Monday, June 15, 2009

Protest takes place at Medieval Festival

Surely you joust: Upper Canada Village no place for medieval festival, critics say; Dozens of protesters rally at historical attraction, denounce 'commercialization' of village
David Gonczol
14 June 2009
Ottawa Citizen

Visitors to a medieval festival Saturday at Upper Canada Village were greeted by dozens of placard-waving protesters who say the festival brings the historical site one step closer to being a theme park and that management cannot be trusted to preserve the heritage of Eastern Ontario and the United Empire Loyalists who settled the area.

"Are these kids going to leave here today thinking that part of Upper Canada Village is knights in shining armour, which took place five or six hundred years ago, and 4,000 miles from here?" asked protester Tim Gault of Long Sault, a member of the Lost Villages Historical Society.

For months, historical societies, history buffs and employees who were laid off have been protesting what they call the commercialization of the village, on the St. Lawrence Seaway just east of Morrisburg. Managers of the attraction say the park is losing money and must change to get more people through the gates, but critics say there are ways to do that without compromising the attraction's intent.

"The medieval festival is, first of all, very tawdry," said Ian Bowering, curator of the Cornwall Community Museum. "They could have done something that was reflective of our history.

"Perth had the last duel in the 1830s. If we want jousting and duelling, we could have done that. It just shows their lack of creativity and, if they had talked to the community, it would have happened."

The park's change in direction is not the only thing worrying the protesters. Many are members of the Lost Villages Historical Society, which is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the villages flooded when the St. Lawrence Seaway was built in the 1950s.

Upper Canada Village was largely created using buildings and artifacts from the area that was submerged, but some concerned citizens question whether the artifacts are still safe. Layoffs this spring and management changes have left many buildings without interpreters to ensure the artifacts don't go missing, protesters say. When the buildings are closed to the public because interpreters are not available, doors that can be easily removed are the only thing protecting them.

Bowering, who is leading a group of museums and historical societies to fight the changes, is advising people to ask for their artifacts back because the village can't be trusted to ensure they aren't stolen. "We believe they have lost things that are from the origins of Ontario. They have had things donated to them, and we know things are missing," Bowering said.

He added that the park has "no business being in the museum business" if it can't keep artifacts secure. "I'm urging people to at least ask them to find their family heirlooms, at a minimum, and to ask for it back."

Dale Brownell said she reclaimed a medal from the War of 1812 more than a decade ago, but others are concerned about articles they have donated to the park, such as furniture, watches and dishes.

At least one motorist stopped at the entrance Saturday and apologized for going in, saying she supported the protesters' cause, but had several children who needed something to do.

Pat Macdonald, general manager of Upper Canada Village and chief executive of the St. Lawrence Parks Commission, which is responsible for the park, told the Citizen last month she is working hard just to ensure the park's survival.

Macdonald said the provincial government has made it clear that Upper Canada Village must become more self-sustaining, and that changes must be made to overcome what Macdonald called a "massive decline in visitor interest."

Macdonald said the number of visits to the park has been dropping for many years, while costs to maintain its buildings have been rising. Visitor levels are less than half of what they were in the 1970s.

This year, she said, visitors will find in-depth talks, demonstrations and hands-on activities and not just "the casual interpretation" that the park has historically offered.

Visitors will have the opportunity to wear period costumes or sleep overnight on straw mattresses. "This is what people today want. They want to roll up their sleeves and feel like they have created their own experience. We are trying to go mainstream with some of the things we know guests like," Macdonald said.