A BC Supreme Court has granted the Mack Laing Heritage Society intervenor status in the Town of Comox’s application to alter the naturalist’s public trust. MLHS hopes the new council is open to out-of-court discussions
This article was updated Monday to include a quote from Mayor-Elect Russ Arnott
There’s renewed hope that the fate of famous Comox naturalist Hamilton Mack Laing’s public trusts and his heritage home, called Shakesides, might be settled out of court.
Over the objections of the Town of Comox, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Douglas W. Thompson recently granted the Mack Laing Heritage Society intervenor status in a case to alter the late naturalist’s public trust.
The town applied to the court in 2017 to change Laing’s trusts so it can demolish Shakesides and use the money and property Laing left the town for other purposes. The Mack Laing Heritage Society (MLHS) has opposed the town’s application.
In a court hearing Oct. 16 in Nanaimo, Justice Thompson said he thought he had given clear instructions to the town and the BC Attorney General in mid-April to sign a consent order allowing the MLHS to present their evidence “with no restrictions” at trial.
The town has refused to sign several versions of the consent order because they want to exclude much of the MLHS evidence and limit the society’s time before the court.
This time, Justice Thompson directed the parties to sign a consent order, which he framed for them, and instructed MLHS lawyer Patrick Canning to write.
As of today, the Attorney General and MLHS have agreed to the terms, but the Town of Comox has not yet accepted the order as written.
The MLHS hopes Comox will sign the consent order soon. And, now that the municipal election is over, perhaps enter into talks that prevent further costly court appearances.
“We think the court did the right thing in making MLHS (an) intervenor, and if we get to court we have faith that the right thing will happen there as well,” said MLHS President Kris Nielsen.
“However, our true hope is that the new council will work with us instead of against us to realize the terms of Laing’s will, which Comox agreed to when they took his money in trust. To that end we have a business plan and generous support from many construction and heritage professionals.” he said.
Comox Mayor-Elect Russ Arnott has left the door open for talks.
“Given that there is a new council it will be something we will be looking at. I would hope to negotiate a suitable outcome for all parties involved and the community as a whole,” he said.
FURTHER READING: Read more on the Mack Laing case
The justice also granted additional time for the MLHS to present new evidence, despite objections from the town and the AG. He gave MLHS until Oct. 30 to file the new evidence and gave the town and the AG until Nov. 30 to file responses.
MLHS has prepared a business plan for restoring Shakesides and transforming it into the nature house envisioned by the famous Comox naturalist. The plan includes commitments from about two dozen Comox Valley construction companies to supply materials or labor at little or no cost to the town.
“We just wanted to make sure someone spoke for Mack in court,” said Gordon Olsen, a former friend of Mack Laing. “And we hope Comox doesn’t waste any more taxpayer dollars on this unnecessary litigation. Instead let’s honour the legacy of this amazing and generous man.”
There is no court date set to hear the case. It would not likely get onto the Supreme Court docket until February at the earliest.
Nielsen said that delay gives the society and the town an opportunity to hammer out a solution by the end of the year.
The Town of Comox has petitioned the court to vary the terms of Laing’s trust, including the right to demolish the famous ornithologist’s iconic home, called Shakesides. The society wants to present a business plan for a future use of Shakesides that honors Laing’s agreement with the town.
The society also wants a forensic audit of the Laing financial trust.
MLHS has argued for years that the town mishandled Laing’s funds. A private citizen, Gordon Olsen, commissioned an independent audit by a Campbell River firm that concluded Laing’s trust should be worth more than $400,000 today.
The town has admitted to claims by the MLHS, individuals and other organizations that it had misspent Laing’s money. In a Nov. 29, 2017 staff report, Town CAO Richard Kannigan presented a long list of inappropriate expenditures.
In December 2017, the Town Council voted to add back nearly $200,000 into the trust.
Meanwhile, the town has racked up additional legal fees by fighting the MLHS.
Who is Mack Laing
Hamilton Mack Laing (1883-1982) was one of Canada’s foremost naturalist-collectors; he was a photographer, artist, writer and educator whose output included over 700 journal and scientific articles.
He wrote a biography of his friend Major Allan Brooks, another well-known Canadian naturalist.
Laing left several unpublished manuscripts, journals and field notes, and hundreds of letters, papers and photographs. These are available for viewing at the Royal BC Museum, the Winnipeg Archives and the Canadian National Museum of Natural History.
Specimens he collected are still in the collections of many major Canadian and American museums.
Mack Laing belonged to the Brotherhood of Venery, a secret fraternity known as the “B.” This influential group of conservationists and naturalists included such notables as Percy Taverner, Kenneth Racey, J. B. Harkin, Ian McTaggart Cowan, John Muir and Aldo Leopold.