It’s All About Context

The Alberta Historical Resources Foundation awarded the Municipal District of Big Lakes a grant to aid them in developing a context paper, the first step in completing their first inventory of potential historic places. On June 6th, I facilitated a workshop for members of the M.D. of Big Lakes’s Heritage Advisory Committee. The daylong workshop was about context papers: what they are, what they’re used for and why you cannot identify or understand historic places without them. The committee was appointed by council last year to find ways to protect local historic places. In March, they finished the first phase of a municipal heritage survey.

Members of the Heritage Advisory Committee (unless otherwise noted), left to right: Mike Sekulich; Amanda Backs, Assistant Development Officer; Pat Olansky, Community Development Officer; Garth Lodge; Harvey Nielsen; Michael Thome, Municipal Heritage Services Officer.

We started the day by discussing heritage value. A context paper at its simplest and most useful is a document that describes a community’s heritage values. What is heritage value? In Canada it is commonly defined as, the aesthetic, historic, scientific, cultural, social or spiritual importance or significance” assigned to a place. In other words, heritage value can be articulated through a historic place’s ability to tell us something about the past: perhaps how people lived during a particular time-period, how a certain type of building was constructed, how an important event took place, among other things. Each community will value the past differently. In fact, members of the same community will think that different aspects of their common history are important. The first step when evaluating historic places is for a community to decide what their common heritage values are.

Why is understanding your heritage values so important? Heritage value is communicated through a historic place’s materials and form. It isn’t a place’s age or uniqueness that makes it significant; significance is rooted in a place’s ability to teach us about the past. You can’t decide if something is a historic place unless you understand the heritage values that make your historic places significant. Distinguishing between places with heritage value and old buildings that cannot offer a window into significant aspects of the past is the key.

Over the summer, the M.D. of Big Lakes will determine what their community’s heritage values are and describe them in writing. The result is called a context paper. Heritage value can be nebulous, but writing a context paper before looking at specific places helps answer the question “why should we conserve this place”. Once the context paper is finished the Heritage Advisory Committee can determine the significance of potential historic places.

We then spent the afternoon discussing what Big Lakes’ heritage values might be. We worked through a list of eight themes:

  • community life;
  • health and welfare;
  • economic development;
  • learning;
  • music and the arts; politics,
  • government and law enforcement;
  • religion and spirituality; and
  • transportation.

Each theme was intended to be a starting point to discuss events, groups or people that reflect the theme; each theme was to be inclusive of all people, places and time periods within the municipality.

One of the great parts of my job is the opportunity to learn about each community’s unique history and Big Lakes didn’t disappoint. The committee members began telling stories illustrating some of these themes, talking about events and people that made Big Lakes what it is. In just one afternoon, I learned that mink farming, logging and commercial fishing on Lesser Slave Lake were important sources of income. I learned about the sports days, rodeos and community dances that were the important social events. We started to organise these stories under sub-themes and even components within subthemes.

The committee will be working with a consultant on the context paper over the summer. When the committee finishes the framework, the results will be presented to the community for further input and then written up. The context paper will give the Heritage Advisory Committee the framework within which to evaluate individual places for heritage value. If a place contains buildings or other works that illustrate one of the themes from their context paper, it is a historic resource.

Evaluating individual places for heritage value will be the subject of a future workshop, probably in the fall. I’m really looking forward to reading drafts of their context paper, in the meantime.

Written by: Michael Thome, Municipal Heritage Services Officer