North Island hospital board hesitates to take advocacy role, despite rights and precedent

North Island hospital board hesitates to take advocacy role, despite rights and precedent

Decafnation archive photo by George Le Masurier

North Island hospital board hesitates to take advocacy role, despite rights and precedent

By George Le Masurier

Jim Abram doesn’t have any doubts about his role as a director on the Comox Strathcona Regional Hospital District board. Its crystal clear to him, and he’ll be happy to tell you exactly what he thinks.

“Every director on that board was elected as an advocate for their constituents, so as a board, we’re a collective of advocates. How can we walk away from what our constituents want, what they’re telling us to do?” he told Decafnation this week.

It seems perfectly clear to Abram that the board should advocate for health care issues like complete pathology services, but not every director sees it that way.

Abram made a motion at the board’s November meeting to send a second letter to BC Premier John Horgan and the Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA) reconfirming the board’s “strong support” for maintaining fully functioning pathology services at North Island hospitals.

Provincial Health Minister Adrian Dix did not respond to the board’s first letter of support sent in May.

VIHA, sometimes referred to as Island Health, is attempting to centralize many North Island health care services in Victoria. Earlier this year, it moved all onsite clinical pathologists’ services from the Campbell River Hospital to doctors in Victoria, a change the health authority intends to make at the Comox Valley Hospital next year.

Abram’s motion, which eventually passed, triggered a discussion about whether it is appropriate for the hospital board to advocate on health care issues, and whether the board should expand its interests into other areas of health care, such as facilities and medical services for seniors.

The board discussed this issue at its 2018 strategic planning session and in February of 2019 passed a motion that it recognized “the important role for communities and regions to advocate for health care services and programs through local municipalities and regional districts.”

But several directors said they still aren’t comfortable in a wider advocacy role and that the issue raises questions the board hasn’t yet answered for itself.

Hospital Board Chair Charlie Cornfield, a Campbell River city councillor, was one of those.

“I would like to comment on the business of advocacy,” he said at the Nov. 7 meeting. “Because this board was very clear (in the past) that we deal with acute care. And that advocacy issues around … operational issues are best dealt with by the community itself.”

That makes no sense to Abram, who represents the Discovery Islands and mainland inlets within electoral area C of the Strathcona Regional District.

“That’s an antiquated attitude to what’s going on in today’s world,” he said. “We’re advocates on everything else in local government. We’re there to represent the public. We can’t get stuck on an old concept. It’s habit. It’s historical. If people don’t recognize that things have changed, then there’s a problem.”

However, the board does have a recent history of advocacy.

When VIHA proposed building one regional hospital for the North Island, the board originally supported the idea. But later the board reversed its position and advocated for two hospitals, which caused many difficult and divisive conversations. And the board also took a unanimous vote two years ago for free parking at the hospital and most recently to restore pathology services in Campbell River.

There was enough hesitation among directors about advocating more actively and broadly about health care issues at the Nov.7 meeting that they deferred the topic to a future strategic planning session.



After the 2018 municipal elections, several new directors joined the hospital board. Decafnation recently asked several new Comox Valley directors serving on the hospital board whether they felt advocacy was an appropriate role.

Courtenay Councillor Wendy Morin said she’s just getting up to speed on the board’s mandate, history and responsibilities.

“I know (advocacy) is a question the board will be exploring. As we pay 40 percent of hospital capital funding, I think we do have some role in advocacy, but I am still unclear as to how broad this should be,” she told Decafnation. “I think there is a problem if we were promised certain services and amenities during the implementation of the new hospitals, and those promises have not been fulfilled. I think we need to investigate and see what role we have in advocating for those.”

Electoral Area A Director Daniel Arbour said the board does have an advocacy role to the extent that it spends millions of dollars on health infrastructure.

He said the hospital board is primarily charged with raising tax monies to pay for hospitals, which “tends to be a lot of money.”

“Those hospitals are nothing without the health services that occur in them, and they are impacted by the “health ecosystem” as well,” he told Decafnation.

“While I would not argue for health care operations to be downloaded from the province, to me it is clear that we are a natural channel for local constituents to bring forward concerns and opportunities for improving health delivery. There are also questions as to whether we should be involved beyond just hospitals. Those questions may be explored at our strategic session next year,” he said.

