The Week: Town of Comox parade denial was a petty ploy

The Week: Town of Comox parade denial was a petty ploy

Canada Day parade crowd in Courtenay, circa late 1970s  /  George Le Masurier photo

By George Le Masurier

Update: Courtenay Canada Day parade chairman Scott Mossing says “I can confirm that I have not received nor have any complaints regarding Mack Laing Heritage Society’s involvement in the July 1st Parade.”

 

Another week has come and gone and once again the Town of Comox has done something stupid. If it seems like The Week criticizes Mayor Russ Arnott and his gang a lot, it’s just because “the powers that be” at town hall can’t help making themselves a target.

This week, Mayor Russ Arnott called Nautical Days parade organizer Wendy Petrie and demanded that she revoke her approval of an application by the Mack Laing Heritage Society to appear in the Nautical Days parade. His justification: the “alarming” and “inappropriate behaviour” of MLHS in the Courtenay Canada Day parade.

After telling the Mack Laing society they were prohibited from being in the parade, Petrie later convinced Arnott to reverse his order and she rescinded the denial later in the week. She says the group is once again welcome in the parade.

But the MLHS says the rescinding order came too late and “some special participants and supporters … were not able to attend or assist, having made other arrangements. Given the restrictions placed on us, which are not listed in the official ‘Parade Guidelines’, we felt it best to cancel our appearance.”

Petrie told Decafnation in a telephone interview that the special restrictions — not to have petitions or hand out any negative paraphernalia with participants or spectators — apply to all political groups in the parade.

But there is something seriously “alarming” about this turn of events. Mayor Arnott has attempted to stifle the free expression of genuinely-held viewpoints that run contrary to his own. And it appears that he used his position to do so without Town Council support.

Could the mayor have committed a violation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedom?

Were the other Comox councillors aware of his actions and do they support them?

Arnott’s personal feelings about the Mack Laing society also put Petrie, a dedicated volunteer who has organized the Comox parade four times in the past, in a difficult spot.  

FURTHER READING: Who is Mack Laing and what is this dispute about?

Petrie said she agonized over how to tell MLHS they could not participate in the parade. In the rejection email to MLHS on July 30 — eight days after approving their parade application — Petrie wrote that while “researching” the society’s “alarming behaviour” and after hearing “from many people how inappropriate your behaviour was” in the Courtenay Canada Day parade that the MLHS application had been denied entry into the town’s “family-oriented” parade.

What was this “alarming” and “inappropriate” behaviour that might threaten family values in Comox?

During the July 1 parade, MLHS supporters say they handed out a few tee-shirts and a bag with the society’s logo. They also carried a banner saying “Join us to preserve heritage” and signs that said “Mack Laing Matters” and “Keep the Trust.”

They were accompanied in walking the parade route by well-known local fiddler Jocie Brooks, the granddaughter of naturalist painter Alan Brooks, who was a close friend of Mack Laing.

Scary stuff, indeed.

It’s clear that the decision to exclude Mack Laing from this weekend’s parade was made after Arnott discovered the society had been approved. Petrie, in fact, freely admits that she didn’t make the decision to reverse her approval and deny entry. She agrees it was a raw deal.

In subsequent emails to MLHS, Petrie says, “I know I was looking forward to having you, but this was not my decision. I have to listen to the powers that be.” And, later she says, “I am as disappointed as you are.”

Mayor Russ Arnott’s actions — and/or whoever else conspired in this travesty — played petty politics.

Arnott doesn’t want the public to hear about Mack Laing. He doesn’t want the Mack Laing Heritage Society to generate any additional support for forcing the town to abide the terms of the famous naturalist’s trust agreement . He wants the Mack Laing debate to just go away.

So he kicks them out of a parade. Sounds like middle school.

But the “alarming and inappropriate behaviour” here is that an elected official would use his position to prevent the free expression of ideas. Mack Laing supporters have a different point of view from Arnott about the town’s action in regards to Mack Laing’s trust and the fate of his heritage home, called Shakesides. Thankfully, expressing differing points of view is still legal in this country.

