Chilliwack’s changing approach to heritage

The City of Chilliwack has approved a new heritage action plan and with it, a new approach to preserving history.

By Grace Kennedy | July 5, 2022 |5:00 am

Heritage in Chilliwack is a wood-framed granary, a World-War-I-era brick house, and a log barn—or that’s what the city’s 1991 heritage inventory would have you believe.

But the understanding of what is worth preserving has changed significantly in the last 30 years—and now the City of Chilliwack is implementing a new strategy to reinvigorate its forgotten history.

Chilliwack has created a new plan to try to redefine how the city identifies, protects, and preserves its history. The new “Heritage Strategic Action Plan” is not revolutionary. But it outlines new ways the city can manage both built heritage and the intangible values that make up Chilliwack’s past.

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For many years, the City of Chilliwack did essentially two things to try to preserve its history. The first was supporting the Chilliwack Museum and Archives, which collects, presents, and preserves local artifacts. (You can read The Current’s March story on the Archives here.) The city gives the museum about $495,000 each year.

The second was the city’s voluntary municipal heritage designation program, which focuses on Chilliwack’s built history. It’s the only program that provides real protection to historic buildings. Once a structure is included on the list, the Local Government Act requires the building to be maintained in a more-or-less original state.

The designation program is voluntary, and anyone who applies to it agrees they won’t be getting any financial support from the city. Only 16 properties are on the list, with the most recent addition being the Hazel House. (Read our story on that unique building here.)

Significantly, only properties that were identified in a 1991 heritage inventory have been eligible to even apply for the designation program. The inventory includes 129 properties that are almost exclusively privately-owned, single-detached buildings like homes, barns, schools, and churches. Today, at least 33 of those properties no longer exist, have demolition permits in place, or have undergone a recent rezoning.

In short, the program had two main issues: it didn’t have any incentives to inspire property owners to save their heritage buildings, and it focused almost exclusively on a narrow and increasingly outdated understanding of built history.

The new strategic plan aims to fix that in a couple tangible ways.

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Four years ago, council asked staff to come up with an action plan after a discussion on the fate of the century-old Pearson House. (The building was later demolished.) Public consultations got underway in 2019, and three years later, a new plan was finally ready to be presented to council.

Along with a detailed background on current best practices in heritage conservation, that plan lists eight things the city can do to start improving how it preserves history now. The first is to update the heritage inventory.

The action plan recommends the city start a $35,000 review of the heritage inventory to make sure the buildings on it are still standing. This would include visits to each building to make sure they exist and retain “sufficient integrity” to be included in the list.

Then, the city would need to create a “thematic framework” to see what parts of Chilliwack’s history are under-represented by the buildings on the inventory. That framework wouldn’t just focus on buildings. Instead, it would look at what non-physical heritage assets can be strengthened.

The importance of intangible cultural heritage is increasingly being recognized worldwide as a legitimate part of values-based heritage conservation, the report said. Intangible heritage items include things like cultural traditions, language, and knowledge—as well as the tools, artifacts, and spaces that made them a reality.

The action plan doesn’t identify exactly how it would preserve intangible heritage in the city. But it does say that creating a framework would help the city figure out what themes tie Chilliwack’s history together, from the pre-colonial era to the present. Then, the city can look at which elements are underrepresented in Chilliwack’s preserved heritage. (The plan also doesn’t specify examples of these themes—although it does mention agricultural, military, and multicultural histories.) The thematic framework would also cost around $35,000.

The city hopes to finish both projects within five years. They would go hand-in-hand with a number of other short-term goals: creating an official community heritage register that would offer legal protection for listed buildings; developing a system to evaluate potential properties for the heritage register; and creating heritage conservation areas where multiple historic buildings are located together. (The Village Walk area near Five Corners is one example of where that could be used.)

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The strategic plan also outlines a potential heritage incentives program that could include financial help, development assistance, and administrative incentives for people who preserve heritage properties.

In the long-term, the strategic plan suggests creating statements of significance of all sites recommended to the new Community Heritage Register to see how each property fits within the themes of Chilliwack’s history. That project would cost $120,000.

Importantly, it also suggested broadening the community partners involved in Chilliwack’s heritage preservation efforts.

“Chilliwack’s network of heritage volunteers is supported in part by descendants of agricultural pioneers, people who are ‘keepers’ of the knowledge about early technologies, construction methods, and stories of community that surround Chilliwack’s history places,” the report read. It recommends maintaining ongoing consultation with local First Nations about their history in the Chilliwack area.

In early June, council approved the Heritage Strategic Action Plan, paving the way for future discussions on when, exactly, each step of the plan would begin.

“It’s better late than never,” Coun. Jeff Shields said. “We’ve lost a lot of heritage homes over the last 30, 40 years, but if we can stop any more of them from going down that route, then we’ve achieved something.”


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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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