21 February 2017

Centennial Building's inclusion as Canada 150 project challenged

Saint John MLA says New Brunswick Museum has more national significance and needs money just as badly

By Jacques Poitras, CBC News

New Brunswick's tourism minister is defending the labelling of an office building renovation in downtown Fredericton as a Canada 150 project.

But the Progressive Conservative Opposition says the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John is far more important to the country's history — and needs the money just as badly.

The issue came up Tuesday when Tourism, Heritage and Culture Minister John Ames was explaining his departmental spending plans to a committee of the legislature.

A $76 million renovation of Fredericton's Centennial Building, including a new courthouse attached to the structure, is featured prominently on the province's Canada 150 website.

Built in 1967

Ames said labelling it as a Canada 150 project was warranted because the building was completed in 1967, the year Canada turned 100.

"The Centennial Building was one of a number of initiatives that was done in partnership with the federal government and had a certain place of pride and history within the province and the country at that time," he said.

But PC MLA Trevor Holder, a former tourism, heritage and culture minister, said he wasn't persuaded.

"I get its modern importance in terms of a more recent story," he said. "I'm just not so sure I get the part of being of national significance in terms of celebrating our country's 150th anniversary."

Ames said none of his department's $5 million Canada 150 fund is being spent on the building renovation, nor is any of the $9.1 million in his capital budget.

The Centennial renovation is being funded by the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.

Still, Ames justified the expense in heritage terms.

"I am proud to see we're going to continue to see its importance and its relevance in the heritage community," he said.

"I realize there could be some interpretation, if you will, on how we designated heritage properties," he added, but "there's a movement across the entire country to protect modern vessels such as the Centennial Building."

In January, Fredericton author and architect John LeRoux called the structure "without question one of the most important 20th-century buildings in New Brunswick. It's hard for a lot of people to see that, but it is."

Museum needs new home

Holder said he respected LeRoux's expertise but if historical and national significance is a factor, the Liberals should be pushing to find a new home for the New Brunswick Museum collections on Douglas Avenue in Saint John.

"This is Canada's oldest continuing museum," Holder said. "This is clearly an institution that not only protects and celebrates our history and heritage going forward … it's also a very significant part of our place in the Canadian Confederation."

Engineers determined in 2012 that the roof of the Douglas Avenue building might only have five years of life left, endangering the large collection of historical documents housed there.

Those documents include the letters and papers of many prominent Confederation-era New Brunswick political figures.

Holder said if projects are being justified with the Canada 150 label, then the museum should rank higher than the Centennial Building.

"I have some real concerns when we have an office building in downtown Fredericton that's five years older than me … that the current government has prioritized under Canada 150 money," he said.

"And Canada's oldest continuing museum that happens to be in our province is out there twisting in the wind, and we don't have a plan, and we don't have any money in this year's budget."

Museum project stalled

The previous Progressive Conservative government issued a request for proposals in 2014 for a new facility, but the project has stalled.

One reason was concern in Saint John that an expansion on the current site would intrude on a park established to commemorate Canada's role in the Boer War.

Ames wouldn't comment on where things stand with the museum project because it comes under the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.

He said the province hoped to have a solution in the coming year.

"We don't have that solution today."

Holder said the exhibition part of the museum, at Market Square in Saint John, also needs a new home.

"It's housed in a property that was designed for a food hall in a mall in the early '80s," he said.