An email sent to Arnott inviting him to explain his actions have not been answered. Petrie responded quickly with a phone call. 

On a related topic, the Comox Valley Record recently took a strong stand against anything in local parades except horse-drawn wagons, clowns, animals and bands.

In the editorial, Record editor Terry Farrell writes, “Put the fun back into parades, and for a change, leave the politicking at home.”

Farrell makes an exception for local elected officials, but doesn’t explain why. Maybe he classifies them as clowns or animals. They certainly don’t put any more fun in a parade than the real targets of his editorial: the Green Party and the Mack Laing Heritage Society.

And how do commercial vehicles offering nothing but their business names add to the fun in a parade? Farrell doesn’t mention them.

Besides the fuzzy argument that tries to distinguish between local politicians and federal or provincial ones, and between acceptable nonprofit organizations and not-acceptable ones (the ones he doesn’t like?), Farrell makes one point on which we can agree: Parades should be fun, not sombre events.

Parade participation or not, there is a federal election coming on Oct. 21, and the political parties have already started their pre-official election campaign campaigning. See the Election Countdown Timer on the Decafnation home page.

One of the interesting debates already occurring concerns the possible shifting of traditional NDP votes to the Green Party. Strong NDP advocates are all over social media slamming Green Party leader Elizabeth May in an attempt to discourage this shift. They have blasted her for, among other things, saying she might consider an alliance with Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives under certain circumstances.

But NDP stalwarts can relax because, according to Scheer, that’s not going to happen.

In an ad that keeps popping up on The Week’s Facebook page, Byron Horner, the Conservative candidate for Courtenay-Alberni, says don’t be fooled by the new Green Party slogan. “The Green Party is a Left-Wing Big Government party that would economically devastate Islanders who own a car or a home. Thinking about the Green Party? Read the fine print.”

It appears there will be at least one federal election all-candidates forum in the Comox Valley. Details to follow.

 

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What does ‘climate emergency’ mean? And, were the Vikings smoking weed?

What does ‘climate emergency’ mean? And, were the Vikings smoking weed?

George Le Masurier photo

By George Le Masurier

When our local governments declare a “climate emergency” what does that really mean? Is it simply a statement to recognize that climate change is real? Is it merely a trendy thing to do, something to show how aware the elected officials want to appear?

Or, does the act of declaring a climate emergency carry with it a moral obligation to consider the best environmental outcome of every council decision and all staff activity? If a local government isn’t doing absolutely everything it can to stop fouling our planet, then are they  just giving lip service to populism?

If a local government doesn’t walk the talk, they perpetuate the idea that we can all carry on doing what we’ve always done, business as usual, and everything will be all right. Because, hey, we declared a “climate emergency.”

Case in point. The Town of Comox has declared a climate emergency. But are those just words to appeal to the masses, or is the town now applying the best environmental practices to everything it does?

The town is currently tearing up Noel Avenue between Pritchard and Torrence roads. They are doing road reconstruction, concrete curbs and sidewalks, a Brooklyn Creek culvert replacement, asphalt paving and line painting.

But did the town, which recognizes there is a climate emergency, even consider the environmental best practices of adding rain gardens and other forms of stormwater infiltration that would help prevent the pollution of Brooklyn Creek and ultimately Comox harbour?

No. The response from the town to Decafnation was, “There was (sic) no storm main infrastructure upgrades required.”

Doesn’t a climate emergency “require” the town to do whatever it can to make our environment cleaner? When a road is being reconstructed, that’s a perfect opportunity to apply an environmental best practice, in this case creating ways to let rainwater soak into the ground and let nature do the cleansing.

With new concrete curbs and gutters, it will be decades before the town feels financially justified to tear it up again to add infiltration galleries. Now is the time to do it, both from a financial and environmental perspective.

Where are our elected representatives like Alex Bissinger, who brought the climate emergency motion to Comox Council? And why aren’t they holding the public works staff accountable for failing to seize this opportunity?

