Beware Bill 7

In November, the Manitoba government introduced legislation that will seriously curtail the role of the architect in the province. Bill 7, The Architects and Engineers Scope of Practice Dispute Settlement Act, is about to go through a third reading in the Legislative Assembly. It seems certain to be passed in early December by the majority NDP government with the support of the Opposition parties.

The legislation is the outcome of a lawsuit launched by the Manitoba Association of Architects (MAA) against the City of Winnipeg for issuing illegal building permits to engineers. This practice had been occurring in a number of provincial municipalities for approximately 15 years. The court upheld the Architects Act on September 16, 2005, and the decision was followed by a hostile publicity campaign by engineers, developers and interior designers claiming that the “construction boom has been stopped” by the court’s injunction, and that “safety is primary in the Engineers Code of Conduct — NOT the Architects!” (Winnipeg Free Press, October 1, 2005).

During this campaign, the MAA negotiated in good faith with the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Manitoba (APEGM) and the Manitoba government to draft new legislation regarding scope of work. All parties seemed to be in agreement up until the afternoon of November 7 when Bill 7 was introduced to the house–with sweeping changes that were neither discussed with, nor agreed to by the MAA. After over 200 presentations (mostly by architects, interns and architecture students) before the Standing Committee on Social & Economic Development, Bill 7 proceeded to a third reading without amendments.

Bill 7 changes the word “supervision” to “review” in the Architects Act; increases the size of building requiring an architect to 600 square metres from 400 square metres; uses the term “building area” instead of “gross area” as preferred by the architects; gives control over exemptions to the Building Standards Board (comprised of 12 members, with one engineer and two architects); allows engineers (whether civil, chemical or other) and other “designers” to undertake building additions and renovations regardless of area or occupancy and to design “arena type” buildings up to 1,000 fixed seats. Bill 7 creates dangerous ambiguities, seriously erodes the architect’s purview, and allocates no new jurisdictions to architects in return.

In hindsight, it is instructive to evaluate the MAA’s modus operandi during the critical months prior to this devastating legislation. First, the architects assumed that the law and the court’s decision protected them intractably. Even after the engineers’ publicity blitz, the MAA accepted their lobbyist’s and MLA’s advice to remain “low key” and to trust the political process. Conversely, the 4,500-member APEGM (versus 150 MAA members) recognized the leverage that construction delays posed and aggressively lobbied the government, opposition members and building industry groups. Second, the MAA initially underestimated the potential of the student voice; before this issue, interaction between the association and the student body was limited. Fortunately, over 25 students and recent graduates presented their views and advised the Committee that they would leave Manitoba if Bill 7 passed, forcing the Minister of Labour and Opposition critics to publicly admit that the students’ position worried them.

Bill 7 is a red flag for other provincial associations. Laws, even if recently upheld, cannot be taken for granted. And no profession with numbers dwindling in the younger ranks should dare to ignore students–on whose vitality and integrity its very future depends.

Terri Fuglem is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Architecture, University of Manitoba.