Preservation tools

The tools of heritage conservation

It has become increasingly obvious, in practice, that official heritage protection mechanisms no longer suffice. The public bodies mandated to enforce legislation have failed in their obligation to ensure the protection of our built heritage. Heritage is everyone’s concern. Often, though, the good intentions of groups or individuals are not enough. A broad strategic vision of necessary actions, combined with knowledge of the laws and mechanisms of heritage conservation, is essential to saving significant buildings or sites. The following pages provide an outline of the official tools of heritage conservation at the provincial, municipal and federal levels. We must not forget, however, that the comfort these legal tools may provide is often accompanied by a degree of concern when one sees that in reality, their enforcement leaves much to be desired.

Federal protection

The federal government does not exert control over private property as part of its heritage conservation mandate. The Department of Canadian Heritage is chiefly involved with commemoration of places and buildings of significant value in Canadian history. The Department takes advice from the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC), which was formed in 1919 and includes heritage experts representing Canada’s provinces and territories (Ontario and Quebec each have two representatives).


Commemorated buildings, sites, historic canals and natural areas (National Parks) are signified by a bronze plaque. Federal commemoration does not, however, ensure legal protection against demolition or dereliction.


As the only body empowered to oversee the property of the large railway companies, the federal government in 1990 adopted the Heritage Railway Stations Protection Act. Train stations designated as heritage by the HSMBC are protected from unauthorized modification, demolition, dereliction and changes in ownership. Only stations still owned by railway companies can be designated.


The federal government owns many heritage properties and sites across the country. Parks Canada, founded in 1911 to administer natural parks, is the body tasked with administering government-owned historic sites such as the Fur Trading Museum in Lachine or the Sir George Étienne Cartier house in Old Montreal. The development and management of the Lachine Canal is also the responsibility of Parks Canada. The Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office (FHBRO), which is also under the aegis of the Department of Canadian Heritage, is an advisory body responsible for the heritage evaluation of federal buildings and, in collaboration with other federal government departments, for ensuring enforcement of the 1982 Federal Heritage Building Policy. With the exception of Crown Corporation buildings such as post offices, all office buildings, armouries, prisons, customs houses, lighthouses and other federal buildings more than 40 years old are assessed for their heritage value.


Finally, the Government of Canada and the Department of Canadian Heritage maintain official links with the international heritage conservation movement. Among other agreements, Canada subscribes to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, which it helped draft in 1972.

Provincial protection

As one might expect, the Canadian Constitution of 1867 does not have a lot to say about culture and heritage conservation. Traditionally, culture has been part of provincial jurisdiction. In Quebec, heritage conservation has been an official concern of the government since 1922. The Cultural Property Act, enacted in 1972, gave the government powers to protect built heritage, for example by exerting a degree of control over private property.


A major review of this legislation came into effect in 2012, when the Cultural Heritage Act replaced the 1972 Cultural Property Act. The substantial changes include a broadened definition of heritage, which now includes heritage cultural landscapes, intangible heritage, and persons, events and sites of historical importance. Municipalities have greater powers, as they are seen to play an increasingly greater role in the protection and enhancement of heritage. See here (in French).


The Cultural Heritage Act provides for several protective statuses with various degrees of action relative to buildings or complexes. Those statuses are summarized on the website of the Quebec Ministry of Culture and Communications.


The Act defines various categories of heritage property, as follows:

  • Heritage immovable: an immovable property that has archeological, architectural, artistic, emblematic, ethnological, historical, landscape, scientific or technological value, in particular a building, a structure, vestiges or land;” In addition, a classified heritage immovable may have a protection area, defined as “an area surrounding a classified heritage immovable, defined by the Minister to protect the immovable;”
  • Heritage site: a place, a group of immovables or, in the case of a heritage site referred to in Section 58, a land area that is of interest for its archeological, architectural, artistic, emblematic, ethnological, historical, identity, landscape, scientific, urbanistic or technological value;”
  • Archeological property” and “archeological site”: “any property or site indicating prehistoric or historic human occupation;”
  • Heritage cultural landscape: a land area recognized by a community for its remarkable landscape features, which are the result of the interaction of natural and human factors and are worth conserving and, if applicable, enhancing because of their historical or emblematic interest, or their value as a source of identity.”


Some aspects of the workings of this legislation are of particular interest. For instance, any citizen, owner, group or municipality may make a classification or designation request by writing to the Minister of Culture and Communications in Quebec City (see Letter-writing Guide, below).


Following publication of the Minister’s notice stating its intention to classify, a heritage evaluation is undertaken by the regional office concerned.


The Minister may seek advice from the Conseil du patrimoine culturel du Québec, which has replaced the former Commission des biens culturels. The Conseil has the power to hold public hearings. The Minister has one year following the publication of the notice of intent in which to make a decision.


Once a property or site has been classified, its owner is required to preserve the heritage value (Section 26 of the Act). The Act grants to the Ministry various powers to monitor actions and work planned for such properties. Since 2012, the Act has required that a conservation plan be established for every classified heritage property and site, to ensure its preservation, rehabilitation and enhancement (Section 37).


