There is a debate developing in my town, actually, it’s an old debate but with a new focus. The perennial question of development vs conservation is now centred on our iconic wharf. It has stood at the end of the main street for about one hundred years and is now nearing the end of its life. On one side of the argument are those who want to preserve an iconic landmark, along with the businesses that sit on it. On the other side are those who argue repair is too costly so want to tear it down or replace it with a private enterprise.
Not a new debate but one that plays out differently in different parts of the world. Here, in Canada, preservation is usually left up to individuals. While the provincial government in B.C. has some beautiful historic sites, some years ago their operation was turned over to private contractors. The result is that places like Fort Steele and Barkerville, which used to be living museums are now tourist attractions. The archives that used to be accessible on line through those sites have shut down. Now the websites list hours and fees. I guess I’m showing my bias here, but I really miss the museum approach to these historic places. Of course, the privatization was done in the name of reduced government expense.
When I visited Europe several years ago, our days were filled with tours of restored castles and cathedrals. They were stunningly beautiful. Tourists poured in to these edifices, cameras at the ready, mouths hanging open in wonder. The thing is, much of the “history” we were gawping at wasn’t original. Two world wars had decimated much of the architecture along the Rhine river. Yet, when the war ended, and Germany and its neighbours began rebuilding they poured billions of dollars into restoring their empty castles. If ever a government could say they couldn’t afford such “luxuries” surely Germany in 1945 was that government. Yet, the people of those towns and cities opted to spend scarce money restoring their built history, despite necessary infrastructure and even food supplies being in dire need.
At the other end of the scale are regimes like the Taliban in Afghanistan who deliberately destroy antiquities in the name of ideology. In North America much Indigenous culture was plundered or destroyed as new settlers sought to eradicate some aboriginal customs they considered evil.
“History” is a slippery topic. What is worth preserving and what is just old and worn out? In my country, we are undergoing a great reckoning with our relationship between Indigenous culture and settler culture. Both sides are grappling with a re-interpretation of past events.
Our First Nations citizens say their identity is tied to the land. Trees and waterways, salmon and shellfish harvesting are not only environmental concerns but they define the people. Judging by my experience in Europe, it would seem the centuries of built history — from Roman roads to Art Nouveau hotels — express the character and dreams of that society.
I don’t know what the decision will be over our wharf, I suspect $$ will speak loudly. Perhaps settler society in Canada is too young to have a deeply ingrained view of itself, unlike the First Nations or 20th century Europeans. We “like” old things and the nostalgia they stir, but we’re not really prepared to put a lot of money into them. In some ways, we are still immigrants, rootless in this land.
Perhaps that is why there are so few entries under “historical fiction, Canada” in Amazon’s Kindle store: 8000 results compared to 50,000 in British historical fiction, 30,000 in French. Australia shows 4000 results under the same category.
I hope we can keep the wharf at Sidney as a public space. Looking at the First Nations experience it is clear that knowing and preserving our history is vital to our well-being as a people. In the scheme of human history, 100 years barely registers on the scale, but we won’t get to 1000 if we don’t pay attention to the 100’s.