Father Charles Brandt: a long and winding journey

Father Charles Brandt: a long and winding journey

Father Charles by a writing desk on the main floor of his original cabin  /  George Le Masurier photos

By George Le Masurier

Father Charles Brandt made a long and winding journey from a farm in rural Missouri to the Comox Valley. Along the way, it took him through New York, Louisiana, Mexico City, Oklahoma and Iowa, with side trips through Switzerland, Italy, England, Ottawa and Winnipeg.

He eventually found his way to the Tsolum River where he lived with a group of hermits and, a little later, on his own 27-acre hermitage along the Oyster River.

This week, just 19 days before his 96th birthday, Father Charles donated a conservation covenant over his land to the Comox Valley Land Trust. The covenant protects the land from development, logging or other activities in perpetuity, regardless of any change in ownership over time. The CVLT will hold the covenant, although Brandt plans to gift his property to the Comox Valley Regional District for a public park.

It’s a remarkable donation, not only for its charity or its demonstration of love for nature, but also because it happened at all.

The boy who was raised as a Methodist and converted to Anglicanism, was once on track to the Anglican priesthood. But as his interests in communicating with God through nature and in living as a hermit grew, Brandt later converted to Catholicism. He was officially ordained as a hermit-priest, the first in 200 years, in the Roman Catholic Church in Courtenay in 1966.

But Brandt told Decafnation in an interview just over a month ago that he wasn’t always so certain about his future vocation. He had many questions and doubts along the way.

Still, Brandt said, he subconsciously knew he wanted to live a contemplative life within nature.

As a young Boy Scout he slept in the wild and kept absolute silence for 24 hours. He had a passion for birding, which with scouting, were his first connections to the natural world. He studied ornithology at Cornell University. He became an internationally known master bookbinder. By the age of 13, he had read Henry David Thoreau’s epic book, Walden.

Uncertain early beginnings

Charles Brandt was born on Feb. 19, 1923 in Kansas City, Missouri to his Danish-English parents, Alvin Rudolph Brandt-Yde and Ann Chester Bridges, who were Methodists. When the family moved to a farm outside the city when Brandt was five years old, Brandt had his first experiences with the natural world.

“Every tree had a bird’s nest in it … it was amazing to me,” Brandt said in an interview published last year on Academia.edu. “When I was quite young, I felt we should have contact with God … it was just kind of an intuition.”


“The monastery life doesn’t provide enough time for meditation and prayer. They’re workaholics.”


And when a relative introduced him at age 13 to the works of Henry David Thoreau, he read Walden, which he now says was his first awareness of the hermit life. But the idea didn’t have time to fully sink in.

After graduating from high school in 1941, he started post-secondary studies at the University of Missouri. But that was interrupted by the draft and a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force. He trained primarily as a navigator, but also bombardiering, something he questioned with a military chaplain. But the chaos of war didn’t give him space to think more about it.

Brandt says now that he wouldn’t consider himself a conscious objector. He calls himself nonviolent, but ready to take a stand when there is a reason.

“If I had known what was going on in Germany, I would have been there from the beginning,” he said.

After the war, Brandt chose to study at Cornell University in New York State because they had an ornithology department. But he quickly decided against pursuing that course of studies, and was, for a time, uncertain about his vocation.

Brandt had come into contact with the Anglican Church while in the military. So when he attended a summer religious retreat during his second year at Cornell, at age 25, he began thinking of the Anglican priesthood and was ordained into the church in 1948.

Brandt meets Merton

But after reading the book The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton he started thinking about the monastic life, and becoming a Roman Catholic. So after visiting a Catholic priest in Louisiana and carrying on to Mexico City to visit the shrine of the Lady of Guadalupe, Brandt decided to study theology with Benedictine monks in Shawnee, Oklahoma. He spent a year there as a choir monk, and was officially “received” into the Catholic Church.

Brandt’s next stop on his journey to the Comox Valley was a religious order farm in Bardstown, Kentucky, known as the Abbey of Gethsemani. He learned bookbinding there and met one of the great influences on his life, Thomas Merton, in person.

