Historian J.L. Granatstein is the author of Who Killed Canadian History? and many other books on Canadian political and military history.
Kingston, Ontario, was Sir John A. Macdonald's home town, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper was there for the Grand Old Man's 200th birthday last week. The city is redolent of history: its statues; City Hall; and splendid old houses – the stuff of Canada's past.
But Kingston is also the home of the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes, and this piece of Canadian history is on the verge of sinking.
The Marine Museum, opened in 1975, is small, runs on a tiny budget, and gets no federal funding, its support coming from provincial and city grants, fund-raising, ticket sales, and gifts from donors. The Museum sits on a 3.8 acre site on the Kingston waterfront, and the land is owned by the Government of Canada. Now, as part of its program of disposing of surplus land (such as a host of lavish diplomatic residences abroad), Public Works and Government Services Canada has said it will put this site up for sale to the highest bidder on Jan. 31.
The eventual high bidder will almost certainly develop the site, bulldozing the land and erecting condos, townhouses, or apartments. There are no guarantees at all at this stage that the Museum will survive. Efforts by Public Works Canada to strike a deal with the City of Kingston have foundered, and now quick Ottawa action is the last chance to guarantee the museum's survival.
Does this matter? The museum operates on a shoestring, and some of its exhibits are sadly dated. But yes, its survival matters. The Marine Museum has a library of 12,000 volumes, almost certainly the largest collection anywhere of books on sailing and shipping on the Great Lakes. It holds more than 4,000 priceless artifacts, drawings, and paintings, 31,000 photographs, an astonishing collection of 50,000 ship plans, and 3,000 linear feet of archives, including the records of Canada Steamship Lines. This is the stuff of the history of the Great Lakes and Canada.
Moreover, the construction of the dry dock that is part of the Museum property was begun in 1890, and the first stone was laid by Kingston's Member of Parliament, one Sir John A. Macdonald. The cornerstone dedication was arguably Sir John's last such official event before his death the next year. The dry dock and pump house have been a designated National Historic Site since 1978. This collection and this site are priceless Canadian cultural properties (and are so designated), they are our history, and both are in danger of destruction without prompt federal government action.
There are two people who can save The Marine Museum of the Great Lakes. The first is Diane Finley, the Minister of Public Works and Government Services. Ms. Finley is the M.P. for Haldimand-Norfolk, a constituency that borders on Lake Erie, the smallest of the Great Lakes. The history of the lake (and her constituency) is found in the Marine Museum, and she surely must know the importance of that past. A Public Works minister who deep sixes the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes will deserve the opprobrium levelled.
The second key player is, of course, the Prime Minister. Stephen Harper is much the most knowledgeable and most engaged of recent prime ministers on Canada's history. He knows his hockey history, to be sure, but he knows much more. When he was in Kingston last week he spoke with feeling and understanding about Macdonald's legacy. Sir John A. made Canada, and now Stephen Harper has the opportunity to save a part of the legacy that Macdonald left us all. The benefits to the Treasury from selling the Marine Museum site are derisory; the cost to the national patrimony will be priceless.
Part of the blame for this impending debacle rests with the blinkered City Council and city bureaucracy of Kingston. But the lion's share must be fixed on Ottawa's relentless desire to sell off "surplus" property no matter the damage done. Balancing the budget is important, of course. But so is saving what can and should be saved. Stephen Harper must not become one of the killers of Canadian history and certainly not in the bicentennial year of the birth of Canada's founder.