The Ontario Historical Society (OHS) was founded in 1888 by eight local historical societies, and is a provincial non-government, non-partisan, not-for-profit corporation and registered charity with a mandate to preserve and promote Ontario’s history. In 1899, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario granted the OHS the unique legal authority, with related responsibilities, to incorporate historical organizations in the Province of Ontario through affiliation with the OHS.
The Society’s membership includes individuals and families, life members, and over 500 affiliated societies, organizations, and institutions across Ontario. With 95% of its members located outside of the City of Toronto, the OHS is a provincial, educational organization with a network of community volunteers living and working in all regions of Ontario. Since 1888, the OHS has been granted vice-regal patronage by all 29 Lieutenant-Governors of Ontario. One of our most recent member organizations is the Ontario Association of Former Parliamentarians.
The OHS provincial headquarters is located in Willowdale, North York, at a complex of historic buildings: the John McKenzie House (built 1913), Milk House (1907), Stable (1912), and Coach House (1918). In 1992, the OHS successfully fought to stop the demolition of all these buildings, and subsequently restored and had the property designated under the Ontario Heritage Act. In 2013 the OHS completed negotiations for a heritage conservation easement on the John McKenzie House site and surrounding property, to be held between the City of Toronto and the Ontario Heritage Trust.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, there has been an unprecedented downloading and divestment of heritage buildings and properties by all levels of government and their agencies (eg. conservation authorities), and private institutions such as churches. These divestments include lighthouses, train stations, schoolhouses, logging mills, churches, cemeteries, archives, museums, natural heritage landscapes, etc. These assets are then downloaded onto volunteer historical organizations incorporated by the OHS. This trend of divestment has been exacerbated by the 2020-2022 pandemic (see Appendix A: OHS Incorporations March 2020 – November 2022).
Where some might see these heritage properties as liabilities, the OHS and its membership see them as invaluable financial and cultural assets which enhance local tourism potential and economic development. These volunteer, not-for-profit corporations are now struggling with the enormous financial responsibilities associated with protecting our heritage properties. These costs include insurance, long-term capital expenditures for restoration, annual maintenance, and repairs. A few historical organizations that have assumed ownership or long-term lease agreements in order to restore and safeguard heritage properties for the public benefit are also responsible for property taxes.
Economic Importance of Heritage Designation
Preservation and promotion of local history and heritage is essential for economic development, tourism, and the health of viable communities in Ontario.
Designation under the Ontario Heritage Act is an important economic tool for our not-for-profit membership, empowering them to raise the necessary capital funds to restore and maintain the heritage assets in their communities. Designation of these heritage assets also helps our volunteer-run organizations to obtain and maintain charitable tax status with Revenue Canada, which is critical for fundraising. Designations for heritage buildings can greatly increase the public profile and visibility of our member organizations, helping them to raise money from the public and private sectors. Given the financial implications and economic demand placed on our organizations, it is essential that the existing tools in our heritage toolkit, like designation, are strengthened, not weakened.
The Value of Cemeteries to the Peoples of Ontario
Ontario’s Cemeteries are unique repositories of human history and the resting places of human remains and associated artifacts like grave markers, tombstones, and monuments. They are also crucially important elements of our collective heritage, a priceless historical record of the past, and witnesses to the continuity of life in Ontario. Many of Ontario’s Cemeteries contain significant ecological features which are invaluable to the natural heritage of Ontario. The OHS maintains that the following four principles are fundamental entitlements for all the peoples of Ontario:
- the sanctity of the deceased is paramount to all other concerns;
- the deceased have a right to rest in peace in the tradition and custom of their religion;
- common human dignity must be respected;
- the living must be responsible for the care of the deceased;
It is in the public interest that Ontario’s cemeteries be protected, preserved, and maintained in their original locations.
The OHS first became concerned about the protection and maintenance of pioneer cemeteries in Ontario early in the 20th century, when it became apparent that many of them had fallen into a dilapidated state. The Society first urged its many local member societies to pressure local authorities and arouse public interest and concern about their care. When efforts for local reform failed, the OHS lobbied Queen’s Park for legislation to protect cemeteries and finally, in 1927, a Cemetery Act was introduced. That first Act needed strengthening and again, after persistent lobbying by the OHS, the Act was improved, and by 1932 action had been taken in over half of the counties in Ontario to preserve its historic cemeteries and burial sites.
Under regulations of the current Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act, 2002, the OHS must be given notice if a cemetery owner or operator intends to close (relocate) a cemetery. The OHS then has the right to make a submission to the registrar, on whether closure is in the public interest, and if the OHS disagrees with the registrar, we have the right to appeal to a tribunal.