Brandt then spent eight years as a Trappist monk in the New Melleray monastery in Iowa. He honed his skills as a bookbinder there, eventually taking charge of the bindery. But he found the Trappist life too rigid. Brandt had become more and more interested in a contemplative life.

So Brandt wrote a letter to Thomas Merton, who responded that he should try it.

“He (Merton) told me the monastery life doesn’t provide enough time for meditation and prayer. It’s too busy,” Brandt said. “They’re workaholics.”

The responding letter remains a treasured possession of Brandt’s.

“I had just heard about some hermits on Vancouver Island,” Brandt told Decafnation. “I visited them in March of 1965 … and never looked back.”

Since that time, Brandt has practiced a different and little known kind of Christian prayer. It’s a type of Christian meditation advocated by Merton, and made popular by the Trappist monk Thomas Keating.

“By comparison, it makes traditional Christian contemplative prayer feel outdated,” Brandt said. “It’s a willingness to be present to God, to accept his actions within us.”

Brandt continues to host a monthly meditations for a select group of about 10 people at the Oyster River Hermitage.

Covenant decision not easy

Although Brandt owns his property — he purchased it for $9,000 in 1965 — he needed the blessing of the Bishop of Victoria, who briefly considered bringing another hermit to live there.

“I thought it would be difficult to sign the document for the covenant,” Brandt said. “I lose a little security making the covenant, but I still own the property and could sell it, but for much less value with the covenant on it.

“Kind of a temptation,” he said.

But when the covenant was offered to him he said, yes, because, “It’s always good to say yes … just the idea leads to things we don’t know about.”

Brandt will continue to live in the small cabin — sometimes called The Hermitage or Merton’s House –that he built from lumber salvaged from a house he tore down in south Courtenay. Former Vanier Principal Hank Schellink found the house for him, and Brandt lived there while dismantling it.


“They (doctors) hold immense power,” he said. “Not being able to drive would hold me down.”


Before his moved his cabin from the Tsolum area to the Oyster River property, the local Knights of Columbus built a foundation for him. And they used a low-bed trailer to transport the building.

“But the posts on the bridge across the Tsolum River were blocking our passage,” he said. “So they cut the top off the posts to get the cabin across — no one ever knew.”

While the protective covenant covers the whole property, Brant’s cabin and the road to it will be held by a private society comprising members of his Hermitage Advisory Committee. The group helped Brandt navigate the complex legal paperwork required, and to assist in raising the $20,000 to pay for it.

The possibility remains for a new hermit to someday live in the cabin.

“It wouldn’t necessarily have to be a monk, it could be someone with a little monastic training and an environmentalist,” he said.

Bookbinding

Brandt has supported himself mostly through bookbinding, a skill he first learned at the Gethsemani Abbey and later perfected at an Iowa monastery. But it was his interest in learning more about archival paper conservation that changed his life.

Through a friend, he left the hermitage to study paper at the New England Document Center in Massachusetts, and quickly rose to the head of its bindery division within a year. That led to an offer from a bindery in Ascona, Switzerland, where he went to learn more about paper and binding. And that, in turn, created an offer to work as a conservator on many of Canada’s art treasures at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa, where he spent five years and earned a small pension. From there, Brandt moved to Winnipeg to set up an conservation centre for the provincial government.

He lived away from his Oyster River hermitage from 1973 to 1984, an absence he likens to St. Paul, who travelled building tents.

“I bound books,” he said.

Brandt found bookbinding to fit perfectly with his contemplative lifestyle.

“I found it very meditative, especially sewing the book together. It’s very relaxing,” he said. “And I was preserving humanity, its culture, something I thought quite worthwhile.”

Next steps

As Brandt prepares for the end of life, he’s trying to get all of his affairs in order. Yet, he’s troubled by a few things.

He’s unsure what will happen to his collection of 20,000 digital photographs and his “stacks of slides” that contain images chronicling his time as a hermit.

