Canadian town with highway running through and church at centre
The Heritage Canada Foundation was founded in 1973 to serve as a National Trust for Canada. Its purpose was defined as the conservation and rehabilitation of Canada’s heritage buildings.Though established by the federal government, it was set-up as a charitable foundation rather than a federal agency. The Foundation was intended to exist independent of government and thereby be free to critique government policy.
By the time of Dalibard’s arrival at Heritage Canada in the late 1970’s, its mission had gained wide national acceptance. Over the next decade, the Foundation would broaden its definition of “built heritage” to encompass the totality of the built environment, and later, the natural environment as well. Thanks to Heritage Canada’s advocacy, governments and businesses across the country would come to embrace preservation as a revitalization strategy that could strengthen communities and draw visitors interested in heritage tourism. The Foundation proposed the establishment of a federal register of historic buildings, revisions to the income tax act to encourage the rehabilitation of old buildings, and the compensation of owners of historic buildings for choosing to maintain them.
Jacques Dalibard was asked to serve as the Executive Director of the Heritage Canada Foundation in 1978. He brought with him “a professionalism, born, in part, of high academic achievement,” which the organization felt it lacked. Dalibard’s appointment coincided with that of Pierre Berton as the Foundation’s Board Chairman. The two established a strong working relationship. Dalibard advocated that the Foundation’s focus should be to facilitate “rational change” within the built environment. This would shift the organization’s direction away from defensively establishing conservation areas. Instead, it needed to proactively address the underlying, systemic problems threatening preservation, namely, the Income Tax Act and theNational Building Code. The provisions of these laws continued to favour new developments over preservation. Dalibard’s tenure also saw the Foundation shift away from owning its own heritage properties and move towards teaching technical skills to a wide range of practitioners.
Dalibard argued for a broader, holistic reading of the Heritage Canada Foundation’s mandate that could encompass the whole built environment as well as the natural environment. This shift did not come without controversy. Many members saw concern for environmental, intangible, and world heritage as outside of the Foundation’s scope. They were concerned that broadening the scope of the Foundation’s activities would be equivalent to a loss of perspective. Dalibard stood his ground and responded to criticism in the pages of Canadian Heritage, the Foundation’s magazine. He argued that the distinction between the built environment and the natural environment is semantic and that their protection has too much in common to be considered separately.
Dalibard saw cultural preservation as an important component of sustainable development. Though he acknowledged development as inevitable, it must be managed in a sustainable way to mitigate its impact: “there is no question that change, and therefore development, have put life on the planet in danger. It now all depends on what humanity does with development, this is where the concept of sustainable development comes in. Humanity must now choose and control developments in a positive way for its survival.” Dalibard wished to see heritage preservation integrated into the planning process of Canadian cities. Such considerations, he argued, are “rational and evolutionary rather than quixotic, sudden and massive.”
Heritage Preservation in a Canadian Context
As Executive Director of the Heritage Canada Foundation, Dalibard further developed his interpretation of how heritage preservation can fit the Canadian context. He argued that vernacular expressions of cultural architecture should be identified and preserved, with whole areas of Canadian cities designated heritage properties. This could be accomplished in two steps.
First, the greatest threat to heritage buildings at this time was tax incentives encouraging the demolition of old structures as part of redevelopment projects.Dalibard advocated that similar tax incentives should be made available for redevelopment projects that included preservation, restoration, or retrofitting of older buildings. He argued that Canada’s development boom not only erased historic neighbourhoods, it also created an unnecessary surplus of vacant space and thus a waste of resources. Heritage preservation need not necessarily be at odds with commercial interests. If developers could be brought to understand the benefits of rehabilitating older structures, both objectives could dovetail. Dalibard sought to demonstrate that the conservation of buildings should be an integral consideration of the urban planning process, not “a marginal activity with antiquarian and elitist undertones.” This could be accomplished if professionals and politicians were better aware of restoration as an alternative to redevelopment – advocacy well within the purview of the Foundation.
The second, more grassroots approach taken by Dalibard was the Main Street program. Based on efforts made to preserve historic districts in the UK and USA, Dalibard sought to protect the most threatened historic buildings in Canada, located in historic downtowns. These areas had experienced an economic downturn in the wake of suburbanization. This led to higher crime rates and physical degradation. As a result, downtown neighbourhoods often come to be identified as problem areas and they were the targets of municipal redevelopment programs. Heritage Canada provided the tools for communities to preserve their historic downtowns in order to prevent wholesale demolition. Whole segments and districts would be defined as historic, but the buildings within these areas would not be out of bounds to commercial use. Instead, Heritage Canada encouraged retrofitting with proper preservation techniques in order to make these areas economically sustainable.
Historic district in Canadian city
Main Street Canada
The Main Street program was developed as an alternative to urban renewal projects that envisioned the large-scale demolition of city centres as a means of revitalization. The Foundation offered the preservation of existing buildings and neighbourhoods as a more sustainable and economic alternative. Beautification projects which attempted to transplant the atmosphere of a suburban mall downtown had failed because they had not addressed the root causes of urban decline.
