Issues Unpacked


Early on, Shannie could see that saving the built heritage of St. John’s would require putting together three major puzzle pieces: (1) Broad community acceptance; (2) a sympathetic regulatory framework; and (3) a sound municipal plan committed to preservation of the architectural heritage of the community.

Community Acceptance and Constituency Building

Understanding the need to build a community constituency, the Newfoundland Historic Trust (NHT) focused in its early years on education and public awareness, publishing, mounting exhibitions, inventorying historic buildings, and conducting tours. Shannie became Editor of a monthly newsletter for the NHT that published relevant feature articles and photos. But growing a constituency in the early days got no answering echo from City Hall.

Tactics and turning points

It made me angry that the concerns of ordinary citizens just didn’t matter.

The big developers of the early 1970’s seduced Council and many others with promises of jobs and taxes. It was in the context of development as progress that the Atlantic Place Project was proposed.

For Shannie, who was President of the Newfoundland Historic Trust, this project was "an evangelical moment" in her activist development. It would mean bulldozing one of the most significant blocks of Water Street—the oldest street in North America—and building a twenty-storey office tower and hotel with a seven-storey parking garage beside it.

Her outrage galvanized her to organize meetings, write an article for the paper, call open line programs, join protests, and make a presentation to City Hall. However, the Atlantic Place development, considered "a byword for bad development" today, was approved. It was a fight that expanded the historic heritage constituency to include residents of older neighbourhoods and small local businesses who understood that the survival of downtown entrepreneurs and affordable housing in the city core were under threat.

Emergent from these battles was a new group called the People’s Planning Program (PPP) with broad representation that was led by activists from the Memorial University Extension Division. Shannie was completing a degree in Sociology and one of her instructors was a member of the PPP and steered her towards the group, which added a dimension of "urban guerrilla tactics" that convinced Shannie that "social change demanded social activism."

Going Federal

There is incredible synergy between heritage conservation and good urban planning.

Shannie described herself as "possessed" when she embarked on a trip to Ottawa for help to stop the Atlantic Place project. At her own expense and through her father’s political connections, she met with a federal cabinet minister, and though she learned the limits of federal government involvement in municipal affairs, she met with officials of Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the National Capital Commission and the newly appointed Executive Director of the Heritage Canada Foundation in Ottawa and brought home information on the exciting new programs aimed at revitalization of older urban neighbourhoods.

Encouraged by the mandate of the Heritage Canada Foundation, Shannie hoped to access their resources for housing rehabilitation for low-income families living in older neighbourhoods. Most important from her point-of-view was that eligibility for federal programs required participating cities to develop a Municipal Plan that must involve neighbourhood residents in decision-making and invest in areas containing 19th century housing stock.

City Hall initially resisted investing cost-shared dollars but ultimately the program was embraced to tremendous local benefit. And Shannie decided to run for a regional representative’s position on the new Board of the Heritage Canada Foundation. In a deft strategic move, she collaborated with another candidate in the same position of representing his regional heritage constituency without the support of the existing Chair and executive of the interim Board, who had no grassroots heritage experience. The two of them pooled their proxy votes and got elected to the new Board, which put Shannie in touch with heritage leaders across the country and turned out to be a rich ongoing learning experience.

Inside the tent: The making of a Municipal Plan

Inspiring and empowering grass roots democracy.

With her local profile on development issues and what she sensed as an "appetite for change" in the city, Shannie ran for Council on a platform of urban planning, citizen involvement, downtown revitalization, and affordable housing—and she won. As a new councillor, she joined forces with others to support social issues and control enough votes to accomplish some of their objectives.

In her position as Chair of a planning committee, Shannie pushed hard to establish a Planning Department with professional staff and begin the long-awaited development of a Municipal Plan.

Citizen committees were elected in each participating neighbourhood and worked with city staff and consultants to develop a Neighbourhood Improvement Plan. In turn, these fed into a newly minted Municipal Plan that established eligibility for federal funding under the new programs. In Shannie’s experience, this exercise was "one of the most enlightened and effective uses of federal program funding".

I am most proud of my role in the revitalization of the historic core of St. John’s. This took many years and was as much about urban planning as it was about heritage—I am passionate about both.