“Whoever moves in here will need to catalog them,” he said. “They might be historically valuable in time.”

But with his 96th birthday looming on Feb. 19, his biggest concern centers on his driver’s licence. It’s a topic his doctor has raised.

“They (doctors) hold immense power,” he said. “Not being able to drive would hold me down.”

After two hours of conversation, Brandt apologized for ending our interview. He had an important meeting in Campbell River. So, refusing help to descend his deck stairs, the nearly 96-year-old bookbinder and hermit-priest climbed into his Westfalia van and drove off.

 

 

 

HERMITS

Hermit, also called Eremite, one who retires from society, primarily for religious reasons, and lives in solitude. In Christianity the word (from Greek erēmitēs, “living in the desert”) is used interchangeably with anchorite, although the two were originally distinguished on the basis of location: an anchorite selected a cell attached to a church or near a populous centre, while a hermit retired to the wilderness.

The first Christian hermits appeared by the end of the 3rd century in Egypt, where one reaction to the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Decius was flight into the desert to preserve the faith and to lead a life of prayer and penance. Paul of Thebes, who fled to the desert about 250, has been considered the first hermit.

 

THOUGHTS ABOUT
FATHER CHARLES

Decafnation asked Chris Hilliar for his thoughts about Father Charles’ protection of his land and its potential gift to the public. Hilliar is a member of the Hermitage Advisory Committee

“No one who has known Father Charles will be surprised at the recent announcement of his gift of property as future parkland for the Comox Valley Regional District. This gift is, I think, the final expression of his love for the Earth. It is entirely in keeping with both his character and his philosophy of life. Seldom will you speak with Father Charles that at some point he won’t paraphrase Thomas Berry as saying that, “the human community and the natural world must come together in single sacred harmony or perish in the desert”. I think he believed this to the very core and he lived it too.

“The Hermitage as his house and land became known was his own privately owned property. Charles logged it. I do not think he thought his land should be a pristine wilderness devoid of the touch of mankind. Rather, I think he wanted to log his land to show that it could be done sustainably, that the forest could have trees removed and still be a healthy forest. I think he wanted to at least prove to himself that he could benefit from his property but still live in harmony with it and be a healthy member of its ecosystem.

“I think he achieved his goal. Whenever I visit Charles I always park my truck at the outer gate and walk the long, winding gravel road to his house. It is a contemplative walk and I intentionally breathe deeply and am mindful of my steps. By the time I reach the house I am calm and relaxed, (as I should be to visit a hermit priest). And this of course is a small part of the daily walk that Charles has taken on his property over the past decades. He walks, he communes with nature, and he lives his philosophy.

“People of the Comox Valley will benefit from his parkland gift for years to come, but Charles has also taken steps to ensure that the Hermitage will remain a house of contemplation after his passing. This too is a wonderful legacy for the Comox Valley.”

 

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CVRD to create better access to Nymph Falls Park

CVRD to create better access to Nymph Falls Park

Comox Valley Regional District photo

By George Le Masurier

When summer finally arrives in the Comox Valley and our thoughts turn from snow sports toward cooling off with a swim in an area river, the Comox Valley Regional District will have completed a major project to allow for easier access to Nymph Falls Parks.

The CVRD issued the following media release.

“By May, those with mobility challenges will be able to more easily wheel to the falls from the parking lot. With the falls being one of the more popular swimming spots in the region, summer visitors will also enjoy the wider, more gently sloped trail.

“The new trail will be 3.5 metres (11.5 feet) in width, which is similar to the main trail that extends into the park from the parking lot. The widened trail will also allow emergency vehicles to have access, and service vehicles to effectively manage outhouse waste. Additional improvements will also include a viewing platform and an accessible toilet.

“Trail widening and rerouting starts Thursday, Jan. 31, beginning with the falling of approximately 20 Cedar and 17 Fir trees. Permits were issued by the province and the timber will remain in the park for habitat use. This work will close the Mid-Line Trail to the falls for all of February and March with a portion of the parking lot also closed.

