Notre Dame fire highlights importance of national treasures

An iconic Paris landmark is burning as I write this.

Angry orange flames are torching the historic walls of Notre Dame cathedral, and thick plumes of smoke are choking out the building’s history, one puff after another.

Collective gasps of horror can be heard around the world as spectators watch the furious images — an enduring institution that has survived two world wars, revolutions and vandalism crumbles just days before Easter.

It’s amazing how one building can unite so many and trigger such an emotional, poignant response: “Not the cathedral!”

Tributes have poured in from world leaders, including Canada. These joint messages of sympathy come at a time of such global political division.

“Absolutely heartbreaking to see the Notre-Dame Cathedral in flames. Canadians are thinking of our friends in France as you fight this devastating fire,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted April 15 during the blaze.

“My heart breaks to see the iconic Notre Dame cathedral up in flames,” wrote Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. “Notre Dame’s majesty and beauty have captured the hearts of millions worldwide. Praying for everybody’s safety and a speedy response.”

I had planned to write a farm column.

But on days like this, where such a storied history is being reduced to ash, one cannot help but be reminded of how much our collective history as a species is tied to landmarks and buildings — illustrious or otherwise.

A few months ago, in December, I was invited along with a few fellow reporters to interview then-United States ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft.

Much of the discussion focused on the issues of the day: NAFTA 2.0, steel and aluminum tariffs and the world’s ongoing diplomatic dance with China.

As the conversation wound down, she was asked what struck her the most during her time in Canada.

Her answer? She was genuinely amazed by how deeply Canadians treasure their historical landmarks and our profound wish to see them preserved.

Shutting down Parliament’s Centre Block for nearly a decade of renovations, the bill footed by taxpayers and met with little controversy, she said, was truly remarkable.

Her answer both surprised and stuck with me.

After all, Canada is a young country with humble roots often dismissed by those who have spent many hours taking in the centuries of stories in Europe, Asia and elsewhere.

We don’t have as many cobblestone streets, castles or architectural masterpieces as other countries.

Yet, our national roots run deep.

Our Canadian identity is rooted in the lighthouses that stand alone on the edge of rocky cliffs, their beams guiding Canada’s sailors home.

It is found in the water towers that loom over small, rural communities in Ontario, the sugar shacks that dot Quebec’s maple groves or the rustic grain elevators that stand alone across the Prairies.

Our Canadian identity is in our museums, our national parks, our sugar shacks and landmarks like Green Gables or 24 Sussex — a home most Canadians have said they wish to see preserved.

Sites that, like Notre Dame, people come from all over the world to visit. And sites that, if lost, would be mourned by those who treasure them.

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