The purposeful neglect of the Mack Laing heritage house by the Town of Comox has reached a new low.
Hamilton Mack Laing gave his house, known as Shakesides, along with a substantial sum of money in his Last Will and Testament for the purpose of converting it into a public natural history museum. Laing, an internationally respected naturalist and ornithologist, died in 1982.
But the town has done nothing over the intervening 35 years to comply with Laing’s last wishes, and has intentionally let the building fall into disrepair. Council members apparently hope their neglect will garner support for the effort to tear it down.
But the Mack Laing Heritage Society (MLHS) hopes to preserve Shakesides in its current condition, at least until the B.C. Supreme Court rules on the town’s application to demolish the building. That seems reasonable.
And it was in that spirit that MLHS offered to place a tarp on the roof of Shakesides to prevent moisture from entering the building through a decades-old roof and to stop further deterioration of the famous naturalist’s home on Comox Bay.With another wet winter in the forecast, council members should have accepted the offer. Especially because MLHS members proposed to pay the entire labor cost of a professional installation.
And they made this offer with plenty of time to get such a simple task done over last spring and summer.
Vandals recently attacked Shakesides for the second time, but no other structure in Mack Laing Park. That suggests the vandalism is politically motivated. See the full gallery of photographs below.
MLHS President J-Kris Nielsen first presented the group’s offer verbally at a Committee of the Whole meeting on March 22, 2017, complete with projected costs. He followed that up with an April 17 letter to the town detailing a work plan that included drawings and itemized material costs totalling $1,892.80.
The letter was officially stamped “Received” on April 20, 2017.
Seven months later, the town has yet to respond. Not a letter. Not an email. Not a phone call.
The Town of Comox voted unanimously in February to ask the B.C. Supreme Court to release the town from the terms of the trust established by Laing’s Last Will. That would allow them to demolish the house. No court date has been set.
So the council might have figured, why spend even $1,800 to preserve a building we hope to tear down? Fair enough, but doesn’t decency require a reply to well-intentioned citizens, at the least?
And consider this:
The town has hired the law firm Young & Anderson to make their case for demolition to the province’s high court. If they succeed, the town has committed to spend around $300,000 of taxpayer’s money to pay lawyers, demolish the building and build a viewing platform.
Yet council members can’t find $1,800 for a group of passionate citizens to tarp the roof? The MLHS might have even paid the whole bill if council had made a civil response.
It’s shameful. But no surprise.
For 35 years, the Town of Comox has neglected the last wishes of this important literary and ornithological person, and mismanaged his trusts. It’s shameful how the town has claimed Laing’s celebrity, when convenient, but has always ignored his desire for a legacy.
Those who prefer to save Shakesides have criticized council and pressured them to act. But that’s no justification for a town government to disrespect its citizens. Or act vindictively. They deserved a reply.
And, really, it seems only fair to put a tarp on a leaking roof until the Supreme Court hears the case, because there’s no guarantee how the court will rule, or view the town’s behavior in this matter.
Meanwhile, Shakesides recently suffered another attack by pretend graffiti artists.
Like the graffiti attack in April, vandals again spray-painted the historical home with lame images. It wasn’t serious tagging, much less artwork.
These latest vandals might be the same person or group of people. They just made a better effort. We’ll never know for sure.
But it is interesting that, like the last attack, no other sign, bridge, post or tree was spray-painted. That makes it likely that this defacing of public property is somehow connected to the political and legal battle over the preservation of Laing’s home.
And, of course, the defacing fits nicely with the Town Council’s policy of intentional neglect.
The Comox Valley’s sparkling new North Island Hospital opens this weekend, resplendent with the latest medical technology and designed to inspire happiness and hope. It’s a joyous occasion.
But with every yang, there’s also a yin.
The bright new government-run secular hospital replaces all of the acute-care beds of the community’s original, 104-year-old St. Joseph’s Hospital. And, in doing so, it may jeopardize any future health care role for St. Joe’s in this community.
A parade of ambulances, taxis and other vehicles will transport current acute-care patients to the new hospital on Sunday, Oct. 1. When they’ve finished, only 125 residential, long-term care beds and four hospice beds will remain on St. Joe’s property at the top of Comox Hill.
And all of them are tenuous.
That should be alarming to Comox Valley residents because St. Joe’s has a grand vision to reinvent itself as a much-needed campus of care specifically for the exploding senior population. Within the next 20 years, the number of Valley residents over the age of 74 is predicted to double, and one in three will suffer from dementia and need long-term care.