“Park visitors will be directed around the construction with the Lower River Trail being the best option for getting to the falls. During construction visitors are encouraged to discover other parks such as the CVRD’s nearby Wildwood Forest Park.

“Wacor Holdings will be completing the project which is expected to be finalized in May. For more information and project updates, residents may visit the project page at www.comoxvalleyrd.ca/accessibletrail .

“The CVRD thanks residents and trail users for their patience as this work is being done to improve the park, and welcomes questions and comments at communityservices@comoxvalleyrd.ca or by calling 250-334-6000.”

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Herring fishery hurts bi-national orca recovery efforts

Herring fishery hurts bi-national orca recovery efforts

The  Hornby-Denman islands herring fishery in the 1980s  /  Bob Cain photo — View gallery below

By George Le Masurier

Killer whales that live, play and forage for food in the Salish Sea are starving to death. To help them, both sides of the U.S.-Canada Pacific Northwest border have launched multi-million dollar initiatives to increase the chinook salmon stocks that comprise 80 percent of the orcas’ diet.

But the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ plans to undercut those international efforts have baffled orca conservation organizations.

FURTHER READING: Canada and Washington state announce orca recovery programs

In March, the DFO has scheduled a massive industrial kill of the small silver Pacific herring in the Denman and Hornby island area. It’s the last remaining significant herring spawning area in the Pacific Northwest, from Alaska to Washington state.

Conservancy Hornby Island has asked the federal government to close the herring roe fishery planned for next month. Pacific Wild, a conservation voice dedicated to ensuring preservation of the Great Bear Rainforest, has demanded termination of the fishery.

Grant Scott, spokesperson for the Hornby Island group, says the the DFO has failed to consider the impact of the herring fishery on the entire Salish Sea ecosystem.

The diet of the endangered and declining populations of southern resident Killer Whales consists of 80 percent chinook salmon. And the diet of salmon consists of 80 percent Pacific herring.

“It doesn’t take a scientist to make the important link between herring and killer whales,” Scott said in a statement to Decafnation. “Wouldn’t it make sense to leave this stock alone to hopefully rebuild all the herring schools on our coast and the marine life that needs them for survival?”

Scott said discontinuing the fishery wouldn’t harm anyone.

The industry now supports few jobs or taxes for the province. In the mid-1980s, commercial fishermen were awash in profits when herring earned up to $5,000 per ton. Today, the price ranges from $150 to $700 per ton, because Japanese taste for the delicacy has faded.

According to BC Ministry of Agriculture data, the herring fishery was valued at $309 million in 1995 (adjusted for inflation), but only $58 million in 2017 for the same tonnage of fish.

But that isn’t the worst impact of continuing the herring fishery.

“Ninety percent of the herring are ground up for fish farm food and pet food.” he said. “Using wild fish for non-human consumption is illegal under the federal Fisheries Act. When 90 percent of the herring is used for fish farm and pet food is the federal Minister of Fisheries breaking the law?”

The DFO doesn’t exactly have a good track record of managing the herring population. It’s policies have lead to the closure of four of the six major herring stocks on the BC coast in the last 20 years, according to Scott, who is a former commercial fisher. Basically, herring have declined because they’ve been overfished.

The DFO set a top limit for killing 28,000 tons of spawning herring in the upcoming March opening. That’s the rough equivalent of 200 million fish.

Scott says Conservancy Hornby Island believes this last productive spawning ground will get overfished this year, and that will impact other species, such as salmon and Killer Whales.

“We are asking for our politicians’ support in closing down the herring roe fishery, or at least closing the senine roe fishery in the Strait of Georgia, especially around Hornby and Denman islands,” Scott said.

According to the Hornby group, Vancouver businessman Jimmy pattison owns most of the seine boats working the coast.

Historically abundant fish

An archeology study of fish bones on the Pacific Northwest coast found that herring was the region’s most abundant fish dating back 10,000 years.