Of course, adding rain gardens to better handle stormwater won’t solve the “climate emergency” by itself. But it’s walking the talk. Not doing these small things does the opposite.

— Comox could learn a thing or two from the City of Courtenay’s upper Fifth Street project that included rain gardens and narrowing of the impervious asphalt surface. Courtenay is currently developing a new integrated stormwater management plan that we hope will require all new road reconstruction in Courtenay to follow the Fifth Street plan.

— Speaking of not walking the talk, the City of Prince George is set to approve and accept a Calgary company’s proposal to build a $5.56 billion petrochemical plant there. It will produce polyethene plastic to Asia. The city’s mayor says the project promises great economic potential for the city and the province.

No climate emergency there, apparently.

— On the other hand, Norway has refused to allow drilling for billions of barrels of oil near the Lofoten islands in the Arctic. Again, showing how shallow our awareness of a “climate emergency” really is, this has left other Norwegian politicians and the oil industry “surprised and disappointed.”

— No surprise or disappointment in Alberta, however, where federal and provincial regulators — and we use that word loosely — have green-lighted the largest ever tar sands open-pit mine.

— And finally this week, it has been discovered that the ancient Viking explorers may have been smoking pot when they discovered Newfoundland. That explains a lot.

 

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BC heritage professionals lobby cabinet ministers to conserve Shakesides

BC heritage professionals lobby cabinet ministers to conserve Shakesides

Hamilton Mack Laing at home in Shakesides during his last years  /  Archive photo

By George Le Masurier

The president of the BC Association of Heritage Professionals has lobbied the provincial Attorney-General and the minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations to oppose the Town of Comox’s application to vary the charitable purpose trust of Hamilton Mack Laing.

Elana Zysblt, a Vancouver-based heritage consultant, says in letters sent Tuesday to AG David Eby and FLNROD Minister Doug Donaldson that the conservation of Laing’s home, known as Shakesides, “represents heritage values that extend much further than the boundaries of the Town of Comox.”

Heritage issues in British Columbia fall under the FLNROD portfolio and are managed by Roger Tinney.

Writing on behalf of the province’s heritage professionals, Zysblat expresses concern that municipalities such as Comox might be allowed to use a section (184) of the Community Charter to ignore and alter substantial gifts of money and property donated to the public in good faith.

FURTHER READING: Attorney general takes West Vancouver to court for breach of trust

The Community Charter sets out municipalities’ core areas of authority, such as municipal services, public health regulation and entering into agreements. Under section 184 if, in the opinion of a council, the terms or trusts imposed by a donor or will-maker are no longer in the best interests of the municipality, the council may apply to the Supreme Court to vary the terms of the trust.

This is the crux of the town’s application to vary the Laing trust and demolish Shakesides.

Gordon Olsen, a member of the Mack Laing Heritage Society, says the significance of Zysblat’s letters is a warning to the minister about the serious precedent the Shakesides case could set.

“If municipalities are allowed to ignore terms of agreements that` they have freely entered into that will have a chilling effect on future donators across the province,” Olsen told Decafnation.

But that isn’t the only point Zysblat makes in her letters. The Association of Heritage Professionals also believe Shakesides has significant heritage values and remains, despite the town’s neglect, in good condition for rehabilitation.

“In 2017, a Statement of Significance was completed to describe the heritage values of the place,” Zysblat wrote. “A condition assessment of the historic structure was also conducted in the same year by an independent heritage professional and structural engineer. The assessment concluded that the building is in good condition to be rehabilitated for adaptive re-use as envisioned by Hamilton Mack Laing.”

The Town of Comox has not requested any professional assessment of the building. But Comox Parks Manager Al Fraser told a public meeting in April that only a “cursory report” has been done, which he admitted was “not comprehensive.” Fraser called it a “soft pass.”

“Let’s say there’s still considerable work to be done in that regard,” Fraser told the public meeting.

As of July, the town still has not done that work and has yet to acknowledge the professional assessment by a structural engineer completed in 2017, according to Zysblat.

