June 23rd, 2024

Volunteers tackle vandalism to historic plaques

By Justin Sibbet - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on May 29, 2024.

Herald photo by Justin Sibbet Edwin Knox scrubs the face of a plaque dedicated to the first coal mine in Alberta during a restoration workshop at Galt Gardens on Tuesday morning.

LETHBRIDGE HERALDjsibbet@lethbridgeherald.com

A plaque commemorating a resident’s deeds from years past is now covered in scratches and graffiti – this is what is being fought by volunteers across the country.

The Parks Heritage Conservation Society is made up of more than 50 volunteers. Their goal is to clean, restore and inspect historic plaques in Canada.

Edwin Knox, a former long-time employee with Parks Canada, has recently joined the Conservation Society to help maintain approximately 40 plaques in southern Alberta. This task sends the Pincher Creek resident to locations such as Waterton, Lethbridge and areas just south of Calgary.

He says it is an important job and he is happy to be involved.

“It’s a wonderful program from coast to coast to coast in Canada,” said Knox while at a plaque restoration workshop in Galt Gardens on Tuesday. He says it gives residents and tourists an opportunity to learn about the events and people from the communities each plaque is located in.

“It gives us time for reflection on history and gives us a good sense of where we are and what went on in these areas,” said Knox.

Unfortunately, he says outright theft of the plaques is also an issue the society is currently dealing with.

“It’s a very sad situation when you see that happen.”

Bob Weaver, vice president of the Parks Heritage Conservation Society, says the problem is considerably worse in southern Alberta than the rest of Canada.

“A lot of monuments, especially in Calgary, are sitting vacant. It’s not a good situation,” said Weaver. “So we’re glad to see this right here,” he added, gesturing toward a plaque in Galt Gardens, “although it is vandalized.”

For 22 years, Weaver has volunteered with the Conservation Society and he says, in that time, vandalism has not significantly increased, providing a minor silver lining. However, he says the number of stolen plaques is increasing.

“It just seems to be in south-central Alberta. We haven’t really seen (thefts) in other areas,” said Weaver.

While stolen plaques cannot be restored, damaged and vandalized ones can be. Weaver says the amount of effort is quite considerable, when taking into account the workers are all unpaid volunteers.

“You’re probably on site (working on a single plaque) for an hour and a half.”

According to estimates by Knox, three or four plaques can be completed in a single day, with a goal to return to each plaque every five years.

A certain level of vandalism and theft is believed to be motivated by a distain for the wording of older plaques. Matt Nodge, partnering, engagement and communications officer with Parks Canada’s Waterton Lakes field unit, says the history portrayed on the plaques may not line up with popular modern ideologies, but they can still be important.

“Commemoration is not necessarily celebration,” said Nodge. “(Plaques) identify the important points of Canadian history, pivotal moments, both negative and positive.”

He says the Historical Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) ensures all cultural backgrounds are considered when approving new plaques or reviewing older ones.

“I’m very proud to work with Indigenous communities and Canadians of all backgrounds to commemorate our shared history,” said Nodge.

He says there is currently a review of certain plaques across Canada.

“(HSMBC) is looking at things like colonial assumptions, potentially harmful or hurtful problematic language.”

No matter the challenges facing the various organizations that work to keep Canada’s history alive, Weaver says he is happy to see them expanding into new provinces all the time.

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