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Canada's Cultural Landscapes

Canada's Cultural landscapes: A Look at the Interaction between Humans and their Environment


Browsing the Canadian Register of Historic Places (CRHP), you are likely to come across places designated as historic districts, or cultural landscapes, which often comprise several natural and manmade features as part of the designation.  This article is meant as a brief introduction and overview of cultural landscapes in Canada; to learn more, please consult the list of suggested links included below.

Over the past three decades, the concept of cultural landscapes has become an approach embraced in the fields of cultural geography, architecture, planning, historical research, and in other related professions for understanding people's relationship with nature.  Well beyond simply comprehending this interaction, the heritage conservation field has adopted the cultural landscape approach as a practical tool for proactively and respectfully managing significant historic landscapes which are meaningful to particular groups, cultures, or populations.  The value of this method for protecting the character of a defined landscape lies in its potential to integrate multiple perspectives about a place, bring together many different stakeholders as well as acknowledge the traditional methods of stewardship which best promote sustainable land-use practices.

No fixed universal definition of cultural landscapes exists.  In general, though, the application of this concept consists of two elements: the geographical location (landscape), a real, tangible place; and the impressions, beliefs, and rituals (cultural) associated with that place.  Cultural landscapes can vary in size ranging from a street to an entire town, to a vast migration corridor.  Identifying a cultural landscape is to recognize the complex relationship humans had or continue to have with the places they create and occupy.

The Forges du Saint-Maurice National Historic Site of Canada near Trois-Rivières, Quebec, is one such complex recognized as a cultural landscape because of its initial development and Forges du Saint Maurice, Parks Canada / Forges-du-Saint-Maurice, Parcs Canadasubsequent evolution as an early industrial commune within a well-defined natural environment.  The forge was established under the French Regime in 1730 and contributed to the production of iron for the French colony.  Although the original activity of the place has long since ended, the remaining physical and natural features nevertheless demonstrate how humans adapted the region's topography to their requirements.

Unlike the relic landscape of the Forge du Saint-Maurice, the cultural landscape of the town of Tilting on Fogo Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, is still active and continually evolving.  This town was designated because it expresses the adoption of nineteenth century Irish land settlement patterns together with the continued use of traditional Tilting, Parks Canada / Tilting, Parcs Canadalandscape components both designed, like gardens, barns, and pathways, as well as natural features: the harbour and shoreline, the rough and sloping terrain, ponds, etc.  Tilting (a place) is thus a cultural landscape where the relationship between human activities (or rituals) associated with a particular tradition, in this case the maritime fishery industry, is still practiced and deeply understood by residents.

Cultural landscapes can also be associative where the presence of material remains may be minimal or altogether imperceptible.  In Canada, these types of historic places are generally, but not exclusively, related to Aboriginal heritage.  Parks Canada, the federal heritage conservation agency, has proposed that an Aboriginal cultural landscape is valued by Aboriginal people "because of their long and complex relationship with that land. It expresses their unity with the natural and spiritual environment. It embodies their traditional knowledge of spirits, places, land uses, and ecology."  One such Fall Caribou Crossing, Parks Canada / Passage-de-Caribous-en-Automne, Parcs Canadaexample is Fall Caribou Crossing National Historic Site, Baker Lake, Nunavut, where, for generations, the Inuit have used the land for seasonal hunting.  Oral histories and beliefs linked with this territory have equally become integrated within the Inuit worldview.  Accordingly, recognizing and appreciating these traditional customs and beliefs linked with the land can inform future decisions impacting the conservation of that place's values.

A cultural landscape approach not only supports the way we care for our cultural environment but it also contributes to understanding  the formation of local and national identities.  Grand-Pré, Nova Scotia, is one such place with cultural meaning extending far beyond its physical boundaries.  Acknowledged as the heart of Acadian culture, Grand-Pré is not only a location; it is equally an idea.  Acadian descendants, whose ancestors were deported from Nova Scotia in 1755, maintain very strong ties to this region for its symbolic associations to their sense of Acadian identity and many undertake pilgrimages to connect with their cultural roots.  The Acadian spirit continues to live in the art and literature of that culture as well as manifests itself in the landscape of Grand-Pré with tangible memorials. Ceremonies at the Dedication of New Acadian Church, August 1922, Grand Pré, LAC PA-031296 / Cérémonie de désignation devant une chapelle construite dans un parc commémoratif à la mémoire des Acadiens, août 1922, BAC PA-031296.

Incorporating at the same time physical and imagined attributes, cultural landscapes allow us to recognize the interaction between humans and their surroundings and provide a framework for managing the spirit of place.  Although it is undeniable that places are in constant evolution, in order to sustain the character of the places we hold dear it is important to first understand what makes them treasured then develop a plan to manage the natural and cultural resources which contribute to the values associated with the place. 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:
An Approach to Aboriginal Cultural Landscapes, Parks Canada (www.pc.gc.ca/docs/r/pca-acl/index.aspx)
Cultural landscapes and the UNESCO World Heritage Convention (http://whc.unesco.org/en/culturallandscape/)
International Scientific Community on Cultural Landscapes (www.icomos.org/landscapes/)
Mechtild Rossler, "World Heritage Cultural Landscapes," The George Wright Forum, 17(1), 1 (2000), pp. 27-34. (www.georgewright.org/171rossler.pdf)

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