Comox Councillor Nicole Minions said she thinks the 23-member board representing over a dozen diverse communities, should take an advocacy role, especially in extraordinary situations like the centralization of services, such as pathology, “that could negatively affect the health and care of our communities residents.”

But she doesn’t think the board should step into the operation of the two campus hospitals.

“However, as our taxpayers pay 40 per cent of capital costs, it is important to ask questions, listen to concerned residents and advocate to our province to find the right healthcare solution,” she told Decafnation. “As a council member in a community with an average age over 50, health care is important to our residents.
Abram says advocacy is “what we’re here for.”

“Our constituents don’t get to meet face to face and talk with VIHA or government officials, we do,” he said. “I can’t in good conscience go to board meetings and not advocate for the public.”



The Comox Strathcona Hospital District has historically operated on the presumption that its only, or at least, primary role is to fund select capital projects.

By Oct. 31 of every year, the hospital board advises VIHA of its recommended annual funding allocation for equipment or project under $1.5 million in the next year, subject to final approval of its budget on March 31.

Then, by Jan. 31, VIHA tells the hospital board how they will distribute spending of those funds by equipment and projects.

The board also considers funding major projects proposed by VIHAS that cost more than $1.5 million, before finalizing its tax requisition for the next year.

That appears to comport with the BC Hospital District Act (1996), which states the purpose of regional hospital districts “is to establish, acquire, construct, reconstruct, enlarge, operate and maintain hospitals and hospital facilities. And it further requires boards “to exercise and perform the other powers and duties prescribed under this Act as and when required.”

And the Act goes on to state that the letters patent incorporating a district under this Act must specify the following: the powers, duties and obligations of the district in addition to those specified in this Act,” and “other provisions and conditions the Lieutenant Governor in Council considers proper and necessary.”

The Act does not address the role of advocacy by a board, neither requiring it or prohibiting it, although the Act does, perhaps oddly, include “operate” as one of the board’s purposes.



On Dec. 8, 1967, Lieutenant Governor George Peakes signed the original letters patent that created the Comox Strathcona Hospital District. Dan Campbell was the Minister of Health Services and Hospital Insurance at the time.

Section 9 of that document states that the duties and obligations of the hospital district include those in the hospital act, but also:

“… These Letters Patent, and in addition the District shall establish a Regional Hospital Advisory Committee as soon as possible. The said Committee shall, when requested by the Board, review the hospital projects proposed by the boards of management of the hospitals in the district and recommend priorities and revisions thereto if deemed necessary, and shall also recommend regional programmes for the establishment and improvement of hospitals and hospital facilities in the District for presentation to the Board and to the British Columbia Hospital Insurance Service for Approval.”

To date, the hospital board has not established an advisory committee.

But Section 9 does seem to open the door for a wide range of health care advocacy.



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Smit Field owners, neighbours, CVRD rural directors clash over testing of drag racing cars

Smit Field owners, neighbours, CVRD rural directors clash over testing of drag racing cars

Dan Annand a co-owner of Smit Field on Forbidden Plateau Road  |  George Le Masurier photos

Smit Field owners, neighbours, CVRD rural directors clash over testing of drag racing cars

By George Le Masurier

Does the Comox Valley want to allow the testing and tuning of drag racing cars in a rural residential neighborhood along Forbidden Plateau Road next to Nymph Falls Nature Park? Directors of the Comox Valley Regional District’s three rural electoral areas will answer that question at their next meeting, on Dec. 9.

But it won’t be an easy decision. The case involves neighbourhood concerns about noise, pollution and forest fires, a defiant property owner and a federally regulated airport.

For the past three years, the Vanisle Airfield Society Inc. has tested and tuned their drag racing cars at a 50-acre Forbidden Plateau Road property owned by Dan Annand and Kevin Griessel in contravention of Comox Valley Regional District zoning bylaws.

The property is zoned RU20, which allows several non-residential uses, such as sawmills and dog kennels, but does not allow drag racing or the testing of drag racing cars.

However, the property also contains Smit Field, a private airport registered by Transport Canada with 1,200 feet of concrete runway where the Vanisle Society has been holding its test and tune events.