But herring stocks started to decline for the first time in the late 1800s when the industrial fish kill began. A Simon Fraser University study concluded that spawning patterns and population decline had been altered by 1910.

And yet, DFO has increased the number of herring allowed to be caught.

According to Pacific Wild’s website, Denman-Hornby will be the only area fished in 2019. But while the “coast-wide catch has declined with herring abundance in the last 30 years, the quantity of fish taken from the Salish Sea has more than doubled,” the organization says.

Scott says that although the DFO claims to manage herring according to the principles of Ecosystem Based Management. But the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, which evaluates ecological sustainability of wild-caught seafood in North America, thinks otherwise.

In its 2016 evaluation of the herring fishery, the program said, “Currently (DFO) management of the herring fisheries does not account for ecosystem considerations when determining abundance (or) allowable catch. As herring is an important source of food for a variety of species, the lack of ecosystem considerations … in the fisheries’ overall management warrants a score of ‘high’ concern.”

Canadian and Washington state governments might be wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on orca recovery programs to increase salmon stocks, if the salmon themselves don’t have enough food to sustain even current population levels.

 

 

 

 

LIFECYCLE OF THE PACIFIC HERRING

Pacific herring prefer spawning locations in sheltered bays and estuaries. Conditions that trigger spawning are not altogether clear, but after spending weeks congregating in the deeper channels, both males and females will begin to enter shallower inter-tidal or sub-tidal waters. Submerged vegetation, especially eelgrass, is a preferred substrate for oviposition. A single female may lay as many as 20,000 eggs in one spawn following ventral contact with submerged substrates. However, the juvenile survival rate is only about one resultant adult per 10,000 eggs, due to high predation by numerous other species.

The precise staging of spawning is not understood, although some researchers suggest the male initiates the process by release of milt, which has a pheromone that stimulates the female to begin oviposition. The behavior seems to be collective so that an entire school may spawn in the period of a few hours, producing an egg density of up to 6,000,000 eggs per square meter. The fertilized spherical eggs, measuring 1.2 to 1.5 millimeters in diameter, incubate for approximately 10 days in estuarine waters that are about 10 degrees Celsius. Eggs and juveniles are subject to heavy predation.

— Wikipedia

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Will US/Canada recovery plans do enough to save orcas?

Will US/Canada recovery plans do enough to save orcas?

A Killer Whale cruising the British Columbia coastline

By George Le Masurier

Marine biologists can’t say with certainty why one of the endangered southern resident killer whales swam up the Courtenay River this fall, an unusual behavior, but there’s a good chance it was scouting for salmon. The southern resident orcas that inhabit the Salish Sea waters around Vancouver Island are starving.

The population of southern orcas has dwindled to 74, and experts expect two more of the whales to die by summer. Although a new calf was recently born, no newborns have survived since 2015, and 73 have either died or gone missing since 1998.

Saving the orcas will take a complex mixture of conservation actions, according to Les Purce, former president of The Evergreen State College, who co-chaired the recently completed Washington State Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force.

The task force identified the three major threats to the southern orcas as primarily a lack of chinook salmon, their primary food source, but also vessel noise and toxic contaminants from stormwater runoff.

“Issues facing orcas are a metaphor for the whole Salish Sea ecosystem and the effect on aquatic and human life,” he told Decafnation by phone. “We must take it seriously and move in that kind of alliance.”

And to be effective, he said, the U.S. and Canada must coordinate their efforts.

U.S. versus Canada

So far, Canada and the U.S. appear to be taking different approaches toward the same goal.

Washington state Governor Jay Inslee has proposed a $1.1 billion orca recovery plan based on the 36 recommendations of the task force. Whether the state legislature, which just reconvened, will approve it all remains to be seen.

Canada’s federal government set aside just $167.4 million spread among recovery measures for three whale species, the southern resident orcas, the St. Lawrence Estuary belugas and the North Atlantic right whales. But Ottawa later added $61.5 million specifically for the killer whales.