In many ways, Main Street was the fulfillment of Dalibard’s vision of a holistic approach to preservation in Canada. It encouraged communities to initiate their own heritage preservation projects by providing resources, tools, and funding. The program’s focus was on vernacular architecture. Buildings would be given new life by reintroducing commercial activities into historic districts, thereby re-establishing their economic sustainability. Dalibard would further argue that maintaining historic downtowns not only preserved the unique character of a community, it also helped define and sustain the local cultural identity and could foster multicultural understanding and cooperation.
According to Dalibard, the decline of downtowns was due to demographic, political, and economic shifts. Canadian cities were affected by a building shortage in the 1930’s and 40’s, the post-war baby boom, the growth in immigration, and a movement of population within Canada to urban areas. To deal with the new population, the favoured solutions were central planning and peripheral developments around cities. Many of these suburban neighbourhoods sprang up overnight. As Dalibard puts it, the new suburbs met housing and shopping needs in terms of quantity, but the construction boom addressed only “the basic requirements in terms of quality of life.” A sense of community was missing from these new developments, and the suburbs continued to draw population and money away from the traditional city centres, further eroding them.
As the inner city tax base left, crime rates increased. Government programs to improve downtowns did little but provide outdoor seating and street lighting. In response to these unsuccessful efforts, the Heritage Canada Foundation reviewed revitalization initiatives at home and abroad. It concluded that revitalization should be approached inclusively, rather than imposed by a government entity. The objective of the Main Street program was to create an attractive and economically viable community by solidifying a sense of identity, continuity, and diversity: “one of the important aspects of that diversity is created by the high concentration of heritage buildings found in the centres of our communities.”
After the successful completion of pilot projects in Perth, Ontario, and seven other communities across the country, the Main Street project was renamed Main Street Canada and given a $5 million from the federal Department of Regional Industrial Expansion. With this funding, Main Street Canada was able to expand to seventy locations Canada-wide, offering partner communities free advisory, consulting, and monitoring services. Communities paid for the salary, office space, and administrative expenses of a local coordinator. Provincial urban redevelopment funding was often available for participating towns and cities, thereby establishing working relationships aimed at heritage preservation between all three levels of government. The program encouraged participation from local Business Improvement Associations by aligning business and heritage interests.
Prairie town featuring brightly coloured grain elevators
While promoting Main Street Canada, Dalibard often drew a distinction between organic settlements and planned developments. He saw the creeping homogenization of the suburban aesthetic as a looming identity crisis, whereby the unique features of Canadian cities were disappearing. Unlike standardized North American suburbs, heritage areas grow out of their surroundings. They reflect their natural environment and the cultural background of those who built them. In Dalibard’s words, built heritage “reflects, comments upon, modifies its physical, natural environment. It is created out of local material, its style reflects the surroundings. The rock-hugging outport community of Carbonear, the Ontario town of Perth, the Saskatchewan farm town modified by the endless prairies: none of these could be mistaken for the other; each relates to its own unique topography.”
Main Street was credited with directly creating 6000 jobs and 1500 new businesses. It led to $90 million in investment from the private sector. The result, according to Dalibard, “developed employment, opened new businesses, improved downtown design, and increased community pride.” It eventually led to the launch of other programs such as the rural-based Heritage Regions Program and urban-focused Canadian Centre for Livable Places.
For Dalibard, the imperative of heritage preservation reached beyond simply maintaining Canada’s vernacular architecture or the character of a specific district. He saw Main Street as deepening the roots of communities, reinforcing their economic base and creating a sense of identity. Maintaining heritage properties ensures continuity, notably by keeping the commercial and cultural hub in the traditional downtown core.
Despite its success, Main Street Canada was discontinued in the early 1990’s when its funding was not renewed by the federal government and Heritage Canada began to place a growing emphasis on other projects. In a 1994 interview, Dalibard explained the program’s demise in a somewhat positive light. He observed that the Main Street program had left a legacy of empowering communities to take the preservation of their built heritage into their own hands. In the end, Heritage Canada was only there to plan a support role for communities in need of resources: “[w]hat is important is to have good local organizations and support those organizations. And this is what we do. We participate in a lot of activities, and I go to a lot of meetings of the regional, provincial, and local groups.”
Below is a selection of Jacques Dalibard's writing on heritage conservation in Heritage Canada Foundation publications. More samples of Dalibard's work can be viewed in this exhibit's Documents section.
 “How Main Street Canada Began, An Interview With Jacques Dalibard”, Main Street Place, January/February 1989, Heritage Canada Foundation; “Multiculturalism Article by: Jacques Dalibard for: Canadian Heritage”, Jacques Dalibard Papers and Articles, 4 of 5, A-981;