The CVRD shut down the car club’s activity this summer after some area residents complained.

Now the society has applied for a three-year temporary use permit that would allow up to 50 car owners to test their racing cars over three days, three times per year beginning next May.

Vanisle Society spokesperson Ken Pederson says there is no other site with comparable amenities for car owners on Vancouver Island. Members of the society just “want to have fun,” he says, and tune their cars before entering races.

That hasn’t swayed concerned residents, who say they initially complained about the noise because the cars reach high decibel levels that they say can be heard at homes up to two kilometers away.

But since hearing from the Smit Field owners, and suffering social media harassments from members or supporters of the drag car society, the residents now fear the property owners plan to grow the site into a major event venue and that the drag racing car events will become permanent.

Temporary use permits can be issued for up to three years, and are renewable.

And that, they say, intensifies additional ongoing concerns about air and ground pollution and forest fires.

But principal owner Dan Annand told Decafnation this week that he has no plans to create more large-scale public events on his property, although he does currently host Jeepapalooza, which in its second year last summer drew 700 owners of off-road vehicles.

And if the CVRD Electoral Services Commission doesn’t approve the Vanisle Society’s temporary use permit, a defiant Annand says he might continue to allow the testing of drag cars anyway because he believes the regional district doesn’t have the authority to regulate how he uses his property.

Annand has also hinted that he might turn Smit Field back into a “full-blown airport,” with fly-in gatherings for pilots that could attract more participants and make more noise and pollution than either the drag car testing and Jeepapalooza events.

Plus, he says, he would stop allowing other public service uses of his property.

The following five sections break down this complicated story:

  1. What is Smit Field
  2. Why have neighbors complained
  3. Who is the Vanisle Airfield Society
  4. Dan Annand’s frustrations
  5. What is the CVRD recommending


Aerial view of Smit Field courtesy of Transport Canada


Bert Smit and Dan Annand, who shared a love for flying, have co-owned the 50-acre Smite Field property for many years. Smit owned the property as early as 1977 and obtained classification as a registered aerodrome through Transport Canada sometime in the early 1980s.

The airfield features a grass runway 66 feet wide by 2,663 feet long at the base of the Beaufort Mountains forming Forbidden Plateau and Mt. Washington.

In recent years, Annand has covered 36 by 1,200 feet of the runway with concrete. The drag racing cars use roughly 325 feet of it to test single cars and sometimes side by side.

Smit died on March 3, 2010 when his homebuilt two-seater Jodel aircraft crashed in a forested area just below Forbidden Plateau. Witnesses to the crash say Smit was doing acrobatic maneuvers when a wing appeared to break away.

The airfield is rarely used. As a private aerodrome, pilots must call Annand by phone to request permission to land. Annand has two hangars on the property, one that houses his own Cessna 180 taildragger airplane.

But when Smit and Annand, and others, used the airfield more frequently, Annand said “there were a lot more noise complaints” than there has been recently about testing drag racing cars.

As a result of those previous complaints, Annand changed the circuit pattern for arriving aircraft to approach the runway from over the Puntledge River rather than over residential areas.

A media relations officer for Transport Canada told Decafnation that the federal agency “does not issue an approval to the aerodrome but rather validates the data provided so that it can be published in the Canada Flight Supplement,” which is information for pilots.

Transport Canada does not issue approvals to the aerodrome on the use of runways. It is the responsibility of the aerodrome operator to ensure that the aerodrome is operated safely and to notify Transport Canada of any changes to the flight supplement information.

Annand has not yet notified Transport Canada that he hard-surfaced a portion of the listed runway with concrete or that he plans to extend it to 3,000 feet.

Burned rubber from drag car testing on the Smit Field runway


Residents along Forbidden Plateau Road started complaining to the Comox Valley Regional District by Sept. 16, 2017. They say the noise from revving high-performance drag racing engines is deafening in Nymph Falls park and at homes within about two kilometers of the airfield.

Dylan DeGagne was the first neighbor to go public with a complaint. He told the Comox Valley Record last May that while paddleboarding on the Puntledge River near the BC Hydro dam at Comox Lake, “he could hear the cars roaring.”

DeGagne started a petition on to stop the activity. He immediately became the target of social media intimidation. He has now sold his house and is in the process of transferring to Victoria.

