When visitors flock to Fort George each year to partake in the Canada Day festivities at the national historic site, in addition to enjoying military demonstrations, great food and fireworks, they see the positive difference that a dedicated group of hard-working volunteers can make in a community.
That group – the Friends of Fort George – was formed 33 years ago, when Dan Glenney, then chief of visitors’ activities at the fort, and Walter Haldorson, fort superintendent at the time, approached Glenney’s good friend Jim Alexander with an invitation. Parks Canada had been advised it could no longer take advantage of a federal student employment program to staff animator and interpreter positions at its national historic sites. It came up with an innovative and community-focussed response to the problem, by inviting local communities across the country to form friends’ organizations and partner with the agency in the protection, preservation and presentation of Canada’s national historic sites.
Jim and his wife Erika Alexander responded to Glenney’s invitation with gusto. The first step was to get the Queenston-Lewiston Rotary Club involved. For two years, thanks to Jim’s determination, the club provided the funding needed to keep Fort George’s summer student program going, 454533with seasonal animators and interpreters hired to tell the fort’s history as well as to demonstrate drills and other military activities dressed in authentic uniforms.
Jim, Erika and a group of like-minded individuals used those two years to gain not-for-profit status for a new organization – the Friends of Fort George – and to work out the terms of a memorandum of understanding with Parks Canada. Under that agreement, the friends took over the hiring and recruitment process for the fort’s summer student program. Since then, more than 330 young men and women have been employed and trained as animators through the efforts of the friends, including nine hired to work at Fort George in 2019, three at Brock’s Monument and two in the Friends of Fort George gift shop.
“That’s the most important thing we did – employing those kids,” said Jim.
But the Friends of Fort George went the extra mile.
The friends took on the funding and organization of several key events in Niagara-on-the-Lake and at Fort George from Parks Canada, including the annual Canada Day festivities and the New Year’s Day levee, both traditional events favoured by locals At the time, the main attraction in NOTL on Canada Day was an afternoon barbecue at Simcoe Park. The friends soon added a pancake breakfast in the park to the Canada Day roster of activities. As the popularity of both events grew, they asked the NOTL Rotary Club to partner with them. A few years ago, the club took on the responsibility for running the breakfast and barbecue, allowing the friends to concentrate on the Canada Day events on offer at Fort George.
Today, Canada Day at Fort George features an evening barbecue, music (including performances by Parks Canada’s fife and drum band), amazing fireworks, fun activities for children, military demonstrations and more.
The friends pay for and organize the majority of events held at the fort on Canada Day, drawing on revenues generated through the Friends of Fort George gift shop, the afternoon barbeque and municipal funding grants that they apply for each year. They also apply for federal funding, if it’s available, and seek corporate as well as private donations. In addition, the friends obtain insurance coverage and obtain all necessary permits.
Parks Canada also contributes in a major way, providing free admission to the fort on Canada Day, presenting the history of the site, offering demonstrations and activities for children, and staging performances by its fife and drum band throughout the afternoon and evening.
The partnership between the friends and Parks Canada is a close one, not only on Canada Day but throughout the year.
“It’s a fantastic relationship,” said Peter Martin, a special events coordinator with Parks Canada.
The students hired by the friends bring Fort George to life, he said, offering the people who come to the fort a much better visitor experience.
One of the best examples of the special relationship between the friends and Parks Canada may be the friend’s gift shop. It’s an important revenue generator for the friends, helping them to pay for the summer students they hire, as well as for the special events they hold at the fort and Navy Hall. Stocking items that visitors will buy is critical to the shop’s success. But the shop is also a focal point of the visitor experience, which makes it equally important to stock items that appropriately reflect the military history of the fort and Niagara society in the early 19th century.
Initially, says Amanda Gamble, executive director of the Friends of Fort George, “Parks Canada provided knowledgeable staff to help us determine the appropriateness of an item and if a similar product would have existed at the time – tin lanterns, pottery, chinaware and toys, for example.”
