city-designated heritage structure. The CPR argued in Supreme Court that, as a federally charted railway, its operations aren't subject to municipal regulation.

(Meaning that the roundhouse could go on leaking and rotting, "heritage" be damned.) After the city argued that the portion of the structure in question was no longer in use, both parties agreed to an out-of-court settlement by which the CPR committed to temporary roof repairs to the value of $100,000.

"This could buy both parties," in the words of a Heritage Canada press release, "the time needed to find a more permanent solution."

And so it goes, usually at the cost of more of our history.

And so go I, raging against our shortsightedness and lobbying for our heritage when and where it can and should be saved.

If that makes me a crank, so be it. I appear to be one of too few (alas) Canadians who care enough to take a stand. A stand for the ever fewer surviving relics of the millions of unsung men and women who built this land that we inheritors so blithely take as our own.

We don't seem to recognize that, for the most part, it's ours by default not by merit. We didn't build Canada, they did.

They should be remembered and honoured.

We can, we should - we must - do better than this.


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