In 1995 the OHS appealed the first Provincial Order that it was in the public interest to dig up and move the Clendennen Cemetery in Markham for real estate development. The Provincial Appeal Tribunal took place from November 27, 1995 to July 30, 1997. It was the first time such a case had ever been heard in the Province of Ontario.
During these lengthy Appeal Hearings, two critical issues emerged: First, the applicants for cemetery closure argued that there were no important, prominent people buried in the Clendennen Cemetery. On behalf of the OHS membership and the public interest, the Society argued that everyone’s history in Ontario is important and must be defended and preserved.
Secondly, the Province, the Town of Markham and the developer vigorously opposed full participation in the hearing by the Clendennen descendants. The OHS argued that at a public hearing on the public interest it was in the public interest to hear testimony from family members. After a lengthy adjournment, The Tribunal ruled that Harold Clendennen, a dairy farmer from Hampton, could testify as a witness. In a memorable moment Harold turned to the three Hearing Officers and said, “My family is against relocating it…the cemetery was there first….once a cemetery, always a cemetery.”
It took 19 months for the Tribunal’s three Hearing Officers to write and release their decision on the public interest. The Tribunal ruled in favour of the OHS in April 1999: “The Tribunal has concluded that the procedure followed by the Registrar, Ontario Cemeteries Act, was not correct… and that closing (moving) the Clendennen Cemetery was not in the public interest.” The OHS had to privately raise over $100,000 for the appeal opposing the Province of Ontario, the Town of Markham, and the real estate developer. The OHS subsequently established a Cemetery Defence Fund which is supported annually by charitable donations and the investment income from the Estate of Dr. Jean Burnet Cemetery Trust Fund.
In 2006, the OHS first became aware of the Cooley-Hatt Cemetery in Ancaster, within the City of Hamilton. Despite the cemetery’s appearance in many official municipal documents, the Province declared it an “unapproved” cemetery and allowed the land to be purchased for real-estate development. In light of this risk, the OHS worked with Jim Brownell, former MPP for Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry, to craft the private members bill, Bill 149, Inactive Cemeteries Protection Act, 2009, that sought to extend protection from development to all inactive cemeteries in Ontario, and which received full party support at the second reading on March 12, 2009 (see Appendix B: Bill 149, Inactive Cemeteries Protection Act, 2009). Regrettably, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario was prorogued before Bill 149 could be enacted.
On June 2, 2011, in a meeting with Hon. John Gerretsen, the then-Minister of Consumer Services, the OHS officially presented the Government of Ontario with a database of unregistered or unlicensed cemeteries. The OHS receives no notification and holds no right of appeal with regard to unregistered historic cemeteries that owners seek to close and relocate for private interests.
It is almost impossible in these cases for the OHS to intervene effectively to defend the public interest. The Province of Ontario subsequently requested that the OHS positively verify the existence and exact location of these known cemeteries in order to register/license them.
The OHS, with a membership from all cultures and religions, believes it is in the public interest that all cemeteries be afforded the same legal status and be treated equally. The OHS’s volunteer Unregistered Cemetery committee has honoured its public commitments on this important principle and have worked tirelessly to complete this historic initiative over the last eleven years, documenting the approximately 1,500 unregistered cemeteries across Ontario.
OHS research has shown that all peoples are represented in Ontario’s unregistered cemeteries, including First Nations burials, Black cemeteries, and Jewish Cemeteries. Unregistered cemeteries often represent those whose history has been neglected, ignored, forgotten, and not considered important. OHS believes that the protection of Ontario’s unregistered cemeteries is also critically important to our ecological and cultural heritage (see this 2009 segment produced by TVO).
As part of our presentation, we are submitting to the Standing Committee on Heritage, Infrastructure and Cultural Policy our completed list of Unregistered Cemeteries (see Appendix C: Ontario’s Unregistered Cemeteries List).
The OHS does not oppose the building of affordable homes for Ontarians.
However, the OHS believes those homes should not be built on the graves of our ancestors.
To protect all cemeteries and burial sites, the OHS asks this committee to vote, recommending that the Government of Ontario register/license all unregistered cemeteries in the Province of Ontario.
Additionally, the OHS asks this committee to vote, recommending that the Government of Ontario designate all cemeteries in the Province of Ontario under the Ontario Heritage Act as properties of cultural heritage value in recognition of their sacred and historical significance to all the peoples of Ontario.
Executive Director, Ontario Historical Society
Original Document with Additional Images and Attachments:
OHS Submission on Bill 23, More Homes Built Faster Act, 2022 (opens 16-page PDF)