But other residents who spoke to Decafnation on the promise of anonymity, say they have also complained to the regional district. All of these sources purchased their properties before the dragster testing began. They say the noise since 2017 has affected their ability to enjoy their properties and potentially their long-term property values.

They have requested anonymity because of the threats issued through social media posts by either members or supporters of the Vanisle Airfield Society.

Screenshots of two previously public, now private Facebook pages include this post: “Yea, people complain its (sic) too loud. The noise isn’t going away, because I’ll make continuous passes on there (sic) street at 2am if need be, so get over the noise.”

And this reply: “I’ll just put a 353 Detroit in the box of my truck running flat out all night lol.”

Residents say they knew before they purchased their properties that there was an airfield nearby, but not that testing of drag racing cars would occur.

Their complaints include adverse market value impacts to their property, safety concerns to cyclists along Forbidden Plateau Road, forest fire risk, negative impacts to users of Nymph Falls park and wildlife, contravention of CVRD zoning bylaws and “an incongruence with climate change policies” (unnecessary pollution and carbon emissions from fossil fuels).

They say during the most recent Jeepapalooza event, some of the 700 campers set off fireworks during one of the driest periods of the summer.

“Why should we accept the devaluation of our homes, and the risk, to support other people’s hobbies,” one resident told Decafnation.

The concerned residents don’t see the Jeepapalooza and drag car testing events as separate issues.

“It’s not separate for us,” a resident told Decafnation. “The point is, where is this headed? The land owner has poured more than $200,000 into this property without without any approvals. He’s not doing it for three weekends a year that he says doesn’t generate any income for him. There’s a longer-term vision here.”

And they dispute Annand’s claim that the drag car testing events are just for his friends.

“Our complaint was filed only after we discovered that the test and tune events were being advertised on two Facebook pages, totalling more than 3,000 followers.

“This is not strictly a family and friends event,” the source told Decafnation. “All Vancouver Island and BC drag car owners now think there’s a drag strip in the Comox Valley.”

And they have no confidence so far that the CVRD can control these events through a temporary use permit. The regional district does not have a bylaw compliance officer to monitor such permits. It relies on a complaint-driven system.

The concerned neighbours do not understand the purpose of the CVRD’s recommendation to approve a one-year temporary use permit. The staff report suggests that one year would serve as a trial and give staff time to evaluate the events.

“But there’s no objective criteria mentioned how they would evaluate the events,” a resident said. “We already know it doesn’t work. What will they do, planners will drive around in their cars to see how loud it is?”

Concerned neighbors generally feel the CVRD recommendation disregards their concerns, the environment, the park and existing zoning bylaws.


Facebook Post showing cars lined up for testing at Smit Field


Comox Valley and Vancouver Island drag racing enthusiasts say they just want a safe place to test and tune their cars.

The Vanisle Airfield Society was formed in January of 2015 after approaching the co-owner of the Smit Field, Dan Annand. They formed the society in order to get insurance coverage, and are the official applicant for the temporary use permit.

“We want to do it right. We’re trying to make it safe for everybody,” Ken Pederson, a society spokesperson told Decafnation.

Prior they located at Smit Field, owners used to test their cars on the Comox Logging Road near Royston or on the lower sections of the Mt. Washington road, which was neither legal or safe.

The group has since purchased an expensive set of lights of the type used to start drag racing events and timing equipment to provide instant, printed feedback on driver response times.

In drag racing, a set of lights similar to street lights illuminate down from red to yellow to green. The driver to most quickly accelerate his car has a considerable advantage.

According to Pederson the test and tune events are really about tuning the driver, not the car. Smit Field is not used for drag racing where cars and drivers compete against each other side-by-side.

“Ninety-nine percent of drag races are won or lost at the starting line,” Pederson told Decafnation this week. “That’s why we need a place to practice. It’s more about tuning the drivers’ reaction time.”

Pederson says there are no other places to practice on Vancouver Island that appeal to his group of members. They tried Saratoga Speedway but the straightaway was too short for the faster cars and they could only get five hours of time. It takes two to three hours to set up their lights and timing equipment, so there wasn’t enough time to warrant the cost of renting the track.

