By voting unanimously last week to demolish Shakesides, the home of noted Canadian naturalist Hamilton Mack Laing, the Comox Town Council has failed to recognize a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build community cohesiveness.
Hamilton Mack Laing was a naturalist, photographer, writer and noted ornithologist, whose work from the Comox waterfront since 1922 earned him worldwide recognition.
Laing gave his waterfront property, his home and the cash from his estate to the Town of Comox “for the improvement and development of my home as a natural history museum.” The town accepted the money and, therefore, the terms of the trust.
Laing’s own letters, now preserved in the B.C. Archives, show that prior to his death in 1982 he held discussions with Town of Comox officials, and that he was satisfied they would follow-through on the instructions in his Last Will.
But 34 years later, the Town of Comox has done little to satisfy his last wishes and mishandled the money Laing left, raising serious ethical and legal questions. You can read about those here and here.
Those matters may ultimately be resolved in court when the town applies to change the terms of the trust, and effectively negate Laing’s last requests.
But, the ethical and legal issues aside, the Town Council should have heeded those who believe Laing’s importance and his last wishes deserve something better than yet another forgettable viewing platform.
It’s not too late to change course.
The renovation of Laing’s home into some form of a nature interpretive center, and the preservation of his legacy, is an opportunity to strengthen this community by honoring its past, and by bringing people together to rebuild and respect Laing’s legacy gift. This project would undoubtedly inspire Comox Valley people.
Community service groups, such as Rotary, look for opportunities like this to support with funding and volunteers. Many building trades have already agreed to donate their expertise and time to restoring Shakesides. Businesses would surely donate materials. Other volunteers would provide labor and raise the necessary funds.
Approached in this way, Shakesides would become a source of community pride. After all, Laing’s home is an important piece of Comox history. Without history, how do people ever acquire a sense of place, of belonging? Our First Nations people understand this better than the rest of us.
But, instead of inspiring volunteers to collaborate for the common good, the council unanimously chose to perpetuate divisiveness. It’s a discouraging lack of vision and leadership.
Faced with similar dilemmas, other communities have done far better.
A decade ago in Campbell River, for example, that City Council considered demolishing the small waterfront cottage where Sybil Andrews, one of Canada’s important artists, did some of her best work. The cottage had fallen into disrepair. It had no foundation; it sat directly on sand.
Led by the Campbell River Arts Council and the Sybil Andrews Heritage Society, citizens convinced the city to restore the cottage, which they did collaboratively.
The community project inspired the city to create a Heritage Registry (Comox does not have one), and they made the Andrews cottage its first entry.
Today, Sybil Andrews Cottage thrives as a gallery to display the works of local artists and as a site for programs of visual and performing arts. Campbell River’s museum and tourist groups promote tours of the cottage as a community attraction. You can read about it here.
Let’s urge the Comox Town Council to reconsider its options. Let’s hope they will work with the Mack Laing Heritage Society, the Comox Valley Naturalists Society and the community at large to take on a project that strengthens our community’s identity and preserves an important part of our heritage.