Central council set to vote Thursday on demolition of Old School building

Representatives of Weengushk Film Institute, from left Jonathan Zagula, Nano Debassige and Shirley Cheechoo, toured the Old School last Friday as a potential new home for the film school.

Weengushk Film Institute interested in moving its school to the property

CENTRAL MANITOULIN – In a surprise motion at Central Manitoulin’s property committee, the fate of the Mindemoya Old School moved one step closer to its demise with a recommendation that council move forward with its demolition.

The demolition of the Mindemoya Old School was not on the property committee agenda, according to Mayor Richard Stephens, who was on the record as “strenuously opposed to the motion.” 

“That came kind of out of the blue,” he said. “It was not on the agenda, but they wanted to have a discussion about the building.”

“I think we have to talk about the elephant in the room,” said property committee chair Councillor Dale Scott.

Councillor Angela Johnston agreed. “We budgeted money this year to take the Old School down.” She pointed out that due to the pandemic, it hasn’t taken place thus far, “but the situation hasn’t changed. I still think we need to take it down.”  

“I agree with Angela,” said Councillor Derek Stephens. “The money is there. We need to address this issue and if we are planning to rebuild or have some type of new facility there needs to be a buffer for the property. Right now the building is in the way of anything we want to do concerning a new facility. The money is there and we need to proceed.”

Councillor Scott noted that $150,000 has been included in the municipal budget to tear down the Old School building and that inspections have been carried out on the building. “We need to get the person best qualified and have the building taken down.”

“I will oppose this quite strenuously,” said Mayor Stephens. “This is an historic building, it is unique and it has a very solid base. There is no reason to bring it down. I would like to find a purpose for it, not destroy it just because it is sitting there.” 

Mayor Stephens said the manner in which the matter was brought forward also left something to be desired.

“It looks unfortunate,” said Mayor Stephens, who had called the procedural process into question when the motion was first put forward by Councillor Stephens. “I didn’t know there was a plan to do a motion.”

The unannounced discussion and motion also dismayed Mindemoya community activist Jan McQuay.

“We were lulled into a false sense of security,” she said. “I only found out about the motion when I bumped into (Mayor) Richard (Stephens) at the grocery store and he told me.”

Ms. McQuay said that the ad hoc group lobbying to save the Mindemoya Old School had stood down during the pandemic, assuming (incorrectly as it turns out) that when the municipality was turned down for its multi-plex funding by the province, that there was no longer an urgent push to move forward with demolition.

Mayor Stephens expressed disappointment that the municipality had not been able to secure an offer from a business or organization to save the historic building. “It’s a good solid building,” he said. “We did have a philanthropist put up $50,000 to put a new roof on the building, but we couldn’t accept it.”

Even at the eleventh hour, potential clients were touring the building with an eye to how it could be utilized. Weengushk Film Institute (WFI)’s Shirley Cheechoo led a small group of WFI managers to the facility to inspect its potential for their planned expansion of the school—taking the building back to its roots as an educational institution.

“They seemed interested in it,” said Mayor Stephens.

“We are interested in it, it is a beautiful building,” Ms. Cheechoo confirmed. “It would be a terrible shame to have it torn down. It is an historical landmark.”

WFI is looking at the need for a major expansion, she noted. “We have 50 students applying to come to our school each session, but we only have room for 10 to 13 at most right now.”

Ms. Cheechoo said she is confident WFI could source the necessary funding. “There is a lot of money in the arts right now for historical buildings,” she said. “If an arts centre is organized it would be there for years and years.”

Earlier in the process, the group hoping to save the historic edifice had engaged an architectural firm specializing in saving buildings with historical significance. “A statement of significance prepared by ERA Architects Philip Evans and Jeff Hayes assessed the Old School building, its heritage value and its potential,” noted Ms. McQuay. “I asked for the opportunity for the architects to make a presentation to council or an appropriate committee. I never got a reply or an acknowledgement of the email I had sent.” She said that she was going to resubmit her request.

