Heritage homeowner Pierre Bleau is a passionate hands-on restorer. But the continuing work on his 1905 Victorian home in the east end of Montreal also requires the services of skilled craftspeople.
The retired City of Montreal engineer has been lovingly – patiently – restoring the house in the old quarter of Pointe-aux-Trembles for more than two decades. He is skilled in carpentry and has a decently equipped workshop in the basement. On some jobs, though, outside assistance was called in.
For the decorative rosettes at the top of the interior door frames and on the rooftop cornice, he located a local heritage cabinet-maker well-versed in the precise look of this traditional design element.
To help tackle the restoration of the posts and handrail of the front porch railing, Mr. Bleau found a sawmill and a woodworker with the appropriate tools to accurately reproduce the original configuration.
Finding the craftspeople who can bring the skills and experience necessary to ensure a heritage restoration is done right can be a challenge.
“Good craftspeople are becoming rare,” says Mr. Bleau, 61, who is a member of a group devoted to preserving the province’s stock of old houses, Amis et propriétaires de maisons anciennes du Québec (APMAQ).
“You usually end up finding the right person, but often they turn out to be swamped with work.”
The preservation and upkeep of the built heritage depends on a healthy and thriving base of skilled craftspeople. Experts in the field have for years been warning of a serious gap in the training of these specialized artisans.
So it was welcome news recently when the Conseil des métiers d’art du Québec (CMAQ) launched a program to train stonemasons, carpenters and cabinet-makers.
The lessons got under way in January, with nine students enrolled in the 15-week course, says France Girard, CMAQ’s project manager in architecture and heritage.
“To preserve the built heritage we need to have the means to do it,” she said.
Alain Lachance, a master cabinet-maker from Notre-Dame-du-Portage, Que., is part of the team of instructors in the program. “This is the realization of a dream we’ve had for years,” he said. “We need to make sure there is a new generation carrying on the tradition.”
CMAQ has overseen heritage training sessions in the past but they were mostly patchwork attempts lasting just a few days or weeks, Mr. Lachance said.
Besides the sessions covering theory, students in the new courses will also get best-practices instruction and drawing lessons as well as practical exercises and experience working on the Maison Hurtubise, a 1739 farmhouse in Westmount that is one of the oldest homes on the Island of Montreal.
Robert Pajot of the Ottawa-based National Trust for Canada, says CMAQ’s initiative is a much-needed addition to the existing offerings scattered across Canada.
“There are so few training programs for the heritage trades across the country,” said Mr. Pajot, project leader, regeneration, at the not-for-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of historic sites.
“We need more of these programs. More skills programs out there raise the profile of heritage preservation.”
Among well-regarded existing programs are Heritage Retrofit Carpentry at Holland College on Prince Edward Island; Heritage Carpentry and Joinery as well as pre-apprenticeship masonry and other trades at Algonquin College in Perth, Ont.; and courses at the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts in Queenston, Ont.
At Algonquin, a B.Sc in Built Heritage has been proposed, Mr. Pajot said.
“We have some catching up to do” in Quebec, says John Diodati, a heritage conservation specialist and associate at Montreal architecture firm EVOQ.
Quite a bit of effort remains to get governments at all levels to better recognize the heritage trades through accreditation and the regulatory framework, Mr. Diodati said.
Currently, too much red tape keeps skilled tradespeople and small heritage contractors from getting access to building sites, he added.
Taïka Baillargeon, assistant director of policy at Heritage Montreal, views CMAQ’s new program as “excellent news, an important development.”
“There is a huge need,” she said.
Heritage activists in the province have been calling for a co-ordinated government policy that includes measures to bolster training while also implementing tax credits and other incentives to encourage preservation.
These days, local municipalities and boroughs, including the Montreal suburbs of Laval and Longueuil, are making more of an effort to implement heritage-preservation plans, Ms. Baillargeon said.
Heritage activists in Quebec have lived through a number of “traumatic experiences” over the past few years involving the disappearance of important heritage sites that brought home the urgency of the situation, she said.
One incident in particular left many in the heritage milieu distraught: the destruction of the circa 1820 maison Beaulieu in Chambly, a house closely connected to the 1837-1838 Rebellions.
The structure was knocked down without warning in 2018 by the City of Chambly, its owner and supposed protector; officials said they had no choice because the building was structurally unfit and represented a “public hazard.” A group of concerned citizens had been calling for its preservation.
“There is still much work to be done to raise awareness” of the importance of preservation, said Ms. Baillargeon of Heritage Montreal.
The National Trust’s Mr. Pajot points out how crucial in the overall preservation picture is the training and upgrading of heritage trades skills. Specialized masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, plasterers, roofers and others have a keen grasp of the materials, traditional building techniques and restoration methods, he said.
“We need more of them. More skilled programs out there raise the profile of heritage preservation.”
Mr. Diodati of EVOQ says the traditional crafts in Quebec could benefit from the heightened demand for their expertise that would result from increased government funding for heritage projects.
Consider, too, the advantages on the sustainability front to be gained from promoting greater use of the heritage trades and a more pro-active approach to preservation, he said.
Creating and funding training programs could be part of post-COVID-19 efforts for a green economic recovery. Heritage rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of buildings rate highly in terms of environmental benefits. Maintaining and upgrading old buildings often represents a better option than tearing them down and putting up new ones.