And the Island’s other drag racing sites like Port McNeill and Western Speedway near Victoria don’t allow test and tune events. Drivers say they need the practice team to justify expensive trips to drag races, especially those off the Island.

Pederson says 35 of the 42 cars owned by members that might practice at Smit Filed are street legal.

And, he says, a suggestion to reduce the tuning events at Smit Field to one day, rather than three, won’t appeal to the society’s members. The society charges $700 for an annual membership, which pays for the portable toilets and food sold during events as well as the debt for purchasing the lighting equipment.

“Three one-day events don’t make it worthwhile,” he said.

Pederson said the society hopes to purchase carbon credits to offset the burning of fossil fuels before the CVRD’s electoral directors meet Dec. 9 to decide the issue.

“We’re trying to show we’re not a bunch of hillbillies. We want to do this properly,” he said.

Smit Field co-owner Dan Annand at the site of salmon habitat restoration on the Puntledge River near his property


Dan Annand has co-owned the Forbidden Plateau Road property for over 20 years. He originally partnered with owner Bert Smit. When Smit died in 2010, Annand took on a new partner, neighbor Kevin Grissel, whose name appears on the title.

Annand says he’s not trying to become another Saratoga Speedway.

“It’s just friends having fun. I could do it every weekend if I wanted,” he told Decafnation this week. “Because of the hassle with the CVRD, I might invite a few friends up here with cars anyway, whether it (temporary use permit) passes or not.”

He says many of the drag car owners in the Vanisle Airfield Society are friends, whose parents were friends with his parents. And they share a love of racing, which he used to do 50 years ago, and flying. Three of the car owners own airplanes.

Annand is a member of the pioneering Piercy family and his wife’s family, the Picketts, were early settlers on Denman, Hornby and Cumberland.

“I probably have 500 relatives in Courtenay alone,” he says.

He doesn’t charge the drag car society or the Jeepapalooza organizers any rental fee. He has offered his property for free as long as the groups raise money for charity.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he says. “If they didn’t raise money for charity they wouldn’t be allowed out here.”

Between the testing of drag racing cars and Jeepapalooza, Annand says $80,000 has been donated to cancer-related non-profits in the last two years, including sending a family to Hawaii through the Help Fill A Dream Foundation, and donations to the local Hospice Society.

But he says the airfield could make money by promoting fly-in events to pilots around BC and beyond.

“If this doesn’t go through, I’ll hard surface the whole runway and start having airshows and fly-ins,” he said.

Annand says the increased air traffic would cause more noise and more pollution than a whole year of drag car testing.

“The stupid part is that the drag cars burn on a 14-1 air to gas ratio. They burn clean. Aircraft burn lead-based fuel. One plane releases more carbon than all the cars on an entire weekend,” he said. “One airshow here would create 10 times more pollution in the air than a whole year of cars.”

And he disputes the claim that any of the events have exploded fireworks. There are two water tanker trucks on the property, so he believes the risk of a fire is next to nothing.

Annand also points to all of the other benefits he offers free of charge to the Comox Valley community.

He allows the military search and rescue squadron to have their year-end party on the property, usually landing a helicopter. He allows the Courtenay Rod and Gun Club and the Department of Fisheries to use his property to stage gravel for a Puntledge River salmon enhancement project in an area called Reach B.

Mountain biking groups use his property to access trails up to the top of the Forbidden Plateau, and have recently rebuilt a bridge using Smit Field access. Mountain search and rescue teams use his site for marshalling and as a launch point for training exercises.

Annand also built a parking lot for access to Barbers Hole, and says he plows snow from neighbors driveways every winter.

“If this TUP gets turned down, all of that goes away,” he said. “The skinny of it is, I’ll stop all public access and all the benefits and the donations to charity go away. Shame on the three neighbors who can shut this all down. The CVRD should represent the majority. It’s no longer a democracy.”

Annand said he went door-to-door asking neighbors about the drag car noise. He says 91 people said they were in favor of it, and some even help volunteer during the events. He believes only three or four neighbors have complained.

Annand says he’s “done just about everything we can to reduce noise.”

“It’s noisy, no question. But we’re asking for 24 hours total per year. If you can’t put up with that then … really?” he said. “I’ve just about had enough of the CVRD. If it doesn’t pass, I’ll go to a full-blown airport. I’m going to do that anyway.”



