Canada’s communities are made up of historic places that define our national identity and give shape and texture to our urban and rural neighbourhoods. Their social, historic, and environmental value goes well beyond the economic value they hold for their current owners. Polls have consistently shown that the vast majority of Canadians think Canada’s historic places are of vital importance and want to see them preserved for future generations.1 Unfortunately, in the past 30 years, 21% of Canada’s historic building stock has been demolished due to factors such as economic pressures, social changes, and lack of public awareness.
1A 2007 Canada West Foundation poll asked “Your city should protect historic buildings rather than demolish them to make space for new buildings.” 8 out of 10 respondents from Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto agreed with this statement; and 7 out of 10 in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Regina. A 2000 Environics poll found that 96% of Canadians agreed that “it is important to preserve Canada’s historic and heritage buildings.”
Historic places are buildings, structures, districts, landscapes, archaeological sites or other places that have either been formally recognized by governments (designated), and informally valued by communities for their historic significance. They come in all shapes and sizes: from historic houses, lighthouses, places of worship, and Indigenous sites, to government buildings, bridges, former residential schools, or scenic coastlines. National Historic Sites are unusual because their recognition by the federal government is commemorative and does not carry legal protection. Historic places are designated for different reasons (often in combination), including historical, architectural, contextual, and community value.
The Canadian Register of Historic Places – an online resource – gathers together all of the municipally, provincially, and federally recognized historic places in Canada. There are currently 13,000 places on the Register, and there are projected to be 25,000 places when it is fully populated. The current Register includes 950 National Historic Sites (including 720 owned privately or by charities), 166 Heritage Railway Stations, 92 Heritage Lighthouses, and 1,260 federal heritage buildings. Many Canadian provinces-territories and municipalities have their own lists of designated buildings posted online. In addition to publishing their lists of designated buildings, municipalities often have an inventory of places of historic interest which is much larger. Mississauga, for instance has 292 designated historic places, but 3,485 places on its heritage inventory.
There are many designated historic places in Canada. But there is potentially many more historic places that may merit formal recognition in the future. Of Canada’s 437,000 pre-1960 commercial buildings, studies have estimated 5,500 would have heritage potential. There are also over a million pre-1946 houses in Canada, a percentage of which may merit heritage status. Canada is also home to 27,000 places of faith – often iconic landmarks and pivotal community gathering places in Canadian communities. Heritage advocacy groups like Héritage Montréal and Action patrimoine play a crucial role by raising the profile of historic places in their communities and encouraging greater recognition and protection.
From the humblest to the grandest, historic buildings tell the story of Canada better than any textbook, and represent our country in all its beauty and diversity. But historic places perform other vital roles.
Canadian property and civil rights—including heritage protection—come under the exclusive jurisdiction of provincial-territorial governments. Legal protection of individual properties of heritage value (and sometimes districts) resides with these governments and their municipalities.