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Parks Canada hands heritage soldiers a new weapon

During what many consider to be an unnecessary federal election, we need to be thankful for small mercies.

Actually, this mercy is anything but small. It's not an exaggeration to suggest that lovers of - and soldiers for - heritage architecture have just been handed a very large new weapon by the government.

Launched in late February, Parks Canada's Canadian Register of Historic Places ( is a massive online storehouse of more than 12,400 heritage buildings and sites across the country. It's keyword-searchable, easy to use, chock full of useful information and, best of all, will continue to grow.

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"It's like a one-stop shop," says Canadian Registrar and project head Andrew Waldron, 41. "So if you're doing work on a building, say, in Cabbagetown, you can look up that address and get exactly why it was designated, what was designated, what's important on it … or whether there was a prominent Torontonian who lived there."

Well, not quite yet. I tried entering "Cabbagetown" into the keyword box and got one result: the Winchester Hotel. I tried "Cabbagetown house" to no avail, and then a famous Cabbagetown resident, long-time CFRB broadcaster Gordon Sinclair. Still nothing. But as Mr. Waldron explains, this is because information on some Toronto buildings and Heritage Conservation Districts, such as Cabbagetown, has either not been submitted by the organizations themselves or has not been uploaded to the Parks Canada website by provincial agencies. To be fair, I was much more successful when I entered "Toronto house" (251 results), "Mississauga house" (47 listings) and "Cobourg house" (13 listings).

In the next few years, when the site total will reach "17,000 or 18,000" entries, it's possible that Mr. Sinclair will get his due, or if that's too much of a stretch (Mr. Sinclair's birthplace of 375 Carlton St. is now a sports field), his internationally known neighbourhood certainly will, since the goal is for the Canadian Register to be the "definitive list" of all heritage places, regardless of whether they're National Historic Sites (there are only 956) or whether they have provincial or municipal heritage designations only.

And unlike sites that list merely an address and date of designation, the Parks Canada site gives users rich background content. For instance, despite plugging in the term "Mississauga house" at random, the first entry is a fascinating one: not only did I learn that the one-and-a-half storey Leslie Log House (4415 Mississauga Rd.) was built in 1826, I got a 463-word essay on its significance, including a tidbit on how Toronto's Leslieville got its name. If I decided to see the house in person, I could use the "Nearby Places" feature to set up a little tour, then read about each home on my BlackBerry or iPhone while standing right out front. Cool, huh?

While Parks Canada has been designating historic sites since 1919, it was only after signing on at the UNESCO World Heritage Convention in 1976 that it began to inventory all of them (that was part of the requirement). In the past two decades, the organization has been "on the cutting edge of how to look at places," by discounting superficial things, such as whether a building "is famous," says Mr. Waldron, and instead asking: "What's the meaning for individuals in a community, how can we capture - like in Kensington Market - the immigrant experience?"

The 2005 granting of National Historic Site of Canada status to Kensington Market is instructive. Not only does it show Parks Canada's willingness to think outside the (bricks-and-mortar) box by declaring the entire jumbled and beautiful mess of a neighbourhood to be of national significance, it's a good example of the grassroots process involved. It was only after a group of proud Portuguese residents met with Kensington shop owners about pursuing NHS status (who then got support from city council) that Parks Canada stepped in.

"At Parks Canada we're not in the business of forcing people to do things," says Mr. Waldron. "We try to figure out how to help [communities]manage their own history and heritage." And since there are no regulations imposed on a building or neighbourhood with NHS status (it's "a moral designation," explains Mr. Waldron) a place like Kensington Market can continue to evolve, as it has for decades: "You don't want it to stop changing; you want new people to live there, you want new food, you want new cheese …" he jokes.

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Of course, there are benefits to being declared a National Historic Site. Most important, perhaps, is the sudden international spotlight cast upon your building or neighbourhood, which, in turn, brings tourists: "People from Germany will come to Toronto and go down to Gooderham and Worts; they do visit Fort York." And, by extension, if their interest is Victoriana, they'll visit Cabbagetown once it's posted, or Don Mills for mid-century modern architecture should residents there decide to pursue Heritage Conservation District status or a National Historic Site designation.

Don't laugh: Not only is Don Mills nationally significant, it's 17 years older than downtown Winnipeg's Manitoba Theatre Centre, a 1970 Brutalist building designated two years ago.

Food for thought as you make your way to the ballot box in May.

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