Washington’s task force proposed a variety of measures to reduce contaminants in stormwater runoff, such as a ban on products containing polychorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Canada has not addressed stormwater contamination.

But stormwater is a major issue. Salmon absorb toxins– like PCBs, and PDBEs found in flame retardants — and when orcas eat them the toxins build up in their fatty tissues. Once metabolized, they are shared from mother to newborn calves via gestation and lactation.

But both countries say they are aligned on commitments to reduce vessel noise.

Noise travels five times faster in water than in air, and interferes with the whales’ echolocation, which they use to navigate and hunt for prey.

Washington’s Gov. Inslee has proposed a three-year ban on whale watching. But neither Ottawa or the B.C. government has shown an appetite for a similar measure.

The Canadian transportation minister did impose a new rule requiring all vessels to stay at least 200 metres away from killer whales. But conservation groups question if that’s enough to have a significant impact.

Five Canadian conservation groups joined a petition last fall asking Ottawa to ban whale watching or any commercial vessels from pursuing orcas in their summer feeding grounds. They say the 200-metre buffer zone doesn’t mitigate the disturbance to orcas’ ability to locate prey.

And neither country has addressed the impact of increased oil tanker traffic if Ottawa completes the TransMountain pipeline, which would bring a 10-fold increase in traffic and noise.

Washington task force co-chair Purce said a state senator raised the issue of increased tanker traffic, but there was no specific recommendation.

Canada’s whale recovery initiative includes a voluntary requirement for a vessel slowdown in Haro Strait to reduce engine noise. But they are working with BC Ferries on a noise management plan.

Lack of prey

“The southern orcas are starving. There aren’t enough salmon,” Purce said. So increasing the whale’s preferred food stock of chinook salmon is a priority for both countries.

To boost stocks, Canada has cut the chinook salmon fishery by more than 25 percent. And it has created sanctuary areas in locations orcas normally forage for food, closing them to all fishing and other regulations.

The main sanctuary is a 5,000 square kilometre critical habitat zone off the southwest coast of the island that includes the Swiftsure and La Perouse banks. It will likely have a negative economic impact on commercial and recreational fishing and tourism operations in coastal communities like Ucluelet.

A former senior official in the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Brian Riddell, recently told the Vancouver Sun that there’s no question the whales are struggling in terms of diet.

“We have to make a major change. If the decision is that Southern Resident orcas are the priority for recovery, then we’ll have to provide additional food and other actions as well,” he told the Sun.

Both Washington’s task force and Canada’s DFO have identified a complex set of issues affecting salmon populations, including habitat, availability of forage fish for chinook, hydro dams and other fish passage barriers, growth in predators like harbor seals and sea lions, fishing limits and the ability of hatcheries to increase production without creating genetic risks to wild fish.

Despite Canada’s commitment to increasing chinook populations, the federal DFO still plans to open the last remaining herring roe fishery off Denman and Hornby Islands in March. Several groups are fighting to have it closed, including the Conservancy Hornby organization. Read about this topic here.

Neither country has fully implemented its recovery plans.

Northern orcas thriving

There are more than 300 northern resident orcas, or about four times as many as their southern cousins.

While they both feed on chinook salmon, the northern whales have cleaner waters, less vessel noise disruption and less competition for the food. There are also more fish from three major salmon producing rivers, while the southern orcas count on mainly the Fraser River, with a little help from the Columbia River.

“If one system is bad … our northern residents have the opportunity to shift their focus to fish returning to another system,” Lance Barrett-Lenard, a marine biologist, told CBC news.

But northern whales could eventually face the same fate as the southern orcas if chinook stocks continue to decline. And, it’s possible they could even take over the southern group’s territory.

Disclosure: Thomas “Les” Purce is a friend of the author from their overlapping careers in Olympia, Washington.

