The Making of an Activist


Character and Influence

Shannie believes that her outgoing, interventionist personality was nurtured by parents who gave their children a sense of their own worth, a belief in the possibility of change, and a strong sense of duty. She grew up believing that if something had to be done, she could do it.

The second in a family of eight children and the eldest girl, she was given family responsibilities to care for younger siblings, and help with cooking and household chores at an early age. "That was actually quite empowering," she said.

Her mother received her early education in a one room school in a small Newfoundland outport. The family moved to St. John's when Shannie was ten in order to gain better educational opportunities for the children. Her eligibility for scholarship at the University of Toronto required courses in physics and chemistry that were not taught at the girl's convent school she attended, so she managed through a family friend to get accepted for these courses at a Protestant boy's school, won the scholarship and went to the University of Toronto from which she graduated summa cum laude with a Masters degree in English and Latin. In the social context of Newfoundland at that time, where schools were denominational and segregated by class and gender, this example of courage helped form Shannie's determination.

From her father, she developed skills in communication, for she remembers him as a wise and gentle man who always took pains to explain things to his children, and as someone with strong beliefs about human dignity and civic responsibility. "It doesn't matter who gets the credit as long as the job gets done," she recalls him saying – "an important lesson for involvement in social change where sometimes it is important to lead and at other times to motivate and take a support role is a more effective strategy."

Sensitive to the historic architecture of communities where she lived, Shannie Duff grew up in an older neighbourhood of St. John's, Newfoundland where children were allowed to play in abandoned mansions – a source of "endless fascination and speculation" for Shannie, who saw them as redolent of those who made them, and the events and circumstances of their evolution.

This affinity for heritage buildings as "unique and irreplaceable assets" would leverage a passionate advocacy that grew tendrils and accumulated into a lifelong activism based in, but not limited to, city government.

While still a student nurse in Montreal in the mid-fifties, Shannie walked the streets of old Montreal, absorbing its historic architecture. After graduation, she married her husband, a physician who obtained a position with External Affairs that took them to Copenhagen and Cologne, with short-term postings to other European cities. Her explorations abroad were formative, an education for the life that would follow back home:

Communities far older than any I had seen in Canada had preserved their heritage areas, not as museums but as places to be lived in and cherished. In the immediate post-war era when resources were very scarce and large parts of their communities still lay in ruins, they had restored their heritage areas. I loved the human scale of these older areas, the sense of containment and life on the streets.

Returning to St. John's in 1961, she saw the unique architecture and character of her own home with fresh eyes. In Montreal, while her husband completed postgraduate medical studies, she saw how "progress" was destroying "whole blocks of Victorian grey stone buildings and replacing them with glass and concrete high rise hotels and office towers".

Observing the heritage protest movement at work, Shannie returned home in 1966 to find the same demolition of heritage buildings "to make way for ugly and unimaginative federal government buildings… commercial downtown streets, once a hub of activity, were being drained of life by the flight to the suburban malls, the rows of colourful Victorian housing in the old residential neighbourhoods showing sad signs of neglect".

The suburban dream was luring people from the older areas of town where the built heritage was undervalued. Shannie recalls the Editor of the Daily News writing that "the best thing that could happen to the City was to line up ten bulldozers at the Crossroads in the West End and drive them East to the Newfoundland Hotel."

Early Issues and Growing Knowledge

Shannie joined a group of citizens trying to save a small Anglican church dating from 1823 but slated for demolition. Not only was the church spared, but this was the first successful defense by concerned citizens of a heritage building and it led directly to the founding of the Newfoundland Historic Trust (NHT), an organization dedicated to the conservation of the built heritage that survives today. Shannie was a founding member.

This period marked a coming together of many people to devote their talents to a common cause. Shannie learned from those who were "much more knowledgeable about architecture and architectural history, about construction and the technical and financial aspects of heritage conservation, and adaptive reuse of heritage properties".

Recognizing that her talent for public speaking and dealing with the media could contribute to the cause of revitalizing St. John's historic urban core, Shannie assumed a communications and connector role that would see her through subsequent decades of activist work.

There were two other elements of formation she identified as critical: (1) an excellent local network for recruiting people and resources to match each mission; and (2) a growing understanding of the value of heritage environments that became ever more sophisticated as her education on the ground advanced. Making a distinction that would frame in the larger purpose of heritage activism as "the need to shift focus from individual heritage properties to heritage districts and streetscapes," she discovered the essence of sound urban planning.