St. Joseph’s General Hospital has served the Comox Valley for more than 104 years
St. Joe’s vision includes a dementia village, modeled after Hogewey in the Netherlands and others throughout Canada and Washington state. These self-contained housing communities allow patients to move around freely and safely.
And they would transform the whole 17-acre site into an “aging in place” hub of compassionate care services that would benefit the Valley in many different ways.
So what’s the problem?
After the federal government passed legislation last summer that legalizes and governs Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD), some local citizens are challenging the appropriateness of locating publicly-funded hospice beds at St. Joe’s.
Physician-assisted death is a “hard no” philosophically for most Catholic health care providers, and the Diocese of Victoria, which assumed management of St. Joe’s in 1989, when the founding Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto withdrew, appears to be no exception.
That meant that hospice patients at St. Joe’s, who might choose and qualify for physician-assisted death under Canada’s new law, would have to be transferred to another location for the ingestion or injection of life-ending medications.
A group of Valley citizens, called the Equal Access Committee, convinced Island Health to move the four hospice beds, and two more planned for this year, to another, secular location. So far, that hasn’t happened because there is no existing alternative facility.
In fact, it could be years before the government builds a new secular facility for hospice care.
If this were only about the small number of Comox Valley hospice beds, St. Joe’s vision for a cutting edge campus of seniors health care would not be threatened.
But the Equal Access Committee wants more. They have asked Island Health to also take away St. Joe’s 125 resident care beds. Residential care, they argue, is just part of a continuum that ultimately leads to end-of-life decisions, which should include physician-assisted death.
If the Equal Access Committee succeeds, St. Joe’s will have no longer have any health care role available to pursue. Who knows what the Diocese of Victoria would do then.
But it doesn’t have to happen here, and shouldn’t happen solely because of Canada’s MAiD law.
It’s true that social values have tipped toward acceptance of a person’s right to choose a speedier death, to end their suffering. And it’s also true that Catholic health care is rooted in their faith, which commits them to certain values and behaviors.
However, some Catholic hospitals in the U.S. have employed moral ethicists to reflect the reality that they must navigate both canonical and civil laws and guidelines.
But physician-assisted death has obscured the hospice mission, and confused many hospice workers and potential hospice patients. “Do we help you die well, or do we just help you die?” they ask.
The fact is, very few hospice patients choose physician-assisted death. According to a Vancouver Island case review published last month in the B.C. Medical Journal, only 2 percent of total deaths recorded during the six-month study period were medically assisted.
Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of those 72 assisted deaths took place at home, and another quarter (21%) occurred in acute care hospitals. Only 12 percent or 8 assisted deaths took place in hospices, and only 3 percent or 2 assisted deaths took place in residential care facilities. These are Island-wide statistics.
Those numbers may grow in time, but it’s clear that the percentage of eligible people choosing physician-assisted death will remain small. For one thing, it’s difficult to qualify under the new law; natural death must be imminent.
So does it make sense to say all the good tenets of compassionate care for the elderly (including care for the body, mind and spirit regardless of the ability to pay) should be thrown out the window because of a physician-assisted death provision that only a few will qualify for and use?
Isn’t removing residential care beds from St. Joe’s akin to throwing out the old folks with the bathwater?
Shouldn’t palliative care be an effective alternative to assisted dying, one that makes MAiDs unnecessary except in the most extreme circumstances?
An issue that affects so few people should not overshadow and deny St. Joe’s the opportunity to create an innovative respite for the one-in-three of us who will eventually suffer from dementia.
Island Health has made its decision on locating hospice beds. The community should now support St. Joe’s retention of The Views, its residential care beds and the addition of 70 more, which is essential for them to fulfill their vision for a community campus of care for Comox Valley seniors.
And, for those who will want access to MAiD services, we should work together to create space for that alternative — but without jeopardizing the vital new services for the elderly that St. Joe’s has the potential to provide.
When Project Watershed and the K’omoks First Nation partnership finish restoring the former Field’s Sawmill site, an important piece of the K’omoks estuary will return to its natural state, a saltwater marsh.
The partners have decided to name the newly preserved property Kus-kus-sum in honor of the ancient K’omoks village that once thrived directly across the Courtenay River. It’s hoped that the K’omoks first Nation and the City of Courtenay will accept ownership.
The preservation of these 8.3 riverside acres represents a triumph by 21st Century environmentalists to protect the K’omoks Estuary.
But Kus-kus-sum isn’t the first K’omoks estuary marsh that needed saving.
