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Heritage: Part of Our Meaningful Future -- An Interview with Dinu Bumbaru*

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--February 1, 2012.

larger_dinu.jpg1. In your opinion what is the main challenge facing heritage preservationists in Quebec today?

Their main challenge would be to reinvent and maintain the foundation of their relevance as essential contributors to the future of lively communities, neighbourhoods, towns or regions. Somehow, our job is to advocate for a better appreciation of heritage but also for the creative process which adds on to it a layer of meaningful structures or memorable acts or creations. Just like the roots belong to and feed the tree, heritage is not part of the past as much as of the meaningful future. Making this our message is quite a challenge.

2. Have things improved since you first became involved in heritage preservation? If so, in what way? If not, please elaborate.

I started in 1980 and 1981 with studios on restoration and urban architecture, then joined Heritage Montreal in 1982. Sure! Things have greatly improved in Montreal and elsewhere -- if anything as a result of greater awareness and enjoyment of heritage buildings, sites or landscapes by growing numbers of people.

Institutionally, more qualified staff are now involved in some form of cultural or historical heritage activity in municipalities, MRCs or boroughs, as well as in ministries or tourism organizations than ever before. Regulations and similar tools have also evolved.

That said, we might be nearing the return of the pendulum as many decision-makers tend to limit the impact of heritage actions to regulating good or bad taste as they shift to economical or green priorities, forgetting that conserving, enjoying and looking after one's heritage is a source of sustainable development.

3. What would you say is Quebec’s greatest achievement in heritage terms in the last decade? On the provincial level? Locally?

The inclusion of the protection of cultural heritage as one of the fundamental principles in the Quebec Sustainable Development Act presented by Thomas Mulcair in 2005 or 2006. This is unique, possibly in the world as sustainable development is the empire of the green guys. In Quebec, the duty of care for human legacy is part of sustainable development, stressing the heritage link and the need to acknowledge our valuable accomplishment and the sites, buildings or landscapes that bear witness.

Locally, I would say the designation of Mount Royal as an historic and natural district. Even though it took us 19 years to get this, and even though the boundaries of the district are more founded on political accommodation than on the heritage reality of the mountain (why isn't Westmount more part if it?), it's a great achievement to have convinced the whole government to proclaim for itself, its institutions (McGill, Université de Montréal, the McGill University Health Centre...), and everyone else a duty to do on Mount Royal, which is to respect the mountain as a living heritage landscape at the heart of the metropolis. It should inspire others to stop seeing heritage only as either natural or antiquated and to see the fun and sense of identity that comes from it.

4. What is your opinion of Quebec’s new Cultural Heritage Act, Bill 82, which will come into effect on October 19, 2012? Will this legislation be practical? What are its strengths and /or weaknesses?

The process of reflections, learning from our particular history of caring for heritage and it's current situation here, the research on experiences and works abroad, and the consultation Minister [Christine] St-Pierre carried out personally across Quebec on the Livre vert in 2008 were a remarkable exercise and quite a promising one, following with dignity and aspiration the past attempts at giving Quebec a heritage policy starting with Lise Bacon (1987), Agnes Maltais (1999) and Lyne Beauchamp (2006).

Yet, the new Cultural Heritage Act, which was adopted unanimously on October 19, 2011, after a very uncertain and slow negotiation between the parties, falls a bit short. It looks more like a cleaning up of the engine with some retooling and an oil change than the reform that would enable us to face major challenges such as we have with religious heritage buildings or the protection of iconic landscapes or builtscapes from banal and demeaning development. There are good ideas in there, but I fear from the lack of connectedness between the ministry and civil society. The more firm duties towards heritage and its protection are duties of the state. We may be headed for some foggy seasons.

5. What would you say is the most effective way for local heritage groups to get involved in heritage preservation / promotion?

Walk around and talk about it. Know your role and possible contribution and don't try nor pretend to play the roles of others (for example, the authorities). Never stop discovering the many dimensions of what is the normal reality for so many people and share this.

6. What would you say was your greatest personal heritage success story and/or (if applicable) defeat?

Well, I never stop discovering new stuff about what I thought I knew of Montreal and that's already something. Otherwise, I helped to create a concern in the community for these buildings and places of many shapes, origins or ages, and a sense of enjoyment to feel them around and to see the next one built up to the task of making an interesting addition.

Dinu Bumbaru, C. M.
Dinu Bumbaru is a graduate in Architecture from the Université de Montréal and in Conservation Studies from the University of York in England. Since 1982, he has served as Policy Director for Héritage Montréal, a private not-for-profit organization founded to encourage the protection and revitalization of the architectural, landscape and neighborhood heritage of Montreal. In 2008, Bumbaru was awarded the Order of Canada for his contributions to the promotion and preservation of heritage, both in Canada and abroad.

*This interview has been reprinted from Quebec Heritage News, Vol. 6, No. 4, Winter 2012.