Today, the gift shop offers a wide range of books related to the War of 1812, in addition to a good selection of unique gift items that include children’s toys, cookbooks, clothing, hats and much, much more. The friends also operate a small gift shop at Brock’s Monument on Queenston Heights.
The friends’ dedication to the preservation, protection and presentation of Canada’s historic sites is not limited to Fort George and Brock’s Monument, however. It’s also raised funds to help restore the Junior Commissariat Officer’s Quarters at Butler’s Barracks National Historic Site of Canada as well as Fort Mississauga. Notably, this year the friends prepared breakfast for the 400 re-enactors who participated in the Battle of Fort George staged at the fort in July.
“We couldn’t have done it without the friends,” said Martin
It was the same several years ago, when Parks Canada needed new uniforms for its Fort George animators. The friends took on the challenge and got them made.
Currently, the Friends of Fort George has more than 200 members. Several volunteer their time and cooking skills to the Canada Day barbecue at the fort. Others have initiated a period cooking program in the officers’ kitchen to help enhance the heritage experience of visitors to the fort, baking cookies and pies as well as making ice cream.
In addition to the opportunity to volunteer, members also receive free admission to the fort, a 15 per cent discount in the gift shops at Fort George and Brock’s Monument, and a subscription to the friends’ newsletter On Parade, as well as other perks.
For most, however, the biggest membership benefit is likely knowing they are contributing to the mandate of the friends: “To support Parks Canada for the protection, preservation, development and interpretation of the historical resources and stories of national significance of Niagara national historic sites which include Fort George, Brock’s Monument, Butler’s Barracks, Fort Mississauga, Lakeshore properties and the Military Reserve, known as The Commons.”
For Erika, however, it’s also seeing what the experience of working as a summer student at Fort George has meant to the young people hired as animators.
“Kids we hired 30 years ago still come back. They all speak with pride about being here,” she said.
Martin seconded that, noting that many animators say their experience working at Fort George has helped them in their careers and enhanced their communication skills. But for him, the best part of working at the fort may be seeing the reaction of the visitors who walk through its gates.
After the last battle staged during the recent re-enactment at the fort, he overheard a child saying: “That was so cool.”
“That made the weekend for me,” said Martin.
For Tony Chisholm, the president of the Friends of Fort George, one of the biggest benefits is being able to communicate with Parks Canada and the local community. He’s proud that the friends are trusted and respected as partners by the agency.
For Gamble, it’s “knowing you’re part of presenting the history of wonderful historic places.”
Jim, now an ad hoc director on the friends’ board of directors, goes one step further, noting that the Friends of Fort George has been a source of volunteers over the years for many other key events in Niagara-on-the-Lake, such as the bicentennial celebrations, and the re-enactment of the battle of Queenston Heights. He particularly notes that one of the organization’s members, a physicist, undertook a seven-year constructed wetland in cold climate project with Parks Canada.
For him, volunteering has been about meeting people, gathering together, determining a purpose, and going out and doing it. People are drawn to the friends out of a desire to protect, preserve and present the fort, he said. And Jim should know. He’s been doing it for more than 30 years.
Upcoming events at Fort George
Echoes of Niagara’s Past: A Military Timeline Event
Fort George and the Lincoln and Welland Regimental Museum commemorate over 200 years of Niagara’s military history. A special event rate applies. For more information, call Parks Canada at 905-468-6614.
Battle of Queenston Heights Commemoration
The Friends of Fort George and Parks Canada commemorate the 207th anniversary of the Battle of Queenston Heights and the death of Major General Sir Isaac Brock. Brock’s Monument National Historic Site will be open from 10a.m. to 5 p.m. Take a guided tour of the battle site, and climb the 235 steps to the top of Brock’s Monument and enjoy the scenic view of Queenston Heights and the Niagara River. Call 905-468-6621 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Beefsteak Society Dinner
The Friends of Fort George host a special fundraiser dinner fashioned after the popular Sublime Beefsteak Society of England, which came to symbolize patriotic and liberal concepts of prosperity. The evening includes a steak dinner, live music, an auction and entertainment.Tickets must be purchased in advance as seating is limited. Call 905-468-6621 or email email@example.com for more information.