By Karen Dearlove
It’s a story that has grown far bigger than Brantford. Articles in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Hamilton Spectator, and the KW Record have drawn attention to what’s happening in downtown Brantford.
It’s a story about heritage buildings, those trying to save them, a city council, a university, and academics caught in the middle. It’s a story that raises questions about academics’ responsibilities in the community, academic freedom and activism, and the universities they work for.
At risk are 41 buildings located along three blocks of Colborne Street, the main street of Brantford’s downtown. More than half of these buildings were constructed prior to 1867, and some claim this to be the largest stretch of pre-Confederation buildings left in Ontario. It’s true these buildings have seen better days, as with much of Brantford which has suffered hard since the closing of major industries in the 1980s. But Brantford has experience a significant resurgence in the past decades, due in large part to the growing Laurier Brantford campus downtown.
But that is now part of the problem. Laurier Brantford and the Brantford YMCA have conducted studies, and applied for federal funding (unsuccessfully) to build a joint facility in the downtown core, specifically on the site of the 41 heritage buildings on Colborne Street. The City of Brantford recently expropriated these buildings without any firm plans for the site other than the proposed (but not funded) Laurier Brantford-YMCA facility. The City of Brantford has decided to completely demolish all 41 buildings with the help of Federal stimulus money. Despite the lack of a plan for the site, and in the face of protest by the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, the Heritage Canada Foundation, and the Ontario Heritage Connection, the demolition has already begun.
There are many others in and around Brantford that are protesting the demolition of Colborne Street. And several of these are academics at Wilfrid Laurier University, including Leo Groarke, former dean of Laurier Brantford, and Lisa Wood, an English professor at Laurier Brantford.
Groarke, Wood and other academics have vocally opposed the rush to demolish these buildings without concrete plans or considerations of restoration or adaptive re-use. They have shown leadership in a community concerned about protecting and preserving its heritage. They are great examples of the community involvement frequently encouraged by universities.
But in this case they have faced criticisms by their own institutions. Wood was called into a meeting with the principal of Laurier Brantford, because Brantford Mayor Mike Hancock (who also sits on the Board of Directors of Laurier Brantford) threatened to hold Wood and Laurier Brantford liable for any delays in demolition caused by Wood’s activism. Wood never claimed to be representing Laurier Brantford in her protest of the demolition of Colborne Street, but the response by Laurier Brantford and the Mayor of Brantford suggests that academics are not free to act in the community, and questions the role of universities and free speech.