When the Friends of Fort George was organized in 1987, Erika and Jim Alexander were happy to be onboard.
They have scaled back their activities, due to COVID-19 and retirement, but their influence during the early days continues to have an impact on the organization as it celebrates its 35th anniversary.
Their son Peter was already a volunteer member of the Fife and Drum Corps, and the Alexanders spent a lot of time at summer events. They had developed friendships that made them aware of potential opportunities to support the fort, says Jim, and it seemed a natural progression when Parks Canada started looking for local community members to become more involved, not just at Fort George, but across Canada in other national parks and historic sites.
“A bunch of things came together at the same time,” says Erika. “Parks Canada was looking for community involvement, and we had become friends with Dan Glenney (then Chief of Visitors’ Activities at Fort George National Historic Site).” Glenney and Walter Haldorson, fort superintendent at the time, approached Jim, who jumped at the chance to help, and Erika also became involved.
Parks Canada had found itself in a situation where it could no longer apply for grants to support a federal student employment program, which staffed interpreters at its national historic sites across the country.
For a few years, the Queenston-Lewiston Rotary Club applied for the grants on behalf of the fort, says Jim. But the permanent solution for historic sites across Canada was to invite community members to form Friends organizations to partner with the agency. “And we’ve been doing that for 35 years, allowing us to run the program for Parks Canada,” says Jim.
Erika says some years they had money to hire six to eight students, others up to 15 — they didn’t always receive a grant — but over the years have had about 300 students go through the program, some who went on to forge careers with Parks Canada.
The Friends organization also gave them the opportunity to organize the many events locals and visitors were accustomed to enjoying pre-pandemic, and expect to again, such as Canada Day festivities, the New Year’s Day levee, military demonstrations and others which for 35 years have been organized by Friends of Fort George volunteers.
During much of that time, the Alexanders both had “regular jobs,” says Erika — Jim says he probably should have spent less time as a volunteer and more time on his day job, as a cabinet maker and expert on the restoration of homes. He’s making up for time he should have spent on their own home now, he adds.
Erika was eventually hired by the board as executive director, which put her in charge of the gift shop, a job she loved, and Jim became an ad hoc director on the Friends’ board of directors, together moving forward in the same direction as programs at the fort expanded.
They credit a large number of dedicated members of the board for travelling that journey with them. “We all enjoyed what we were doing, we enjoyed each other’s company, and we had a lot of fun,” says Jim.
As the group celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, the Alexanders may have stepped back in their role, but for more than three decades, the Friends organization, with a mandate to support Parks Canada for the protection, preservation, development and interpretation of the Niagara’s national historic sites, played a significant part in their lives.
“After all those years of working seven days a week, we’re enjoying having a little more time to ourselves now,” says Erika. Their involvement in organizing special events and administrative work, much of it done together, “was all-encompassing for a long time.”
Tony Chisholm, president of the Friends for the last five years, says the group is hoping to get fundraising and events back on track, after so much was put on hold for two years. On the list of events he mentions are in-person historic dinners, some level of Canada Day festivities, and an opportunity to show off Fort Mississauga, which has recently been restored. But discussions are just beginning, and they are in the very early stages of working out the details of what they can do.
He’s already spoken to Catherine O’Donnell of Willow Cakes & Pastries, to see if she’s onboard for making the Canada Day cake and being part of the cake walk, the parade along Queen Street, and received a resounding yes. “That doesn’t mean we’re necessarily going to have a cake walk, but it’s a starting point for discussions,” he says.
While it’s a challenge organizing events quickly, “every charity must be going through the same thing,” says Chisholm.
He credits the early Friends members for laying the groundwork for many of their activities, and Erika Alexander in particular for taking on the grant program to hire summer students. It helps the Friends to know they can hire some students this summer, he says — students who will be more important than ever as they try to staff fort programs when it reopens in May. “Erika was very helpful in getting the Friends on a firm financial basis. A lot of Friends groups formed around the same time didn’t survive.”
Niagara-on-the-Lake is a special community, steeped in Canada’s founding history, says Amanda Gamble, who is now the executive director of the Friends organization.
It was the site of the first capital of Upper Canada, saw many battles throughout the War of 1812, and played a crucial role in training soldiers during the First and Second World Wars. “Canadian contributions to these world-changing events led to the creation of a number of national historic sites, many of which are located right here in our community. We are fortunate that Parks Canada administers many of these historic sites in Niagara, but about 40 years ago, they realized that they needed some grass roots support to get Canadians even more involved in the protection, preservation and presentation of these special places,” she says.
Niagara’s national historic sites include Fort George, Brock’s Monument, Butler’s Barracks, Fort Mississauga, Lakeshore properties, and the Military Reserve known as The Commons.
“Over the past 35 years,” says Gamble, “the Friends have developed a worldwide membership base with over 200 active members, and have a dedicated volunteer corps where community members come together to raise awareness and support Niagara’s national historic sites.”
In addition to the successful summer employment program, the Friends raise funds through the gift shops at Fort George and Brock’s Monument, the interpretive programming at Brock’s Monument, the Fort George Ghost Tours, and many special events, she says.
“We are looking forward to bringing back many of our educational programs and special events for the 2022 season.”
The Friends is looking for new members to support its mandate, she says, and membership perks include a discount in the gift shop, free admission at Brock’s Monument, advance notice of special events and more.
For more information visit www.friendsoffortgeorge.ca or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Friends of Fort George are currently accepting applications for students interested in working in the squad, the gift shop, and Brock’s Monument. For more information on available positions, visit www.friendsoffortgeorge.ca
Or consider becoming a member of the Friends of Fort George for the 2022 season, at www.friends