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A Short History: The Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network ten years on

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The Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network will be celebrating its tenth anniversary on June 25, 2010, a decade after its founding conference in Lennoxville where over 130 delegates gathered from all corners of the province to launch the new organization. QAHN was born of a desire to explore and promote the history and heritage of Quebec from an Anglophone perspective – or, put another way, to advance awareness of that portion of our history that was the result of people who expressed themselves in English.

QAHN is the heir to the longstanding fascination for heritage – including “built,” “natural,” and the less tangible “oral” heritage – that has led since the early 19th century to the creation of museums and historical societies and to larger projects such as the historical monuments commissions. More specifically, it stems from two trends in the Quebec experience of the past three or four decades: the devastation wrought by urban renewal and other forms of commercialization, and the ongoing discourse over linguistic and ethnic identity since the Quiet Revolution.

The first of these trends is familiar to long-time residents of Montreal and to students of its architectural history who recall the widespread demolition of the 1960s and early 70s throughout the city’s core in the interests of commercial development. Conservation regulations were notoriously lax, and although some effort was made by the city to preserve the historic quarter there seemed to be no way to stop the destruction of individual buildings or even of neighbourhoods that lacked supposed architectural distinction: the Milton-Park project and the loss of the Van Horne mansion in particular led to community activism and the creation of groups such as Heritage Montreal. Since the mid 1970s, a revolution has taken place in heritage conservation, grounded in a belief that recycling older buildings in creative ways not only makes architectural and environmental sense, but contributes to more liveable urban spaces and helps maintain a direct connection with the past.

Even so, preserving old buildings is never easy. Communities outside the urban centre often found themselves ill-equipped to stop the decay of key heritage structures, lacking resources to acquire what needed to be saved, let alone maintain them in a useful way, and often lacking the social and demographic infrastructure required to make such recycled buildings viable; communities need only so many community centres. An additional difficulty was felt by many English-speaking heritage activists trying to negotiate a world of information and legislation that was almost entirely in French; as involvement in historical societies is more often than not the preserve of retired and even elderly people, the tendency for members to be less than comfortable in French was, and remains, high. This difficulty aside, by the late 1990s, people engaged in heritage issues at the local level found themselves in need of a way to acquire specialized information and share experiences with others in similar circumstances – particularly those from remote parts of the province whom they might normally never meet.

Historical and museum societies, on and off the Island of Montreal, were typically devoted to promoting their local history; the boundary of interest was usually governed by age-old municipal designations. In most cases, local historic sites and people were commemorated regardless of their linguistic or ethnic identification, and the composition of the commemorating society reflected the community as a whole, its language of business determined by the members. Across Quebec, there were also numerous English-speaking societies which continued to operate in English even though the large municipalities around them had become overwhelmingly Francophone. Others focused primarily on local heritage that was defined as “English-speaking” – for example, a prominent English-speaking figure or an institution that operated in English – out of a sense that its history risked being forgotten. Concern also arose, not exclusively among Anglophones, that the experience of English speakers might be overlooked as Quebec explored its history and identity, promoted the French language as the province’s natural idiom, and secularized its religiously-based public institutions. That the experience of English speakers was itself a chequered one, marked by countless divisions along ethnic and religious lines, made it especially important that it be understood in all its complexity.

The promotion of this Anglophone experience required a large organization on a provincial scale. Most heritage groups were, and remain, members of the Fédération de sociétés d’histoire du Québec (FSHQ), an umbrella service organization that provides several annual opportunities for networking, albeit essentially in French. In the Eastern Townships, however, the number of English-speaking member groups was large enough for regular regional meetings to be held in English. In the latter part of 1999, it occurred to the members of the FSHQ’s Eastern Townships “chapter” that this model could be applied to the entire province and that a parallel network of English-speaking societies would be a useful way to share wisdom and compare experiences within the overarching context of living in a Francophone society. Research revealed that such a network would be eligible for funding from the federal Department of Canadian Heritage under its Official Languages Support Programs. Organizers formed a steering committee and applied for a start-up grant from Canadian Heritage to hold an exploratory conference, which led to the enthusiastic founding of the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network on June 25, 2000. Significantly, two of its first board members were Francophones.

For ten years, QAHN has brought members together at regular networking events as well as at conferences on specific themes: “Historians at Work” (McGill University, May 2003), “Two Solitudes: Myths and Realities” (with the FSHQ, College Maisonneuve, Montreal, October 2004), “Sister Societies” (Masonic Temple, Montreal, April 2008), and “Roots Quebec” (Morrin Centre, Quebec, October 2008). QAHN has also undertaken numerous projects that are provincial, or at least multi-regional, in scope, including inventories of cemeteries at risk, of oral history projects, and of obscure collections of artifacts; it has also held a series of workshops on the legal aspects of preservation. Its annual general meetings are held in places of historic interest, such as the David M Stewart Museum on Ile-Ste-Hélène, Macdonald College in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, and the Smith House on Mount Royal.

QAHN has a made special effort in recent years to establish links in the city of Montreal, an area that boasts a huge proportion of the province’s English-speaking heritage but where historical societies are surprisingly few and far-between. Cultural diversity also presents a challenge, especially as many Montrealers who are fluent in English, and whose parents and grandparents may well have learned English rather than French, do not identify themselves today as English-speaking – an issue that, however odd it might seem to an outsider, is typical of Quebec’s demographic reality. To an extent, QAHN is burdened by its name: it adopted the word “Anglophone” for legal reasons, but has since found that the term can put people off, raising as it appears to do the spectre of Anglo rights as well as the equally misleading spectre of being focused exclusively on matters British. These challenges were met and to a large extent overcome in the course of a very successful conference held at the McCord Museum in April 2007: “Montreal Mosaic: A Symposium and Cultural Fair” brought people from a wide variety of ethnic, religious and linguistic backgrounds to share stories and experiences of the ongoing work of being a Montrealer. With music, dance and food from across the cultural spectrum, “Montreal Mosaic” remains a model of how to explore questions of identity in today’s Quebec.

“Montreal Mosaic” the WebMagazine, which builds on this model, offers an ongoing forum for exploring these questions, for showcasing a heritage that is “English-speaking” in the broadest and most creative sense, and for telling stories. It should prove a key networking tool for QAHN as it enters its second decade.