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Former military site operates as museum showcasing the military history of Cape Breton

Rob Grezel, volunteer coordinator with the Sydney Fortification Society and operator of the Fort Petrie Museum stands next to a pained mural of a Canadian soldier at Fort Petrie in New Victoria on Friday.
Rob Grezel, volunteer coordinator with the Sydney Fortification Society and operator of the Fort Petrie Museum stands next to a pained mural of a Canadian soldier at Fort Petrie in New Victoria on Friday. - Keigan MacLeod
NEW VICTORIA, N.S. —

Rob Grezel has been dedicating time and money to fixing and preserving Fort Petrie since the site was taken over by the Sydney Harbour Fortification Society in 1990.

The full-time volunteer and co-ordinator with the organization gets out as much as he can to the former Canadian military site in New Victoria, but getting enough volunteers can be a challenge.

“It’s difficult to get people to volunteer on a permanent basis each day, that’s part of the struggle. I try to be here as much as I can, but obviously I still have other obligations,” he said.

Another problem can be funding. While there have been some lean years where the organization scraped by, last year they received a $6,100 grant from the provincial Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage. This year they received $1,500 from Celtic Current, he said.

“That’s what allowed us to get going this year,” he said. “We rely on individual donations too, but we don’t charge admission. We would never worry if someone couldn’t donate.”

The former First World War and Second World War fort was designated a historical site by the municipal, provincial and federal governments. Grezel said he would think the money would be pouring in, but that’s not the case.

“You’d think they’re be throwing money left, right and centre,” he said.

Grezel’s mother, the late Pat Grezel, and his father Paul Grezel fought to preserve the site, and in 1991 they were granted a Supreme Court Injunction to stop its demolition.

“This place wouldn’t exist without her,” he said.

The historical nature of Fort Petrie is something that needs to be preserved.

“This was one of the seven observation posts that defended the port of Sydney, and without them history could have turned out differently,” he said. “German High Command wanted to make Sydney harbour their main port, and had they been able to come into the harbour and destroy the steel plant or coal mines, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

According to Grezel, during the Second World War, German U-boats were able to slip under the submarine net laid across the harbour, and there were even spies present in Sydney who would try and gather intelligence about the area.

“A couple of the spies were captured and actually had Savoy Theatre tickets in their pockets,” he said.

Recently Grezel has been concerned with acts of vandalism on the site. They had graffiti painted on the viewing platform, including a crudely drawn penis and a swastika.

“It’s pretty disturbing, but we’ve since taken care of it,” he said. “We’ve since purchased a couple of cameras, so we’re hoping that will deter and nab those responsible.”

Despite some hardships, the fort receives visitors each year. Last year they had more than 6,000 people come in through the summer, on-par with some of their better years, he said.

“The guestbook from then is about 12 feet high!”

For now, Grezel is focusing on the upkeep of the site, and soon will have a sit-down meeting concerning volunteers which are always being sought.

“We do have people who drop in now and then, but if someone ever wants to stop in with a weedwhacker, I’m not going to say no,” he said. “Many hands make light work, but unfortunately one is too much.”

Anyone is welcome to offer their services and you can usually find Grezel down at Fort Petrie in New Victoria from noon to the evenings.

“The community is wonderful, and that’s what we rely on,” he said. “We have to keep going: it’s for our veterans, it’s for our community and it’s four our tourism. We’ll survive somehow.”

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