This week, the international Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage will enter into force. While 46 countries have ratified it, Canada has not. A Newfoundland expert who was one of the authors of the convention says the document is crucial to the recognition of the importance of traditional knowledge and the role of communities in sustaining their living heritage.
Dr. Gerald Pocius, professor of folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland and a member of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO since 2002, explains what the term ‘intangible cultural heritage’ means: “It’s the stories, the customs and the knowledge that people pass on that are relevant to a culture.” he says.
Some Canadian examples would include the art and craft of woodcutting or soapstone carving, the oral traditions of storytelling, Acadian fiddling, and the know-how to build a birchbark canoe or a fishing boat in outport Newfoundland towns.
“Intangible heritage is not like a building. It’s living knowledge that adapts and changes, and must be passed on,” Dr. Pocius says. “If it’s lost, it can never be restored.”
Dr. Pocius says the Department of Canadian Heritage has cited several explanations – human rights and inventory concerns, for example – for refusing to ratify the convention. However, he believes that, because the department’s focus has always been on tangible culture (buildings and objects), it simply may not have an adequate understanding of intangible heritage.
“Canada should sign this so that recognition and protection will be given to all forms of heritage,” Dr. Pocius says “The safeguarding of intangible heritage ensures that in Canada, we will continue to have an evolving, living heritage that reflects all peoples, rather than just those who designed and built houses or objects.”
Dr. Pocius and others who work in the field will continue to push for Canadian ratification of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
International experts, including Mr. Rieks Smeets, head of the intangible heritage section of UNESCO in Paris, will gather at a Living Heritage Forum to be held at Memorial University in June. Government policy and advocacy will be on the agenda.
“If we lose aspects of our intangible cultural heritage, it’s not just distinct identities that will be diminished. Ultimately, we’ll lose important resources that help sustain our communities socially and economically,” Dr. Pocius asserts.