And if it wasn’t for the efforts of the newly formed Comox Strathcona Natural History Society in the late 1960s and early 1970s to preserve another, larger marsh further down river, the Field’s Sawmill site might have been lost forever to commercial development.
Norma Morton, born in 1931 to a third generation Comox Valley family, remembers her father driving their Model T vehicle along the gravel road, known as Comox Road, or the Dyke Road, and counting the Trillium flowers flourishing along the riverside.
Ms. Morton remembers that before the Field family built a sawmill on the site, there was another enterprise located there called Riverside Laundry, a business that did all the cleaning for St. Joseph’s Hospital. And that after the laundry closed, she recalls that a cannery was built.
Project Watershed archive photo of Field’s Sawmill and Hollyhock Flats
When Ms. Morton moved back to Courtenay in 1966 after working for several years in Vancouver and Victoria, she was devastated by the uncontrolled development of a Valley that she remembered as pristine.
So she and her husband, Keith, and a dozen local enthusiastic birders and botanists formed the Comox Strathcona Natural History Society. It was the beginning of the environment movement in the Comox Valley.
Their first project was to protect and preserve a saltwater marsh just south of Field’s Sawmill, which had not yet been named and was being used as a dumping ground. The sawmill was filling in the marsh with chips, oil cans and trash.
Ms. Morton remembers it being even worse: Workers threw wire and other debris directly into the river.
The society had begun an 8-year battle.
About that same time, a University of British Columbia masters student by the name of Kennedy spent a summer cataloging all the plants thriving in the estuary, and in the marsh in particular. One of those plants was “sidalcea hendersonii,” or commonly known as Henderson’s Checker Mallow, or the Marsh Hollyhock.
To promote the natural history society’s efforts to save the marsh, local botanist Sid Belsom wrote an essay extolling its beauty and virtues and he headlined it “Hollyhock Flats in the Courtenay Estuary.” The Comox District Free Press (The Green Sheet) published the article in 1966.
That unofficial name has stuck.
The fight to save the marsh gained momentum in 1969. The society wrote a letter to Crown Zellerbach asking that the property owners preserve the marsh area as a nature conservancy.
By the early 1970s a Comox Valley chapter of the Society Promoting Environmental Conservancy (SPEC) had been formed by members of the natural history society and others.
Norma Morton, early Comox Valley environmentalist
Ms. Morton wrote a 17-page brief for SPEC that contained 10 recommendations to save the K’omoks Estuary. It had the support of provincial biologists.
The brief was sent to local mayors and other elected officials. But only Comox Mayor Dick Merrick had the courage to put its recommendations before the town council.
Merrick moved to preserve all the land between Dyke road and the estuary, from Field’s Sawmill to K’omoks First Nation as a greenway. The motion failed because no council member would second it.
But the council did support preservation of a section of land where an old shake mill had been located, which today is a Rotary-sponsored viewing stand.
Despite that setback, Ms. Morton and friends kept up the fight.
Their efforts were finally rewarded in July 1974 when NDP MLA Karen Sanford secured funding to purchase the 24.3 acres of saltwater marsh from Crown Zellerbach, southeast and adjacent to Field’s Sawmill. The purchase also included 1.8 acres southwest of Dyke Road between the tidal slough floodgate and the old LaFarge cement silo.
And Hollyhock Flats was preserved.
The Comox Strathcona Natural History Society eventually became Comox Valley Nature, and is still active in birding, botany and land conservancy.
It was this essay, written in 1966 by Sid Belsom, a member of the original Comox Strathcona Natural History Society, that gave Hollyhock Flats it’s name. We urge readers to follow the article to the end. The first three and the last seven paragraphs are particularly relevant to today’s fundraising drive to restore the old Field’s Sawmill site.
By Sid Belsom
Over the years swamps and marshes have been portrayed in many characters, mysterious, ominous, frightening, etc., but seldom are they thought of as interesting and beautiful.
To the passengers of the hundreds of cars that travel between Courtenay and Comox, the marsh between the road and the Courtenay River is probably a very drab and uninteresting sight that doesn’t even warrant a casual glance.
However, for the interested, this “drab” swamp is full of life and beauty, and in spring and summer it is transformed into a botanical bonanza. Starting early with Trilliums, Easter Lilies, Bleeding Heart, Peacock (or Shooting Star), Skunk Cabbage, these being followed by Blue Camas, Yellow Monkey Flower, Blue Eyed Grass, Musk Flower, Wild Lily of the Valley, Wild Ginger and Chocolate Lily.
