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Kyle Franz

Canada: THEN Add to ...

Canada Day - a time to reflect on our shared pasts and our visions for the future. A good day, too, to visit one of our nation's many historic sites. It's hard to believe this will probably be the last Canada Day for one of them.

As you approach Coleman, Alta., you don't need a bronze plaque to understand why this place is so important. Towering above rows of miners' cottages are gigantic green towers that leave the uninitiated awestruck. They wordlessly show how massive coal mining operations in Canada really were. They inspire tourists to leave their cars and cause children and adults alike to ask their parents and grandparents what life was like in decades past.

The Coleman National Historic Site makes its visitors think about, and question, the past. The towers stand where as much as 25 million tonnes of coal were produced every year. To walk among these buildings is to see, first-hand, the industrial revolution in Canada. They stand as witnesses to the thousands of individuals who worked, and the many who died, making an industrial Canada.

And this is no ordinary community. Long before multiculturalism was championed by Pierre Trudeau, it was a reality in Coleman. People came from all over the world in search of a better life. Walking through town, it was not unusual to overhear conversations in Ukrainian, Polish, Italian or German. At a time when the Chinese were shunned in most mining towns, they could be found in Coleman as entrepreneurs. Though no utopia, it was ahead of its time.

And it was also in Coleman that some of the most controversial aspects of the Canadian labour movement found a home. After the First World War, the One Big Union - one of Canada's most radical unions - attracted some of its most fervent supporters in the town. The union hall and Roxy Theatre played frequent host to debates between Communists and moderates during the 1930s and 1940s. Strikes were often long, cold and bitter. This district made headlines for decades. Even after the biggest storms had passed, the RCMP kept a watchful eye on the area.

It is this combination of the industrial and personal that makes Coleman so historically important. One of Canada's newest national historic sites, Coleman was declared to be of importance because of its status as one of the very few places in the country where a major coal mine and the community that grew up around it can still be seen close to their original form.

It's hard to believe the government is going to allow the mine site to be destroyed. It's even harder to believe these buildings enjoy no protection despite being smack in the middle of a national historic site.

But this is exactly what is about to happen. In a matter of weeks, the giant green icons of Coleman will be nothing but rubble.

How can buildings be ripped down at a national historic site? Are they not protected by law?

It might surprise you that the Historic Sites and Monuments Act, the piece of legislation that allows for the creation of national historic sites, places no restriction on their redevelopment when the property is privately owned.

It might also surprise you that 87 per cent of our national heritage sites are in private hands.

This means that, despite protest from the historical community and in blatant disregard for the fusion between people and industry that saw Coleman designated as a historic site in the first place, it is perfectly legal to destroy its most remarkable landmarks.

The reason? Condos. Gentrification has simply made the land too valuable to sit "unused." That 87 per cent of national historic sites have no federal protection is astounding. It's inconceivable that places so critical to our national, regional and cultural identities are also so vulnerable. As Canadians, we have a lot to lose.

This Canada Day, as we contemplate the future of our country, we must also contemplate the future of our past. How much of our history can we lose before we jeopardize our identity as Canadians?

Kyle Franz is a PhD candidate in history at Queen's University.

 

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