Victor Suthren: Heritage in the Community


The Times sat down for a coffee with Councillor Victor Suthren last week, and we talked about how his background as an historian and author are brought to bear on his work on the Merrickville-Wolford Council. Victor had a long career before arriving in the Village. He was Director General of the Canadian War Museum from 1986 until 1997, when he left and he was appointed an Honorary Captain in the Royal Canadian Navy from 1997 until 2014, with responsibility for promoting a wider appreciation for Canadian naval history in the public sphere. On top of all that, Victor has had thirteen books published, many of historical fiction, of which the latest is set to be released next year. So, how had a man with this background found himself in Merrickville, serving his second term on the municipal Council?

“I always wanted to be a writer full time, and we’d been aware of Merrickville for a long time. It had a lot to offer: water you could reach the sea on, lots of historicity, a thriving artistic and cultural community. Oddly enough, the first time I came to Merrickville was in 1967 when I was in the Fort Henry Guard in Kingston, and we came and did a parade here when they reopened the Blockhouse after it had been restored. We shot muskets out of the slits and choked on the smoke and all that; and I remember thinking what a tremendous number of old homes there were here. All the streets were gravel then, except for St. Lawrence. I remembered the place and it seemed like a natural progression. My wife, Lindsay, is an artist, and this is such a vibrant community that it really attracted both of us.”

Victor’s time at the Museum and in the Navy had involved organising many public events, designed to promote Canadian history and bring it to the Canadian public. He believes he could do a similar job here in Merrickville-Wolford. “I realised that there is such a rich heritage here, and so many already protecting it, that I thought, if I could get on Council, I thought I might be able to add my experience from Federal Heritage activity to keeping what we have and still prudently advancing. I’d love to see the historical side of this town enhanced and to celebrate it a lot more.”

The idea that heritage and history are an elitist occupation is one that Victor has spent his entire career refuting. He believes that both the business community and the municipal council are very alive to the economic development aspect of heritage.

“I think there’s a fairly strong awareness, both on the part of the Chamber of Commerce, the business people in the town, and also the Council [that heritage is an economic development issue]. The Deputy Mayor, Anne Barr, is very strong on heritage, and there’s a lot of very well-informed people on Council who recognise its value. But they’d also like it to be a vibrant, working community. But we all see it as a marketable resource, not an elitist thing that gets in the way. Not at all.”

The key, he feels, is to learn from other towns, such as Perth and Niagara-on-theLake, to integrate heritage with the day-to-day economic and social life of the community. He is strongly of the opinion that this approach would make Merrickville a destination spot, especially given the heritage character of so much of the Village’s buildings and streetscape.

“With a bit of imagination, and without interfering too much with traffic flow and all that, you could stage events every now and then that would really transform the village into a Dickensian dream. As long as we don’t get the shrink-wrapped Disneyland, I still hope we can do more of that. I think it would be important for the future of the place. I keep wondering: what if some weekend we only had horse-drawn vehicles, and we scattered sand on the roads, and encouraged people to wear period dress. You could have period music playing in the park: you could almost have an Anne of Green Gables feel, just for an afternoon. That could spin off into economic pursuits, shopping in the stores, staying at the B&B’s, and so on. I think there’s a lot of realisation in the town that heritage is dollars and cents: heritage is prosperity. If we can only hold to that heritage side of things, it can only be for the good.”

He was encouraged by something that happened at a Council meeting once, showing the depth of history that exists in the area. “There were some people in the Gallery, and, in a light-hearted moment, I mentioned that Merrickville used to have its own Militia: No. 4 Company, Leeds and Grenville Militia was formed here. Other places, like Kemptville, Almonte, had Infantry companies, who wore red coats; but Merrickville had a Rifle Company, who wore green coats, and they were so proud of this. And I had a photograph of one of these Riflemen taken around 1865, when the regiment was formed, and I passed it around. And you could hear the stirring in the gallery. People don’t realise that in the old Town Hall there was Drill Hall, and the Merrickville Rifles used to drill there and were called out to the Fenian Raids.”

One of the keys is to find the grants that could make this happen: “Enhance the heritage and make it pay. His tory is part of us, this is where we came from. I did a lot of event organisation with the Museum, and later with the Navy, and it’s doable if you can just get the cash.”


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