By May and June, the whole area is literally painted with Indian Paint Brush, the blush of which is liberally dotted with the white of thousands of Tall White Bog Orchid, with the edge trimmed with Chocolate Lily.
As spring warms into summer, and the spring flowers fade away, the colour continues as the scene is taken over by the Wild Hollyhock, St. John’s Wort, the Purple Loosestrife, Water Parsnip, Silverweed, Fireweed and Hardhack.
In the wet spots throughout the summer will be found Veronica, Brooklime, Canada Mint and Hedge Nettle. Under the shade of the trees will be found the Star Flower shoulder-to-shoulder with the Wild Lily of the Valley, on the edge of the gravel the Self Heal ekes out a living whilst in the tangle of logs at the edge of the road where nothing else grows. Longstem Greencaps grow in abundance.
With the smell of fall in the air, the Douglas Aster is still putting up a brave show with the Blue Sailors, Gumweed, Cats Ears and Agoseris, but now the swamp is preparing for its winter sleep leaving pleasant memories to the few that have savoured its months of glory, enjoying each flower as it buds, blooms and dies, its place being taken by the next species and the next, the colour changing week-by-week as species follows species in this parade of colour.
Also adding to this profusion of colour are the shrubs that thrive here, the western Dogwood, Ninebark, Red Berry Elder, Waxberry, Honeysuckle, Black Twinberry, Saskatoon Berry, Ocean Spray, Salmonberry, Thimbleberry, Blackberry, Wild Rose, Sweet Gale to name some that call the swamp home.
These shrubs also add the colour of their berries to the scene as anyone that has admired scape and black berry of the Black Twinberry will agree. They also help the other inhabitants of the swamp, the birds. The summer picture would not be complete without the sound and sight of the Red winged Blackbird, the flash of the yellow on the tail of the Cedar Waxwing, the furtive rustle in the thick brush indicating the presence of a Towhee or Song Sparrow, proud “Poppa” Robin with a beak full of worms, the thrill of finding a Killdeers nest in the gravel and the amazement of not being able to locate it the next day, the busy chatter of the Chickadees and Siskins in the tree tops.
With the fall comes an almost complete change of bird populations, the Gulls begin to appear on the gravel bar at the edge of the swamp, the migrating Bonaparte Gulls usually being the first to appear followed by the Glacous Winged Gull that stands by us all winter.
The Mergansers and Grebes begin to appear on the river, the Coots will be found dabbling in the mud in the shallow water. The scaups and Scoters begin to appear and are soon joined by an occasional Goldeneye, Bufflehead and Loon while the Kingfisher looks from a high vantage spot of his dinner.
During the dull grey days of winter, the contrasting white of the Trumpeter and whistling swans can sometimes be seen as they feed there, whilst around its perimeter the Heron patiently waits for his next meal to come swimming by.
By the end of February, however, one begins to sense a stirring amongst the inhabitants of the swamp, maybe it is just a glimpse of the breeding plumage that now adorns many of the male ducks, or the exuberant display of the bubbling Bufflehead who seems to be willing to show off his dashing ways to anyone with time to stand and watch.
Yes, there is vibrant life and beauty in the swamp, if you have eyes to see it.
One cannot ignore the human touch, however, as the piles of indiscriminately discarded garbage are all too evident, dumped by people who have no eye or feeling to appreciate nature’s prolific display.
There is little doubt that in this river marsh there are more varieties and a more prolific display of our native flowers than any area of comparable size in this area (with the possible exception of Puntledge Park), but you won’t see it rushing by at 40 miles an hour.
Nature does not die although it appears to when it rests until it is ready to burst out anew each spring.
However, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that to some people this area is not looked upon as a storehouse of nature’s wonders, but as a prime piece of real estate that would make a first-class industrial site, and the green they see is not the marsh grass, but dollar bills. If this happens, it will surely die and nothing will revive it ever.
So, if you live in this area why not grant yourself an occasional few minutes this spring and summer to take a closer look while the chance is still there.
If you do take the time to look, please reap the harvest of pleasure with your eyes and heart, not by picking the flowers.
Published in the Comox District Free Press, Spring 1966
After the timber company Interfor closed Field’s Sawmill in 2004, they authorized Merville photographer Tim Penney to document what remained of the iconic Courtenay business. Penney visited the site in November 2005 and captured images with Nikon D100 and D200 cameras of the abandoned sawmill, which had been left undisturbed after the last working shift. The house builder and cabinet maker by trade has made photographs since 1955.
Penny has shared some of his images with Decafnation. You can enjoy them here.