 

 

 

 

MORE INFORMATION ABOUT KILLER WHALES

 

COMMON NAME: Orca (Killer Whale)
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Orcinus orca
TYPE: Mammals
DIET: Carnivores
GROUP NAME: Pod
AVERAGE LIFE SPAN IN THE WILD: 50 to 80 years
SIZE: 23 to 32 ft
WEIGHT: Up to 6 tons
CURRENT POPULATION TREND: Unknown

 

ABOUT THE ORCA
Orcas, or killer whales, are the largest of the dolphins and one of the world’s most powerful predators. They feast on marine mammals such as seals, sea lions, and even whales, employing teeth that can be four inches long. They are known to grab seals right off the ice. They also eat fish, squid, and seabirds.

HUNTING AND COMMUNICATION
Though they often frequent cold, coastal waters, orcas can be found from the polar regions to the Equator.

Orcas hunt in deadly pods, family groups of up to 40 individuals. There appear to be both resident and transient pod populations of orcas. These different groups may prey on different animals and use different techniques to catch them. Resident pods tend to prefer fish, while transient pods target marine mammals. All pods use effective, cooperative hunting techniques that some liken to the behavior of wolf packs.
Whales make a wide variety of communicative sounds, and each pod has distinctive noises that its members will recognize even at a distance. They use echolocation to communicate and hunt, making sounds that travel underwater until they encounter objects, then bounce back, revealing their location, size, and shape.

REPRODUCTION AND CONSERVATION
Orcas are protective of their young, and other adolescent females often assist the mother in caring for them. Mothers give birth every three to 10 years, after a 17-month pregnancy.

Orcas are immediately recognizable by their distinctive black-and-white coloring and are the intelligent, trainable stars of many aquarium shows. Orcas have never been extensively hunted by humans.

 

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The Week: Where’s the moral leadership on Comox Council?

The Week: Where’s the moral leadership on Comox Council?

It’s hard to see the forest for the trees sometimes  /  George Le Masurier photo

By George Le Masurier

he silence of Comox Town Council members for the plight of Mariner apartment dwellers is deafening.

A broken town water main flooded 17 first-floor units, displacing single parents and mostly low-income tenants who have limited alternate housing options. The town acted quickly to shut off the water, but the damage had already been done.

Now, instead of taking responsibility, Town Council has done nothing, nor intends to. Mayor Russ Arnott said as much in a statement before this week’s council meeting. The town, he said, supports other people and businesses trying to help, but won’t do anything directly to help its most vulnerable citizens.

The town is playing CYA — Cover Your Ass.

The insurance company’s agreement with the town gives the insurer absolute control in such matters. And the insurer no doubt fears financial assistance or any other form of help would amount to admitting liability. And it curtails councillors’ free speech.

It’s dangerous, and undemocratic, when an insurance company places restrictions on the rights of elected officials to communicate with their constituents.

Besides, the town is responsible. And the town has a moral obligation here.

But, so far, morality doesn’t seem to resonant at Town Hall.

The town won’t take responsibility for misappropriating Mack Laing’s money, or committing several breaches of trust. Nor will it take responsibility for stormwater flows that have caused erosion of property on Golf Creek. The town is happy to spend tens of thousands of dollars on Vancouver lawyers to fight its own citizens, but it won’t help people the town flooded out of their homes.

The town brags about its low debt ratio and builds multi-million dollar buildings at the Marina that sit empty most of the time. But when it comes to doing the right thing for its citizens, the town hides behind lawyers and insurance companies.

That has been the town’s modus operandi for years. So when Arnott made an election promise to continue the direction the town was pointed, he apparently meant its underlying moral code as well.

We’re disappointed. The town should be taking the lead.

Some Decafnation readers had suggestions about what the town should be doing.

“I have to add my view. We have HMCS Quadra at Goose Spit sitting empty. We opened it up for refugees, yet when local residents are desperate for shelter, the mayor flat out said “No.” Desperate is desperate period.”

“We have St. Joseph right next door with floors empty. This is our community … I have lived here all my life and I am extremely disappointed in our own mayor for not stepping up to the plate and taking responsibility for our seniors, family and friends.”

