Background

As places that exemplify thousands of years of human history and hundreds of years of nation building, Canada's national historic sites are part of the inheritance of all Canadians. Extending from the northwest corner of the Yukon to the eastern tip of Newfoundland, these historic places reflect a diversity of cultures, geographical settings and time periods as vast as Canada itself, symbolizing its national identity and human environmental heritage.

National historic sites evoke many of the great themes of human history, in circumstances that represent the commonplace as well as the unique. They remind Canadians and visitors to Canada that our past is rich and varied, encompassing places as diverse as Port au Choix in Newfoundland, a 4000-year-old Aboriginal site depicting the Maritime Archaic culture; the Lachine Canal, in Montréal, one of the most important places associated with Canada's industrial and transportation history; York Factory, in Manitoba, once the headquarters of a fur trade empire that covered western and northern Canada, and Kitwanga Fort site in British Columbia, part of a significant intertribal trading network. At the same time, national historic sites reflect the enormous impact that the biophysical environment - our natural heritage - has had on the landscape of Canadian history. As places where we commemorate our history and our diverse but common heritage, national historic sites play a significant role in the public education of all Canadians.

The term "national historic site" embraces the entire spectrum of nationally significant historic places, ranging in size from the gravesites of the Fathers of Confederation to extensive cultural landscapes in urban, rural and wilderness settings. These places may contain surface and subsurface remains, individual buildings or complexes of buildings and other works, artifacts, natural features and combinations thereof. Where individual national historic sites do not constitute cultural landscapes in their own right, they form part of a larger cultural landscape. Recognition of this enhances our appreciation of the value of these historic places and their associated environments.

The impulse to commemorate significant aspects of the past is one that Canadians share with others around the world. Most nations have formal or informal programs of this nature, and over 100 countries, including Canada, adhere to the United Nations' World Heritage Convention. The Convention has as its objective the identification, protection, conservation and presentation of cultural and natural heritage places of outstanding universal value. A number of Canada's national historic sites have been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as World Heritage Sites, including L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, the only authenticated site of the Viking presence in the New World, and Ninstints Village in British Columbia, with its unsurpassed collection of Haida totem and mortuary poles. Another Canadian World Heritage Site, the Historic District of the city of Québec, contains several national historic sites that were instrumental in its World Heritage designation, chief among them being the walls of the old city.

At the federal level, responsibility for designating the nation's historic places rests with the Minister of the Environment, who acts on the advice of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. The Board also advises the Minister on the commemoration of persons, events and other historical phenomena.

Early governmental activities in Canada relating to the commemoration of historic places tended to focus on marking and preserving battle and fortification sites because of their importance - real and symbolic - as landmarks in Canada's national evolution. Local initiative was often instrumental in the commemoration of these places. The importance of local interest in the conservation of national heritage has long been a feature of the national historic sites program, as has been the recognition that our national history is to be found in all parts of the country.

It was not until the second decade of the 20th century that the first national program for preserving sites of historical interest was established within the Dominion Parks Branch of the former Department of the Interior. Largely the work of an early commissioner of the Branch, this program represented a blending of the cultural heritage and natural conservation movements of the time, and began the long organizational association between national historic sites and national parks that has continued to the present. With the formation of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in 1919, provision was made for outside experts to advise the Minister on the commemoration of nationally significant aspects of Canadian history.

Three pieces of federal legislation have been instrumental in the development of the historic sites program: the Dominion Forest Reserves and Parks Act of 1911; Part II of the National Parks Act (1930), which makes provision for the setting aside of federal lands to commemorate an event of national importance, or to preserve a historic landmark or "any object of historic, prehistoric, or scientific interest of national importance;" and the Historic Sites and Monuments Act (1952-53), which describes the powers of the Minister with respect to the commemoration of historic places and outlines the role of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

The federal government plays an essential role in historical commemoration, specifically at the national level, but many others are actively involved. Private citizens, historical societies, heritage groups, professional bodies and others play a major part in identifying and conserving heritage, and in lobbying governments at all levels to devise, implement or expand legislation and programs. In fact, most of the proposals for commemoration considered by the Minister are submitted by the public.

Provincial and territorial governments also play a significant role, not only through the programs they sponsor and the historic sites they operate, but also because provincial jurisdiction over private property enables the provinces to pass and enforce legislation extending legal protection to designated properties or sites not owned by governments or subject to federal regulation. Federal - provincial - territorial cooperation is facilitated by formal mechanisms, as well as by ongoing contact at the agency level.

National historic sites represent a true national partnership in the preservation of Canada's heritage. The Minister of the Environment is responsible for designating these sites and for directly managing a number of them, while many others are owned by other levels of government, corporations and individuals. This partnership, which is often informal rather than formal, is symbolized by the term "Family of National Historic Sites." The family includes sites that are operated as heritage institutions, as well as those that continue to serve traditional commercial, administrative, industrial and spiritual purposes, touching the everyday lives of people across Canada in national historic sites such as the Historic District of Lunenburg, Christ Church Cathedral in Fredericton, the Chateau Frontenac in the city of Québec, Union Station in Toronto, Stirling, in Alberta, Igloolik Island in the Northwest Territories, or Stanley Park in Vancouver. To a degree unforeseen even ten years ago, historic sites are increasingly viewed as an integral part of the human environment, rather than as enclaves where the past is separated from the present.

While Canadians can take pride in their national historic sites, there is no room for complacency. Each year significant places associated with our history are destroyed, either by natural causes or through human action or inaction. Many sites of great value remain to be commemorated, and many await the resources necessary to properly protect and effectively present them. Our historic sites represent a legacy that, once lost, can never be replaced.

The Government of Canada is aware that a strong and secure sense of the past is an indispensable source of confidence in the future, particularly for a country that is outward-looking by choice and independent by conviction. National historic sites provide tangible and irreplaceable links to what defines us as a nation and a people, and along with other national institutions and symbols, especially those of historic value, are integral to "our sense of country." The federal government is dedicated to assuring that the existing system of national historic sites remains strong and, equally important, that new sites are added to ensure that the full range of Canada's human history is adequately represented within the national commemorative program.

The designation and stewardship of national historic sites reflect the values of those who have been given responsibility for the commemoration of our heritage. The need to identify and to preserve non-renewable heritage resources has never been more urgent or important. Future generations will judge the content and quality of our stewardship.

This policy sets out objectives, describes means to achieve them, and provides guidelines for evaluating the program using such concepts as commemorative integrity.