Two documents have recently surfaced that indicate the Town of Comox had discussions with the Comox Valley Natural History Society about creating a natural history museum in the home of Hamilton Mack Laing. The letters also indicate the society’s interest to take on responsibility for developing a park on Laing’s property.
The letters, written in 1979 and 1981, provide proof that Laing participated in getting assurances that the Town of Comox would carry out his last wishes if he bequeathed them his house, the bulk of his work as a naturalist and a significant amount of money to finance the endeavors.
Laing was an honoured figure in the CV Natural History Society and his caretaker nurse was Alice Bullen, also a member of the society and a Town councillor at the time. The letters show that Laing knew of the society’s communication with the town and supported it.
Up until now, the Town of Comox has claimed that all records and accounts of its dealings with Laing and his representatives have disappeared.
Laing was prolific naturalist, photographer, writer, artist and noted ornithologist, whose work from the Comox waterfront since 1922 earned him worldwide recognition.
Laing lived a Walden Pond lifestyle on several waterfront acres along Comox Bay from 1922 until his death in 1982. Laing was lesser known than Campbell River’s Roderick Haig-Brown, but to serious ornithologists, his work was more important.
When Laing died, he left the bulk of his work to the Town of Comox, and also his waterfront property, his second home (named Shakesides), and the residue cash from his estate “for the improvement and development of my home as a natural history museum.
But 35 years later, the town has done nothing to satisfy his last wishes, and the money Laing left to finance his legacy would have been used for other purposes.
One of the important revelations from the documents unearthed from Laing’s papers preserved at the B.C. Archives is that the town may have competed for the trust, or at least convinced Laing that they were the best holders of his trust.
That may be cause for the B.C. Supreme Court to regard the town’s breach of Laing’s trust as something more serious.
The Town Council voted unanimously this week to try to break Laing’s trust with an application to the high court that argues the trust is “no longer … in the best interests of the town.” The council wants to use Laing’s money to tear down his house and build a viewing platform on the site.
The town’s councillors obviously have little regard for heritage or respect for one of the community’s most famous former residents. Laing’s work and his home have received more support from outside the town.
An independent and nationally recognized heritage consulting firm says that the former home of the naturalist — known as “Shakesides” — is of national importance and should be saved for its historic value and for the enjoyment of future generations.
The chairman of Heritage B.C., a provincial agency committed to “conservation and tourism, economic and environmental sustainability, community pride and an appreciation of our common history,” believes the heritage value of Shakesides demands that Laing’s former home should be “conserved for … future generations” and that the Town of Comox should “use the building in ways that will conserve its heritage value.”
Heritage B.C. has offered its assistance, at no charge, to the Town of Comox, for the duration of the process to repurpose Shakesides, and pretty much guaranteed the town a provincial grant through the Heritage Legacy Fund Heritage Conservation program.
The two letters were discovered by Kate Panyatoff, a former president of the Mack Laing Heritage Society. She was doing research for the Comox Valley Nature’s Cultural and Heritage Group, which plans to publish some of Laing’s work.
Note: This article has been updated from the original post.