After outcry, Quebec town says politics were not involved in demolition of controversial house

After outcry, Quebec town says politics were not involved in demolition of controversial house
Demolition of historic Chambly home prompts calls for better provincial preservation measures
The demolition last week of a 19th-century house in Chambly, Que., despite public outcry, is spurring calls for more robust measures to protect heritage buildings in the province. 

Residents of Chambly, which is 25 kilometres southeast of Montreal, gathered Saturday night for a vigil at what was once the site of ​Maison Boileau. It was demolished Thursday after more than two years of debate over its heritage value.

"This was a sudden, surprising and deeply saddening decision for the people of Chambly, and for anyone who values Quebec heritage," said Julie Daigneault, president of Mouvement citoyen de Chambly, a community organization. 

Dozens of residents had been working to get the house protected as an official heritage building, but the municipality, which acquired it in 2016, said it was in a state of disrepair and would cost $2 million to renovate.

Despite opposition from heritage advocates, the town's general manager, Michel Larose, ordered the demolition to take place Thursday after elected officials in ​Chambly deemed the house's infrastructure was already "irreversibly damaged."

At the vigil, Chambly residents criticized their councillors for failing to debate the matter publicly at town council.

Among them was celebrity chef Ricardo Larrivée, who once lived in the house and asked his wife to marry him there.

"It seems we never learn," Larrivée said. "This horror in Chambly has to be a lesson to protect other municipalities."

Similar concerns emerged when images of an excavator at a crumbling 19th-century mill in L'Isle-Verte, in the Lower Saint-Laurent, began circulating on social media last week.  

Unlike the Maison Boileau, the mill was classified as a heritage property in 1962. Residents were worried it too was being demolished. 

Quebec's culture minister, Nathalie Roy, took to Facebook Saturday to say the work at the mill had been approved by the province and was aimed at preventing further deterioration. 

She added, however, that her government's intention was to ensure owners of heritage buildings were doing the necessary maintenance work, underscoring the political dimension at stake.

On Thursday, Roy said on social media that while in opposition her party had demanded the Liberal government classify the Maison Boileau as a heritage building. 

"Since the election, we haven't had any requests for support from the Town of Chambly, leading to the results we see today," Roy wrote after the demolition. 

Louise Chevrier, a historian who works with the organization Amis de la Maison René-Boileau, said the building's demolition demonstrates the necessity for a provincial "heritage commissioner" or even a "heritage ministry."

"Our view is that there should be an inspector general," Bumbaru said. That inspector would draft an independent yearly report on the state of heritage sites in the province.

He added that the Maison Boileau's demolition reveals flaws in the province's current approach to preserving heritage buildings.

"The Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal, which is still one of the great monuments in North America, is not ranked," Bumbaru said. "Obviously, we are not going to demolish it."

There has been a strong public outcry over the demolition of a house in the town of Chambly, Que., with links to a civilian uprising against British rule in the 1800s.

The house, built around 1820, was home to René Boileau, a local notary who took part in the Rebellions of 1837-1838.

His father, also named René, was a member of the parliament of Lower Canada for the Canadian party, which later became the Patriot party in 1826.

Despite efforts by local citizens to save the house, the wrecking ball brought down the Maison Boileau on Thursday.

Michel Larose, the towns director-general, said he made the decision to demolish it because it was in poor condition, insisting it had nothing to do with politics.

Its mainly the question of safety that prompted me to act, Mr. Larose said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

Mr. Larose said the municipality is not required by law to have a resolution from council to demolish a building, especially when the structure belongs to the town.

But Louise Chevrier, a local historian and novelist, said on Saturday that rules were not followed, no demolition notice was given and the decision was made in secret.

The house should have been restored, but the town of Chambly did not take all the necessary measures to protect it, she said.

The Maison Boileau was originally abandoned by its owners in 2016 because it was no longer habitable due to mould and concerns it would collapse.

The town paid $550,000 to buy the property and had hoped to turn the house into a tourist office, but that idea was abandoned.

Mr. Larose said engineers estimated in November, 2017, that it would have cost $1.8 million to rebuild it, and today, the bill would have surpassed $2 million.

When crews arrived on Thursday, several residents and a local politician tried unsuccessfully to halt the demolition.

Christian Picard, a former Parti Quebecois candidate in the recent election, was arrested for trying to stop workers from bringing down the house, but was later freed.

He slammed the towns administration on Saturday, adding that its time to change the way Quebec protects its heritage.

Theres clearly a problem in Quebec and we have to change our practices, our regulations and laws, Mr. Picard said in an interview.

While the rest of Canada celebrates Victoria Day, Quebeckers mark National Patriots Day on the Monday preceding May 25th.