Since notifying Annand and the Vanisle Airfield Society that they were contravening Comox Valley Regional District bylaws, planners have met with him and representatives of the Vanisle Airfield Society, and separately with a group of concerned neighbors.

At the Nov. 4 Electoral Services Commission, CVRD staff presented a report that recommended approving a temporary use permit for one year that would allow three, three-day test and tune events for a maximum of 30 cars and 15 campsites.

Staff have recommended allowing car owners to only practice from 10 am to 4 pm on Saturday and 10.30 to 3.30 on Sunday.

The report notes that the test and tune events comply with CVRD’s noise bylaw, which restricts hours but does not regulate decibel levels.

The report said the bylaw compliance department did a full review and determined the past drag car test and tune events were not lawful.

Staff said that noise from the events could not be controlled, but the conditions of the permit were designed to minimize neighbourhood disruption.



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The Week: Where did the Attorney General go; and, Trudeau’s middle ‘class’

Boys playing pool, circa late 1970s  |  George Le Masurier

The Week: Where did the Attorney General go; and, Trudeau’s middle ‘class’

By George Le Masurier

It appears that the BC Attorney General’s office may have changed its view of the Town of Comox’s desire to alter the Mack Laing Trust. How else to explain the last eight months of dead silence?

It’s been so long ago you may not remember that the town wants to tear down Laing’s historic home, called Shakesides, and spend the life savings that he gifted to the people of Comox on something other than what the trust agreement allows.

But in early May, the Attorney General surprised both the town and the Mack Laing Heritage Society by announcing a delay that they said could last about five months. The AG gave no reason for the delay. The town had hoped to go to trial during the court’s June sessions.

FURTHER READING: More about Hamilton Mack Laing and Shakesides

That five-month delay has now turned into eight months and counting. And the AG’s office still refuses to explain why or what it’s doing to bring the case to a resolution. Even town councillors have no idea what’s going on at the AG’s office.

Has the Attorney General reconsidered its support of the Town of Comox after taking the District of West Vancouver to court in July? The AG argued in that case that the municipality broke a similar agreement with two residents who had bequeathed their property.

Or, did the town’s failure to properly consult with the K’omoks First Nations set off alarms in the AG’s office?

Perhaps the Mack Laing Heritage Society’s comprehensive business plan that shows widespread community support for restoring Shakesides — more than two dozen individuals and construction companies have volunteered labor and materials — has caught the Attorney General’s attention.

Or maybe the AG’s office has finally realized how badly the town has handled Mack Laing’s generous gifts, especially the finances.

We can only hope one of these issues have given the Attorney General a crisis of conscience.

For nearly three years, a 5-2 majority of Comox councillors have been trying to ram their application through the BC Supreme Court. They spent the first two years, and three expensive Supreme Court hearings, attempting to block the Mack Laing Society from presenting evidence at trial.

Ex-mayor Paul Ives led this charge and current Mayor Russ Arnott has happily carried the torch. They have cost Comox taxpayers huge amounts of money trying to justify their actions.

Meanwhile, Shakesides sits in disrepair. But as Craig Freeman and the Merville Community Association have proved, it’s neither difficult nor expensive to preserve and rejuvenate a historic building, and give it a new life for public enjoyment.

The minority Liberal government announced a new cabinet post this week: Mona Fortier was appointed Minister of Middle-Class Prosperity and Associate Minister of Finance.

Does that term ‘middle-class’ bother anyone else? Don’t we really mean middle-income? Does Canada have a class system?

Giving middle income families the label of ‘middle-class’ suggests there is an upper class and a lower class.

I don’t know about you, but in my world, people who have higher incomes don’t necessarily warrant a ‘higher class’ status than anyone else. In some instances, I’d argue the opposite. Likewise, people who have had less financial success in their lives don’t warrant ‘lower class’ status.

I’m nitpicking, perhaps. But how we use language affects people and reveals a truth about how we see the world. Doesn’t assigning a ‘class’ to our income levels say something unfavorable about our sense of social justice and personal worth?


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The Stolen Church at the Merville Community Association  |  George Le Masurier photos

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By George Le Masurier

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Not Craig Freeman.

