[Éditorial de Louise-Maude Rioux Soucy] No protection without vision

Was the worm already in the apple? The vigorous dusting off of the Cultural Heritage Act carried out in the spring of 2021 by the CAQ government shows signs of fouling. Several Cassandres had risen the day after its adoption to force the authorities, and more generally Quebecers, to open their eyes. It appears that their vision was right: despite its sharper teeth, the law singularly lacks a guiding column, and this is felt on the ground.

In nearly two years, several cases have demonstrated that, despite its progress, the law still does too little to tackle the spiral of neglect. The new powers with which it invested the RCMs and the municipalities are insufficient. This is obvious when reading the assessment of the religious heritage drawn up on Tuesday in our pages. Pandemic helping, we learn that more and more churches are added to the list of so-called “changing” places of worship, that is, religious heritage buildings that are demolished, closed or transformed in Quebec.

Data from the Religious Heritage Council’s inventory analyzed by The duty reveal that 16 churches closed in 2022, while four fell under the peak of wreckers. Since 2003, 663 places of worship (out of 2751 listed buildings) have been closed, demolished or recycled. Small consolation, the requalification seems to be progressing. In 2021, two out of five closures gave rise to successful transformation projects.

We have repeatedly deplored the inconsistency of attaching so few obligations and means to so many delegated powers. However, we discover that not only is this inconsistency convenient when it comes to finding a financial interest in getting rid of buildings that are difficult to maintain, but that it can also become an obstacle to civil reappropriation. A perverse effect which the Minister of Culture, Mathieu Lacombe, has a duty to tackle.

On the ground, the Law can cause delays and incredible costs, capable of overcoming the best will. The example of the Mont-Carmel center in Fugèreville, located in the old village church erected in 1921, illustrates this aberration. The dream reconversion from which the immigrants, readers and seniors of the region benefit will only have been made possible at the cost of desacralizing the premises, of course, but also, and this is where the shoe pinches, at the price of a renunciation of its protected heritage character.

Not all RCMs and municipalities are as inventive (and persevering) in preserving their heritage jewels. Under the scope of a demolition permit after having escaped the net of an inventory supposed to protect it, the former prison on Anticosti Island, built in 1911-1912, enjoys the support of citizens who want to benefit their community. Not believing in this project within the current legal framework, the MRC preferred to maintain the destruction of the prison rather than using imagination to circumvent the rules that hinder its preservation.

In her report on heritage preservation tabled in the summer of 2020, the Auditor General deplored that the State itself is far from being exemplary. The comment still stands. Two ministries (Fauna and Culture) gave the green light to the demolition of the old prison without worrying about the message that this could send to decision-makers and citizens.

At the beginning of December, it was the turn of a state corporation to want to assume the power to demolish an almost century-old house located within the perimeter of the Hemming hydroelectric power station in Drummondville. Hydro-Quebec invoked its “immunity” to proceed without the agreement of the municipality. Wrongly, the measures of the Act bind the government as well as its departments and the agencies mandated by the State. The federal government is not doing much better. Under the responsibility of Parks Canada, the Papineau Manor tea pavilion, located in Montebello, has just been “deconstructed”, even though it was part of a protected national historic site.

It is often said that more financial resources are needed, and it is true, but human resources are just as lacking. Protecting requires expertise that is always lacking. During the election campaign, Carole Deniger and Dinu Bumbaru, from Héritage Montréal, took to the keyboard to remind us how much Quebec badly needed a “credible follow-up and support mechanism that involves not only elected officials and their administrations, but society as a whole”.

The site is huge, it will take transitional occupancy strategies to prevent losses. Until then, Minister Lacombe must draw a column in the Act, solid enough to support a common and unifying vision, which can then be supported by an independent body with the power to intervene and adequate funding. Otherwise, the same effects will inevitably recur.

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