“When floods, hurricanes or other natural disasters occur, governments have provided temporary housing for people displaced from their homes. The town could open up the Comox Rec Centre gymnasium. It could pay to put people up in area hotels and motels. It could negotiate an agreement with St. Joe’s or Providence to convert abandoned hospital rooms into temporary housing. There’s so many things the town could do. It’s shameful they don’t.”

Courtenay Mayor Bob Wells was quoted to say that during boil water advisories, small plastic water bottles are the only option or the best option for drinking water.

Really? Ignoring the fact that with the implementation of UV treatment and ultimately a $110 million water treatment plant, there shouldn’t be any more boil water advisories, isn’t the better solution contained in the name?

Rather than encouraging people to purchase more plastic that’s fouling our oceans and sickening our aquatic life, how about just boiling the water?

Given its other pressing needs — Mariner apartment residents? — why would Comox spend $20,000 to study whether the town needs an off-leash dog park? The recent bear spray incidents have provided sufficient justification.

That view was shared by another Decafnation reader, who writes:

“Al Fraser is your expert on parks and fencing. Trust his judgement. As a council you were elected to represent us. We trust you to make good decisions on our behalf. Please sit down with Al. Listen to what he has to say. Discuss it among yourselves. Decide on what is the best location. Build a fence. Make the area dog friendly. Job done! Blowing away 20 grand on consulting is a waste of my tax dollars.”

It’s too bad that Comox Mayor Russ Arnott has reneged on a hand-shake deal to keep the Shakesides issue out of court, because it means that some creative and potentially win-win compromises will never be examined.

For example, a Decafnation reader wonders if the Mack Laing Heritage Society has considered pushing the town to purchase the adjacent private property and house, which bisect Mack Laing and McDonald Woods parks, as an alternative to putting money into Shakesides?

“This would consolidate the park that is Mack Laing’s heritage and provide a waterfront building in good condition that would be much more suited to the museum task.

“I would think that some of the people who currently oppose the museum would be willing to support an approach that would consolidate the park, which is at risk as long as the the central property between Mack Laing and McDonald Wood remains in private hands. Although the current owners have been very gracious, unless it is bought into the park there is no guarantee of the intentions of future owners.

“The purchase of that property into the park would guarantee Mack Laing’s wish of a nature park as well as providing a much better maintained and situated building at virtually the same location. I imagine that the land conservancy people and Project Watershed would be on board in a heartbeat.

“I know that I would be willing to donate to such a project. The other advantage is that it offers an alternative route to the building that does not go through the local subdivision, and would not require construction in a sensitive marsh plain.

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More Commentary | News

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus

The headline from the New York Sun’s 1897 editorial is famous. But have you read the full editorial? And, we include the back story of little Virginia and the newspaper editor, Frank Church

Happy Holidays

Happy Holidays from Decafnation. Here are some essays about the holidays, including Yes, Virginia — the editorial and the back story — Hanukkah: celebrating the promise of hope in dark times, and Harry’s love affair with the clouds and the stars …

Cumberland gets $5.7 million for sewage plant upgrade

Village of Cumberland sewage lagoons will soon get an upgrade  | Photo by George Le Masurier By George Le Masurier he Village of Cumberland is well on its way to completing an overdue upgrade to its wastewater...

Stormwater systems shift slowly toward green infrastructure

Stormwater management plans in the Comox Valley have historically treated rainwater as waste, something to be collected and disposed of quickly, usually into previously clean streams or directly into the ocean. Clearly a new approach is needed.

City CAO David Allen focuses on sustainable asset management

Courtenay Chief Administration Officer David Allen was part of a small group in 2008 that developed this system for managing public assets that provides for service and financial sustainability. It is now used by almost every municipality in British Columbia.

Union Bay boils water, new turbidity standards

By George Le Masurier nion Bay residents are boiling water today that before August they were drinking from the tap. That's when Island Health's standard for turbidity in water from Langely Lake changed from 3 NTUs to 1...