Remembering François Bregha, the man who shared Sandy Hill’s stories
To describe François Bregha as someone who documented the history of Sandy Hill seems like an understatement. For so many, including myself, François brought to life a century and a half of Sandy Hill history. He used his research, storytelling, and writing abilities to help us learn about the people and places that shaped our neighbourhoodÑand by extension, our city and this country.
His labour of love can be seen on the “Sandy Hill Stories” website (ash-acs.ca/history). As a community resource, the site is amusing and relatable. It humanizes Sandy Hill’s most prominent residents, while also highlighting the lesser-known stories of the activists, French language champions, public servants, and everyday individuals whose stories are an integral part of our neighbourhood.
On July 14, 2022, François died peacefully at home after a two-year battle with ALS. A month earlier, he had celebrated his 70th birthday and had cheekily changed his laptop screensaver to one of the Queen’s platinum jubilee celebrations, claiming the 70th anniversary as his own.
For the last few years of his life, François stayed connected to the Sandy Hill community through his laptop, as well as during visits from friends and family to the Russell Avenue home that he shared with his wife, long-time IMAGE editor Jane Waterston.
The Sandy Hill Stories website is by no means the only community project François worked on. When he retired in 2009 from Stratos, the sustainability consulting firm that he co-founded, François found great joy and satisfaction in learning about and fighting to preserve the built heritage of Sandy Hill.
For many years, he worked closely with community association Action Sandy Hill (ASH), pushed back against the rise of student bunkhouses, and led walking tours for Heritage Ottawa. He quickly became known as the neighbourhood historian, a self-taught expert with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Sandy Hill.
One of his frequent collaborators was Trina Cooper-Bolam. In 2018, François and Trina teamed up to represent ASH over the proposed demolition of the former Ugandan High Commission building at 231 Cobourg St. The pair made the case that the building, which had been home to Lester B. Pearson during an important period in the former Prime Minister’s life, had significant heritage value.
Although the building was more recently constructed than its neighbours, François argued for recognition of its historical associations and character-defining interior and exterior elements. It was a difficult argument to make given the modesty of the building’s architecture, yet it was a line François believed important to draw, particularly given that permission for its demolition had been granted to make way for the construction of a modern non-residential building at odds with the surrounding heritage streetscape.
“François was such an incredible diplomat and put forward such a cogent and persuasive argument in a way that was still polite and gentle,” describes Trina. “He was always able to deal with these contentious issues while still being respectful of everybody. He was really the good cop to my bad cop.”
Former ASH president Susan Young met François in the early 2000s. The pair worked together on several professional and community projects. Susan remembers his modesty and even-tempered nature — always served up with a quirky sense of humour.
“[Because of François] we all know so much more about the place where we live,” says Susan. “François’ work also tied into initiatives like Prime Ministers’ Row and the idea that we need to learn more about Canadian history by meeting the many characters who lived here in Sandy Hill.”
Though François is no longer with us, his legacy lives on in the stories he shared and the projects he championed. His community activism inspired many, and no one can discount his knowledge, humility, passion, or kindness.