The president of the Merville Community Association just points to the second relocation and recent restoration of St. Mary’s Church, which made its debut in September during the community’s 100-year celebration.

“There’s a lot of things you can do with an old building,” Freeman told Decafnation this week. “They get dilapidated, sure, but we can repair them. It’s no big deal.”

Freeman is one of the board members of the Merville Community Association who works in the construction industry and oversaw the move and renovation of the church and its companion building that once housed a Sunday school. Pete Birch is a recent board member who also helped on the church renovation.

The “Stolen Church” — so named because it was originally built in Tsolum in 1915 and moved to Merville in 1919 to serve WWI veterans residing in the soldier settlement there — has shed its worn down condition and its barn red colour.

Today, the church is painted a bright blue with a new metal roof, refinished original wood floors and original stained glass window all sitting on top of a sturdy concrete and foam block foundation. The interior has been double insulated and rewired.

Outside, local craftsman Bill Enns made a new custom solid cedar door with handmade old-style wrought iron hinges.

The Stolen Church sits on the community association’s three-acre property just north of the Merville Store. The property also hosts a playground, a site for a future community garden and, of course, the iconic Merville Hall, which itself has undergone a major renovation.

A solar grid on the hall’s new metal roof captures enough energy to power the church for a net positive energy consumption.

“I don’t know why people let these buildings go,” Freeman said.

He got involved with the community association 15 years ago because a musical group he plays with, Fiddlejam, had been using the Merville Hall for concerts and dances. He wanted to see the hall maintained and not lost to the community.

The main hall has been fixed up, too, with a bright yellow exterior paint job — courtesy of volunteers from local scout troops, musicians and painters in 2010 — its own metal roof, a solar power array installed on the roof and multiple interior improvements.

Freeman sees other historic buildings around the Valley that are worthy of saving and put back to public uses.

A couple of years ago, he wrote a letter to the editor offering the Town of Comox an alternative to their plan to tear down the heritage home of famous naturalist Mack Laing, called Shakesides.

“I just don’t understand why they don’t renovate that building so we (Merville Community Association) offered to do that and give it a home up here, if they wanted to move it,” Freeman said. “The Valley has lost too many historic buildings already.”



Grantham area farmers built the church in 1915 near where the Tsolum School stands today. For $200, the church served the Anglican community. But soon, in 1919, there was a greater need in the Merville area, where the Canadian government had offered land to WWI vets through the Soldier Settlement project.

So volunteers pulled the church on skids with a tractor up the gravel road. An unused army hut was later moved to the church site from the WWII Sandwick Camp and became a place to hold Sunday school classes.

The Anglican diocese finally gave up on the little church in 2003. It went through several ownerships until Alison and Brad Orr purchased it in 2013.

Not wanting the buildings to decay beyond saving, Freeman offered to move both to the Merville Hall site and restore them. The Orrs sold them for a dollar apiece in 2015.

The community association raised funds and acquired grants for the project. They hired Nickel Brothers to move them and, with the help of community volunteers, prepared foundations and made the move up the Island Highway into a nightime parade-like event.



Although Freeman has the skills to have done most of the work himself and a few friends, the association contracted out the drwall, concrete entrance and electrical. He says they wanted to get it done in time for the Merville 100 Years Celebration in September, 2019.

It cost $15,000 to move each of the two buildings, and they spent another $10,000 or so on the foundations, electrical and drywall. Even including the new roof, Freeman estimates the whole project has cost less than $50,000.

This year, in preparation for the launch of the Dancing in Gumboots book and the 100 years eventr, Wonder Womem volunteers did landscaping with fruits trees and sunflowers; they removed rocks, pulled weeds and kept watering all summer long.

Freeman anticipates that rentals of the Stolen Church for weddings, yoga classes, meetings and other small functions will eventually make it a profitable venture.

The community association has a small membership that survives through its rental of the main hall, a small grant-in-aid for insurance from the Comox Valley Regional District, a summer farmer’s market and fundraising spearheaded by Freeman and consultant Dawn Ringrose.

But changes are coming.

