This is the first of a series of articles introducing you to the staff of the Historic Resources Management Branch. We hope to give you a better sense what our staff does to protect, conserve and promote Alberta’s rich heritage. We begin by introducing you to our Executive Director.
As Executive Director of the Historic Resources Management Branch, Matthew Wangler relishes the variety of his job, and the great range of historic resources he gets to learn about in depth—from quarrying sites used by First Nations peoples for thousands of years, to unassuming buildings embodying the history of one of Alberta’s most remarkable communities, to one of the world’s few meteorite craters holding surviving impact fragments (one of his favourites!).
The Historic Resources Management Branch is charged with identifying, documenting, and protecting significant historic, archaeological, and palaeontological resources within Alberta. This is done through regulation of development that could impact such resources, along with education and consultation to help others (municipalities, property owners, community groups) to conserve or interpret their historic resources.
This work is accomplished by three sections that Wangler oversees: Aboriginal Heritage, Archaeological Survey, and Historic Places Stewardship. Wangler reviews the major regulatory decisions of these sections. He is also directly involved in those large initiatives that involve other ministries. One such task has been working to develop the recently announced flood relief funding programs.
In addition, Wangler is Executive Director of the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation. In that role he provides support to activities of the Foundation’s board, including its quarterly meetings, and he helps to ensure that funding decisions are implemented.
While some of his workload is predictable, much of it “comes out of left field,” he says. “It’s very common for an urgent issue to emerge the same day” that action is needed, “or the same hour, or the same minute.”
Often these concern potential risks to significant archaeological or built heritage sites that are not protected by municipal or provincial historic resource designation. The provincial government has the authority to require proponents of development projects potentially affecting such sites to undertake additional steps before their projects may proceed. For example, before being allowed to use land known or strongly suspected to hold evidence of early Aboriginal activity, a developer could be required to conduct an archaeological excavation. “So if an issue comes up that involves the exercise of this authority, I get involved. I have to make sure I understand all the ins and outs of the situation, so that I can brief [the responsible person] and he can make an informed decision.”
For instance, several years ago, City of Calgary staff alerted the Historic Resources Management Branch that a demolition application had been filed for a portion of the Calgary Brewing and Malting Company—an early and major employer that was highly influential in the development of Calgary and the region. The department responded by requiring the owner to produce a Historic Resources Impact Assessment.
Such requirements can buy time to educate property owners about the historical significance of their sites and the potential financial, environmental, and visitor-appeal benefits of conserving them appropriately. It also gives municipal planners time to propose conservation-friendly development alternatives.
“A lot of property owners are simply unaware” of the benefits of conservation, Wangler says. “But in the vast majority of cases, you can educate them about the value of heritage, both culturally and potentially economically, and you can bring them on your side.”
In fact, lack of widespread awareness about Alberta’s heritage resources and the value of conservation is among Wangler’s most pressing concerns. Part of the problem is that the value of much of the work of the Historic Resources Branch may not be immediately apparent to the public, although the artifacts and fossils that are recovered, the historic buildings that are saved and reused, and the cultural sites of significance to Aboriginal communities that are preserved contribute to a range of social, economic, and cultural outcomes.
“But the solution is quite simple!” Wangler continues. He’s eager for his staff to engage in greater public outreach—writing blog posts, visiting school classrooms, speaking at public events—to build awareness of Alberta’s diverse heritage resources and the opportunities they offer.
“Have people talk about what they love and why they do what they do!,” he urges. “Every person who works for my branch has a passion for history and heritage, that’s why they ended up working here. You scratch a little bit under the surface, and you find that most people do have some connection to heritage and some native interest in it. It’s really not difficult to find and create allies.”
Written by: Kerri Rubman.