MAY 01, 1979 by MORRIS SHUMIATCHER
This article is an excerpt from an address delivered to a Conference of "Heritage Canada" at Saskatoon by Morris Shumiatcher, a Saskatchewan lawyer and author.
Our heritage is not a static stock of sticks and stones. Neither does it consist of ancient artifacts embalmed and preserved like Egyptian ancestors in pyramided tombs.
It is a real and integral part of living. It impels us to look back on what has been, but it can never be preoccupied with history alone.
Like the Janus-faced deity of the Romans, it demands an ever-present consciousness of our future as well as our past.
Our heritage is the linkage of yesterday with tomorrow. It bridges the generations of mankind and defies the truncations of time.
It is a vitality springing out of the present, but rooted in the past that produces, in our time and upon our land, structures and monuments and places for creation and recreation, that can be used and cherished by men and women with educated minds and understanding hearts.
If these impulses lift the spirit of man in any age, the works they succeed in creating will surely become a part of the enriched inheritance of succeeding generations.
The principal value of preserving the past is that it assures the presence of models of perfection that may inspire great actions, high purposes and the production of good and beautiful works—today and in all of our tomorrows.
How did the treasure-houses that are the heritage of mankind come into being?
They were the products of the inspiration of individual men and women who built structures to be inhabited and used for whatever purposes suited the age in which they took shape—some sacred, some profane.
A humble log cabin erected on a riverbank of the Prairies in 1810, to store pemmican and furs, which later served as a schoolhouse, and later still as a granary, may be a significant part of our national heritage for many years to come.
A great cathedral that was a sacred place of worship for the establishment of our largest city a hundred years ago, and now serves as the outer shell for a dozen bright boutiques, is also a part of that heritage.
Usefulness and use are the hallmarks of the buildings and places that measure our progression through the pages of history, perhaps more felicitously than a Taj Mahal, with its perfect symmetry and matchless marble. After all, the Taj is a memorial not to life—but to death.
Few individuals today are able to conceive, create or build (let alone finance), like Emperor Shah Jahan, overpowering structures of monumental dimensions. The man who would now build inspirationally for the future is discouraged in many ways.
First, the skills of the great craftsmen who created our architectural heritage having all but disappeared from the land.
The ancient cathedrals and temples, palaces, and monuments reflect the skills and genius of the men who conceived and designed and fashioned them: the architects and stonemasons and carpenters and ironmongers and glaziers.
Their expertise is mankind’s richest heritage because it makes possible a rebirth of the wonders of other ages.
Most are lost to us, save in the gardens of a few museums and in the reconstructed shops of antiquities where a handful of dedicated, costumed men and women act out the roles of spinners and weavers and cobblers and smithers and pretend to keep alive a thimbleful of lost and long-forgotten arts.
Secondly, it has grown too costly to insist on excellence and beauty. Draining the innovative energies of the architects and engineers and builders and designers and workmen of all descriptions are the omnipresent parasites that fasten themselves like leeches upon the vessels of the body politic.
If a businessman were to plan to injure a competitor by impeding construction, he could do nothing more effective than to design the building codes that inhibit us in every part of this country.
If a foreign enemy wished to cripple our development, he could achieve no greater victory than by perpetuating the multi-tiered bureaucracies that require committees and commissions and boards and regulatory agencies and authorities ad nauseam, to hold hearings and inquiries and publish findings, reports and recommendations and, at will, withhold licenses, permits, exemptions and releases so that in the end, our principal and ultimate, and probably our most durable national manufactured product will be paper: a glorious end for our magnificent forest heritage!
Thirdly, the heavy burden of taxation effectively discourages those who would erect structures of an unusual character from investing their time and treasure in such luxuries because they are unlikely to produce enough to provide an adequate return on investment.
The result is evident in our cities: the monolithic office buildings containing hundreds of thousands, indeed millions of square feet, are encased in pre-fabricated grey-concrete slabs embellished by a street number outside, and wall-to-wall carpeting inside, all aping the architectural sterilities of Moscow: Stalin Style.
These structures, praised for their utility, are the outer shells of the heritage of our generation.
It is said that they are functional; that they serve a useful purpose; that they will remain standing a long time.
Capable of More
If they do, they will generate the same kind of bemused interest in the inquisitive minds of our heirs, as we discover in the coral deposits, which are all that is left of the lives of the anonymous billions of microcosmic creatures that mindlessly produced the vast ocean barrier reefs of the Pacific.
As homo sapiens, we are capable of producing a richer, more diverse heritage than that!
But this we shall do only if the individual and his genius are held to be of higher worth than the physical collectivity of mankind—the organization, the party, the cult, the state. To answer the question, "How best may we conserve the structures and artifacts that are our heritage?", I would ask another question: "How best may we create the stuff and substance from which tomorrow’s heritage will emerge?"
If we value our heritage of the past, we must cherish the individuals who are today capable of producing the heritage of the future.
We can affirm the worth of such persons only in an environment in which the individual is highly motivated and moved to develop his strengths to the utmost of his capacity in order that he may become an educated and cultured citizen. When he has learned to express himself according to the highest standards that excellence can attain, he must be free to work and to produce in a place where merit is not penalized nor success filched or taxed away from those who have achieved it.
It demands a recognition that beauty is more necessary to life than safety, and invention is more vital to society than security.
It requires an acceptance of the fact that a group is not an organism apart from its constituent individuals. A group has no brain or stomach of its own; it must think and feel with the brains and nerves of its members.
When a nation flourishes, it is through the success of its intellectual, artistic and political leaders.
When it declines, it is through no mystic malaise in the state, but through a failure of its citizens to assume the role of leadership in our homes and businesses, our schools and hospitals, our laboratories, fields, factories, workshops, theatres and courts.
When I speak of the need for an environment that is compatible to the creation of a great heritage, I like to believe that each age is capable of generating physical forms that will strike not only a contemporary chord that is responsive to the spirit of the times, but one that will be heard and understood far into the future.
All of this can be achieved in a society that is vigorous and robust: capable of meeting the challenges of competition in the marketplace; resourceful in adapting to changes in the sources and cost of energy; determined to resist luxury, corruption, the erosion of families and the blandishment of immorality; and determined to overwhelm the sloth of slobs with work, and to overcome the skepticism of the age with faith.
Our heritage can never flourish except through the individual who possesses these elements, and dispenses them like the gifts they are, with open hands, in his lifetime.
While the public may be interested in heritage property, it is the individual who will always be responsible for producing it.
Public policies and the law, therefore, must concern themselves, principally, with the rights and the needs of the individual in relation to property which may be, or may become a part of the inheritance of future generations.
Then, will the individual naturally come to assume his obligation to produce and preserve and perpetuate it, saying, with the Psalmist, that great riches: "are fallen unto me in pleasant places; Yea, I have a goodly heritage."