Kymme Patrick’s TheatreWorks for the Performing Arts is in the process of moving her production and teaching school from Tin Town to the Merville Hall. The company provides theatre programs for youth and has been instrumental in using theatre as an educational tool with schools and organizations in the Comox Valley.

And they have fenced a large plot of their land for a future community garden. It already has water access and piles of skyrocket compost waiting for gardeners to spread and enhance the soil.






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Comox Valley climate activists join 1,700 discussion events worldwide

Comox Valley climate activists join 1,700 discussion events worldwide

Comox Valley citizens participated in 24 Hours of Realty, the worldwide climate action this week  |  Dan Vie photo

Comox Valley climate activists join 1,700 discussion events worldwide

By George Le Masurier

While former U.S. Vice President kicked off a worldwide discussion about the climate crisis at Vanderbilt University yesterday, Gore-trained climate activist Will Cole-Hamilton provided a similar keynote presentation for close to 100 people at the Comox United Church Hall.

Cole-Hamilton spoke about global progress in developing solar and wind technologies to replace fossil fuels, how the City of Courtenay has addressed climate change and why growing public sentiment expressed in climate marches are so important.

And he brought the topic down to a personal level. Recalling a recent conversation with one of his young children, Cole-Hamilton had trouble keeping his own emotions in check.

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When his young daughter announced she never planned to have children, Cole-Hamilton asked why. “Because it’s not fair to bring kids into a world that’s not safe,” she said.

Celia Laval, of the Comox Valley Unitarian Fellowship, a co-organizer of the event, which was one of 1,700 same-day presentations in 75 countries called 24 Hours of Reality: Climate Truth in Action, also acknowledged the seriousness of the issue.

“This is a heavy topic,” she said. “And I’m glad I don’t have to face it alone.”

After Cole-Hamilton’s presentation, participants broke into small groups to discuss the climate crisis and share the practical steps that individuals and neighbourhoods can take to reduce the human impact on climate change.



Cole-Hamilton started his presentation showing an aerial photo of the Puntledge Road and highway bypass area of Courtenay during the 2014 flood, a rain event that climate scientists predict will become more frequent in the future.

And he showed an old photo of the formerly robust Comox Glacier. Experts now believe that all Vancouver Island glaciers will disappear within 20 years.

But Cole-Hamilton moved on to good news. Many nations have pledged to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the Paris Accord. China and India have generated half or more of their new energy from solar and wind. In the last five years, solar energy jobs have grown six times faster than the overall economy.

In Canada, Cole-Hamilton said, there are now more clean energy jobs than exist in Alberta’s tar sands oil patch.

Cole-Hamilton, who also serves as an elected Courtenay councillor, said he’s proud of how the city is addressing climate change. That includes new electric vehicle charging stations, a ban on single-use plastic bags and declaring a climate emergency.

He said the city’s revision of its Official Community Plan, which is underway, will consider climate change “every step of the way.” The city’s consultants say Courtenay will be the first Canadian city to put the climate crisis at the core of its planning.



More than 3,000 people — nearly five percent of the Comox Valley population — joined 800,000 other Canadians on Sept. 27 in climate marches to demand that governments at all levels do more to reduce human impacts on climate change.

Cole-Hamiltion told the audience that such public displays of public sentiment are more important than people might realize.

When large numbers of people show their support, it gives local governments social license to take positive actions. He noted that all Comox Valley councils and the regional board all declared climate emergencies after the march.

And, he said strong showings are also seen by businesses and other institutions, and they give everyone the strength of conviction to talk about the climate crisis.

“If we continue to grow climate marches, we will change our community,” he said.



At the end of the evening, people from the small group discussions talked about the practical actions they are taking to create issue awareness and reduce their carbon footprint.

Those actions ranged from creating more community gardens, to consuming less (Nov. 29 is Buy Nothing Day), supporting local farmers, pledge to have a zero waste Christmas and supporting such local organizations as Project Watershed and Lush Valley.

The list will be posted on the Facebook pages for Comox Valley Unitarian Fellowship and Comox Valley Nurses for Health Environment.

The Comox Valley Nurses for Health and the Environment also co-sponsored the event.










The website Skeptical Science has made a list of the 197 most common myths about global warming and climate change and how you, as a climate activist, can respond to each of them.

Get the list here … cue cards not available.



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