Proudly on display in a tiny museum in a small town in the Annapolis Valley is what is believed to be the last autograph signed by hockey great Howie Morenz.
The Montreal Canadiens’ forward died an untimely death at age 34 in 1937, following a hockey injury he sustained during a game against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Now, the Hockey Heritage Centre in Windsor, N.S., the valley town that bills itself as the “birthplace of hockey,” could face its own untimely demise after nearly 16 years in operation.
It’s pretty much broke, its volunteers are burned out and only an 11th hour intervention saved it from closing its doors for good this year.
“It was typical of anything. We tried to keep it together on a shoestring ...,” says Windsor Mayor Paul Beazley. “It was a case that it was just ‘let’s keep the doors open’ for many years. It’s difficult to do these days.”
Windsor’s hockey museum, which attracts between 2,000 and 3,000 tourists a year and runs on an annual budget of $40,000, is just one of hundreds of treasured local sites across Canada, perhaps neglected and fallen into disrepair, that are worthy of saving.
To mix sports metaphors, one would have thought the hockey museum would be a slam dunk for federal funding. The Harper government is fascinated with hockey as is the Prime Minister, who is famously – but very slowly – writing a book on the history of hockey.
But the Conservative government has another historical obsession – and that is the War of 1812. It has pledged nearly $30-million for historical re-enactments, refurbishment of monuments and local observances to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the war.
“Why we chose 1812 for next year is because there are very few moments pre-1867 that are watershed moments in the development of Canada,” says Heritage Minister James Moore.
“We can’t fund everything at all times,” he says, noting there’s a “limitation to the taxpayers’ wallets.”
True. But Scott Brison, the Liberal MP from Kings-Hants, the riding that includes the Windsor hockey museum, hopes the government doesn’t just favour initiatives in Tory ridings.
A recent list of several newly-funded projects provided by Heritage Canada shows funding going to those championed by Conservative MPs.
“The recognition and celebration of Canada’s historical landmarks should not be defined by partisanship,” says Mr. Brison. “Our history is shared by all Canadians and respect for our building and cultural heritage should be pursued without partisan considerations.”
Along with Howard Dill’s famous Paul Bunyan-sized pumpkins, the townspeople of Windsor claim a first game of hockey played in 1800 on Long Pond.
The pond is close to Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s home. He, of course, was the first to mention it in his writing.
Fitting then that the saviour for the hockey museum is the Haliburton house, now a provincial museum. The hockey memorabilia was moved there as part of the last-ditch effort at keeping the hockey centre going.
“Where we go in the future we’re not quite sure,” says Mayor Beazley. “We’re still sort of keeping our feet under us.”
So far the temporary partnership with the province has helped keep things afloat. But the Mayor, who is also on the hockey museum board, says he and his fellow board members will sit down in the next few months to map out a five- to 10-year strategy.
At that point, they may try to engage the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, the federal government’s regional development agency, for funding.
Just to complicate life, however, deep cuts were announced to ACOA earlier this week. There’s simply less money around in what the Harper government repeatedly describes as these “fragile” economic times.
There are practicalities, too. Minister Moore asserts that “what is a treasure to someone may not be a treasure to another.” He mentioned a man, who lives in his riding, who is “hell bent” on having a museum for ham radios.
“To him, it’s a real passion but in terms of what taxpayers would hope that we would invest money in I don’t know if a museum for ham radios is really what is top of mind,” says Mr. Moore.
He advises creativity – looking at other options for funding, such as applying to a government program to fund a student to work at the museum for a summer.
The Heritage Foundation of Canada, a non-governmental organization whose aim it is to save historic buildings and sites across the country, has done some creative thinking of its own.
In a brief to the Commons Finance Committee last year, it proposed a tax credit for renovating heritage homes, arguing that a similar program in the U.S. helps to stimulate private investment and revitalize communities.
“We are the only G8 country that doesn’t have a national heritage law,” notes Carolyn Quinn, the foundation’s director of communications.
Since 2005, the foundation has released its list of the “Top Ten Most Endangered Places,” identifying houses, churches, schools and others sites worth saving.
In 2009, the list included a building in Amherstburg, Ont. – the Bellevue House – that has rich connections to the War of 1812.
Declared a national historic site in 1959, it is now empty and deteriorating – a good example that there is little or no support once this kind of designation is made. It is the Environment Minister who gives the designation.
A local heritage committee, meanwhile, is now working at trying to save it.
“Their feeling is if the War of 1812 bicentennial comes and goes and it can’t be leveraged to save this building, then nothing can,” says Ms. Quinn.
The lesson here? It could take a war to save the country’s history.