“It’s our opinion that the Old School, as well as its neighbouring arena, hall and church have inherent cultural value and would likely meet the criteria in the Ontario Heritage Act (OHA) for listing or designation given its civic contribution to the area,” reads the opening of the report. “However, its full potential can only be realized if its adaptation and reuse fulfill a clear need for the town and Manitoulin Island as a whole, identified through consultation with area residents.”

In their recommendations, the architects suggested “the Old School, arena and the hall have some degree of individual cultural heritage value, as well as a collective heritage value as a cluster of civic assets as the town’s centre. We recommend that council carefully review the precise needs of Manitoulin-wide residents to which the asset could respond. Additional time may be required to comprehensively study various uses for the building, such as the potential location for start-up businesses or affordable housing, for example.”

In regards to the failed multi-plex proposal, the report suggested the town “incorporate the existing Old School into the new multi-plex development or sever and retain the existing property as a standalone structure, to be repurposed as affordable housing or a similar purpose.”

The architects went on to recommend the municipality “develop an Island-wide cultural economic strategy and vision,” noting that “shifts in the cultural economy are affecting Manitoulin Island, Mindemoya and towns across the country. Representatives from each area should be involved in developing a strategy that leverages the strengths of their respective networks in the wake of this change. We recommend a robust strategic plan be developed and implemented in order to limit the loss of many of the former pillars of the Island, so vital to the social fabric of Mindemoya and larger areas. This vision requires the thoughts, opinions and perspectives of area residents across the Island, including Indigenous communities, other municipalities, educational institutions and community organizations.”

The architects spoke of the history of the school, noting it “is a one storey, buff (yellow) brick structure with a raised basement constructed of local limestone. Built in 1922 by contractors Charters and Brown of Sault Ste. Marie, the school operated as an educational institution until 1969, then operated as a commercial space until 2016.”

The architects’ report went on to note the “school has historical value for its association with themes of early 20th century education in rural communities. The Mindemoya Old School was constructed as an early ‘consolidated school’ in Ontario. Consolidated schools were a result of rural educational reform in Canada in the early 20th century which sought to address the disparity between rural and urban schools.”

“These consolidated schools amalgamated school townships, offering horse and carriage school vans for student transportation. By constructing and implementing larger and more substantial schools for students from multiple school sections, consolidated schools were able to offer a broader range of subjects. This revised program included classes on beneficial skills and knowledge for rural life and allowed students to be placed in classes based upon their age and education level. The consolidated schools led to a dramatic rise in attendance in rural schools and increased the average level of education achieved by rural students.”

The report included a couple of potential renovations into a dormitory-style residence as alternative uses.

Ms. McQuay also questioned the timing of the decision. “These things always seem to be sprung on us during the winter when so many people are not here,” she said. “It really is upsetting that they do this kind of thing.”

“This issue has been discussed for years,” said Councillor Scott said during the property committee debate on the fate of the Mindemoya Old School, going on to note the municipality has already spent $60,000 on consultation (fees).

“I like the idea of a proposed replica (of the Old School) being put in the Pioneer Museum park area,” said Councillor Johnston.

This idea to utilize some of the materials from the building to make a replica was brought up last summer, agreed Councillor Scott.

“I like to see old structures rebuilt, reused and preserved, but I think we’ve gone through all the steps we needed to go,” said Councillor Scott. “We’ve given a lot of time to repurpose the building. It would take money to refurbish it and we haven’t had an entrepreneur or philanthropist come forward with $2 million with a use for the building. Meanwhile, the municipality is paying $5,000 a year on water and sewer and insurance. I don’t think it is proper to sit and wait anymore.”

In a recorded vote on forwarding the demolition recommendation to council for its Thursday, December 17 meeting Councillors Scott, Johnston, Stephens and Rose Diebolt voted in favour, with Mayor Stephens voting against the motion.