The Niagara Foundation, which annually recognizes individuals who have contributed to the reservation of heritage and cultural landscape, has taken a different approach with its 2020 award.
“In this unusual year, the board of The Niagara Foundation, led by president Michael Howe, decided it would be most appropriate to recognize the resilient and co-operative spirit of all citizens of Niagara-on-the-Lake who strive to live in unity as one unique community,” says a recent announcement from the foundation.
The decision of the foundation “is consistent with” this year’s National Trust Prince of Wales award to the town, which also recognizes the work that’s been done in the past, and gives credit to all efforts of all the townspeople who have put their efforts into preservation, says Brad Nixon, vice-president of the foundation.
It too celebrates the town’s sustained commitment to heritage conservation over time.
Like the National Trust prize, the foundation’s Living Landmark Award recognizes the many preservation projects and all those who put their efforts into preservation, past and present, says Nixon.
“In both cases they’re recognizing the work people have done in the past, and the way the town and the people have come together to support so many projects.”
The foundation, like other organizations, has been unable to hold its traditional events, such as its customary three summer parties, but the lack of fundraising won’t hamper any of their ongoing initiatives, he says.
Chief amongst those at the moment is the effort to purchase what is known locally as the Wilderness, five and a half acres of heavily wooded property that stretches between King Street and Regent Street in the heart of the Old Town.
The purchase, which has been in the works for more than two years, remains in litigation, says Nixon, partly due to a slow-down in court proceedings during the COVID pandemic, but mainly because of the number of parties involved, and an inability to come to an agreement over the value of the property.
“We’ve asked and tried to get before the court to resolve this,” says Nixon, adding it’s impossible to estimate a timeline for accomplishing that goal.
The property is now in the hands of two estates, with the holdup caused by parties who “can’t agree on how the property is to be dealt with,” says Nixon.
The foundation has a signed offer with the estate of Ruth Parker, one of the two deceased sisters who owned the property. The hold-up is on the portion owned by Parker’s sister Fran McKay, and passed down to become the estate of McKay’s daughter Kea Reid, who died in 2016.
“The Parker estate sale could go ahead,” says Nixon, but the McKay estate is being delayed because the price tag that has been put on it represents a value of the property if it could be developed. Foundation members maintain development on that property is not realistic.
“We’re looking at the existence of a conservation easement to protect One Mile Creek, that covers about 40 per cent of the property,” he says, “and we’re also mindful of a municipal heritage bylaw designation of the property.”
The Town designated the Wilderness a heritage property in 1994, including the land and the exterior and interior of the house on the site, as well as the carriage house and the archaeological remains.
No one can “change the use or character of the property” without permission from the Ontario Heritage Trust, says Nixon.
The foundation wants to purchase the property, rich in historical significance, to protect and preserve it from development.
“We see the significance of the property and want it protected,” says Nixon.
The buildings on the property are 200 years old, and also worthy of saving, he says. “They have a lot of heritage value, and some of the huge, mature trees on the property have cultural value.”
The property was once the home of William Claus, deputy superintendent of the Indian Department and one of the three trustees of the Six Nations. The Wilderness was originally given by the Six Nations Indians to Mr. Claus’ wife Nancy Johnson “in token of her many deeds of kindness.”
Her father Sir William Johnson negotiated the Treaty of Niagara with 24 Indigenous nations in 1764. The treaty formed the basis for the original treaty relationship between Indigenous peoples and settlers in Eastern North America, says a Niagara Foundation description of the property they hope to preserve.
Sir William Johnson met with more than 2,000 chiefs from all of eastern North America in Niagara in 1764 to negotiate the treaty. It was considered the high point of colonial relations with Indigenous peoples. It was specifically conceived as a treaty of sharing of the land, not conquest.
The question to be settled by the court remains the value of the property today.
The foundation is not going to pay for development potential they believe does not exist, with the levels of protection on the property, says Nixon.
“We believe we have the law on our side, but the court rules.”
In the meantime, although fundraising opportunities have been limited, the goal of the foundation members has not changed. “It’s full steam ahead.”
Living Landmark Awards from previous years are: 2006, Gerry Wooll and Norm Howe; 2007, Donald Combe; 2008, Calvin Rand; 2009, John Walker; 2010, Joy Ormsby; 2011, Christopher Newton; 2012 , Peter Stokes; 2013, Jim Smith; 2014, Debi Pratt; 2015
Gary Burroughs; 2016, Norma Jean Lowrey and Blair Harber; 2017, Dr. Richard Merritt; 2018, Judy MacLachlan; and 2019, Gracia Janes.