The Ministry has created an online training module to help better understand the Cultural Heritage Act, available here (in French).

Municipal protection

In Quebec, municipalities rely mainly on two distinct types of tool for heritage conservation: the Cultural Heritage Act and the Act Respecting Land-Use Planning and Development.

In 1985, under the Cultural Property Act, which became the Cultural Heritage Act in 2012, municipalities were also accorded specific powers to manage their built heritage. They may cite heritage properties (referred to as historic monuments before the 2012 Act) or declare heritage sites. The first historic monument citation in the Greater Montreal Area was Ville Saint-Laurent Church in 1986; the first heritage site declaration in Montreal was Mount Royal in 1987 (note that in 2005, the Government of Quebec decreed a historic and natural district on Mount Royal. Under the 2012 Act, the mountain is now a declared national heritage site).

As is the case with provincial protection, any citizen, owner or group can request that a building be cited (designated) by writing to their mayor, with copies to the district’s city or borough councillor and the urban planning advisory committee. The committee—Montreal’s is called the Conseil du patrimoine de Montréal (heritage council)—then gives its opinion on the request. Note that, as of 2012, a municipal bylaw recognizing a heritage property can specify that the building’s interior is also protected.

Municipal recognition of a heritage property or site requires that the owner ensure its conservation. It allows the municipality to more tightly control work planned on the property, and to support its enhancement through technical or financial assistance. It does not require establishment of a conservation plan, but the recognized site must be identified in the municipality’s planning program as being part of a zone to be protected.

Throughout Quebec, the Act Respecting Land-Use Planning and Development governs municipal plans and bylaws, including the construction, demolition and maintenance bylaws whereby municipalities wield control over changes to their land areas.

Montreal and Quebec City are subject to a number of specific requirements and have additional powers under their respective charters. Bylaws are framed by the master plan, a long-term land-use planning tool that covers areas to be developed and facilities to be built, as well as heritage and natural sites to be preserved. Montreal’s Master Plan (in French), for example, was enacted in 1992, and updated in 2004. The 2004 Plan includes a specific objective to “preserve and enhance the built and archeological heritage” (Objective 15). A map accompanying the Plan identifies (Map 2.6.1) identifies areas of heritage value. Requests for permits concerning these areas are subject to specific study by municipal departments.

In the case of Jean-Talon Station, although the Master Plan called for public use both for the building and the site, the city administration allowed a significant exemption, and sold them for commercial use.

Every municipality is required to adopt planning bylaws covering zoning, subdivision and building, to specify permitted uses, dimensions and development of land, and building rules. The municipality decides what to include in those bylaws. They may specify that existing buildings be maintained, and therefore serve to conserve heritage. Likewise, via its zoning bylaw, a municipality can control the planting and cutting of trees.

Section 145.15 of the Act Respecting Land-Use Planning and Development also authorizes municipalities to adopt bylaws requiring that developers submit for approval plans and drawings for a proposed project that show the architecture of the building, how it is laid out, and how it will integrate into the surrounding neighbourhood. These are known as plans d’implantation et d’intégration architecturale (PIIAs). The by-law determines the objectives and criteria for approval of projects, and the land area where the PIIA applies. A PIIA allows for more rigorous study of a project, and can be used to ensure that heritage components of an existing site or building are taken into consideration. That study is undertaken by the urban planning advisory committee, prior to the decision being made by city council.

For example, the entire land areas of the Borough of Outremont and the City of Westmount have been subject to the PIIA requirement since 1992 and 1995 respectively.

Sections 148.01 to 148.0.25 govern municipalities’ jurisdiction over demolition of buildings on their territories. It is important to understand the process leading to the awarding of a demolition permit, which differs from that for a construction permit.

In Montreal, for example, the demolition bylaw (No. CA-24-007) calls for a notice period so that citizens can contest a proposed demolition before a decision committee, as well as an arbitration process whereby anyone who is not satisfied—either the person who applied for the permit or someone who contested it—can appeal the committee’s decision before the borough or city council.

Note as well that since 2004, municipalities have had increased powers to demand maintenance of and repairs to decrepit or dilapidated buildings (Act Respecting Land-Use Planning and Development, Section 145.41; e.g., City of Montreal, Bylaw 07-034 – Bylaw Concerning Building Maintenance), in addition to their existing powers over building sanitation and maintenance (e.g., City of Montreal, Bylaw 03-096 – Bylaw Concerning the Sanitation and Maintenance of Dwelling Units).

Municipalities often lack the financial, technical and professional resources to properly monitor heritage conservation. As the case of the Saint-lsidore convent—a historic monument cited by the City of Montreal in 1990 and demolished on June 6, 1996, against the recommendation of its advisory committee—demonstrates, public authorities are not obligated to accept committee advice.

Due to a lack of political will, property owners’ rights supersede the collective interest. Furthermore, the absence of planning measures and of public consultation mechanisms is harmful to heritage, because proposals are examined piecemeal. Despite all of this, the local level is still the place where citizens can have the greatest effect—by, for example, asking their city or borough councillor to intervene. The heritage conservation tools described above, city and borough councillors, community groups and local newspapers are all powerful means for building engagement.