She also informs the two provincial government cabinet ministers that the town seems uninterested in other perspectives on Shakesides.

“Gord Macdonald, Heritage BC chair, shares our belief that the state heritage value of Shakesides demands that (Laing’s) former home be conserved for future generations,” Zysblat wrote. “And that Heritage BC has committed to providing their assistance, at no charge, to the Town of Comox, for the duration of the process to repurpose Shakesides, and guarantees the town a provincial grant through the Heritage Legacy Fund Heritage Conservation Program.

“To this date, the Town of Comox has ignored this offer by Heritage BC.”

For more stories about Mack Laing, the Town of Comox and the legal proceedings, go here

 

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BC attorney general appears to argue both sides of cases similar to Mack Laing battle

BC attorney general appears to argue both sides of cases similar to Mack Laing battle

BC Archive photo

By George Le Masurier

What should Comox Valley residents think about the BC Attorney General’s office arguing two different sides of similar cases?

The attorney general of BC announced last week that it would take the district of West Vancouver to court because the municipality allegedly broke an agreement with two residents who had bequeathed their property to the district.

But in the Comox Valley, the Attorney General’s office is defending the Town of Comox for breaking its agreement with Hamilton Mack Laing.

And it gets more interesting. The lead counsel for the AG’s office in both cases is Sointula Kirkpatrick.

FURTHER READING: More on Mack Laing 

According to a report from Glacier Media, which publishes several BC newspapers including the North Shore News, the AG’s lawsuit asks the BC Supreme Court to rule that West Vancouver is in breach of the trust.

Pearley and Noreen Berissenden gave their property to the district of West Vancouver in the late 1980s. The couple specified that the property was “to be used and maintained by it (the district) for public park purposes.”

When Mack Laing died in 1982, he left the town his waterfront property, his home named Shakesides, and the residue cash from his estate “for the improvement and development of my home as a natural history museum.”

The district of West Vancouver never followed through on their agreement with the Berissendens, and instead rented out the couple’s home on the property from 2001 to 2018. And in 2017, the district applied to vary the trust to subdivide about half of the property into building lots.

The Town of Comox likewise never followed through on the terms of its trust agreement with Laing, and also rented out Laing’s home for almost 30 years. In 2017, the town applied to vary the trust in order to demolish Shakesides.

AG lawyer Kirkpatrick alleges West Vancouver is in breach of the Berissenden’s trust for failing to make their property a park and for profiting from the rent, according to the Glacier Media report. Kirkpatrick has asked for an accounting of all all rent money received and that it be put back into the trust.

As well, Kirkpatrick, on behalf of the AG’s office, wants the court to order West Vancouver to make the property a park.

But Kirkpatrick has taken the exact opposite view when it comes to the Town of Comox versus Mack Laing.

In the Comox Valley case, Kirkpatrick has defended the town’s failure to make Laing’s home a natural history museum for public enjoyment and for profiting from renting out Shakesides, even though there hasn’t been an independent accounting of those funds and not all of the rent money has been returned to the trust, according to the Mack Laing Heritage Society.

Kirkpatrick has not responded to an email request asking her to explain the differences in the two cases.

She did, however, request a nearly five-month delay for the Supreme Court trial that will determine the fate of Shakesides. Kirkpatrick requested the delay in early May, well before filing the lawsuit against West Vancouver.

At the time, members of the Mack Laing society said they hoped the delay meant the Attorney General’s office was less certain about the merits of the town’s application to alter the trust and that it had new concerns about how Comox councils and staff have mishandled Laing’s gifts to the community.

Now they hope the West Vancouver lawsuit signals a change in direction at the AG’s office over municipal applications to vary citizen trusts. It is part of the Attorney General’s mandate to provide oversight of charitable purpose trusts.

No court date to hear the Shakesides case has been scheduled.

 

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The Week: the effects of drought, but who really owns the water?

The Week: the effects of drought, but who really owns the water?

George Le Masurier photo

By George Le Masurier

The small amount of rain that fell on the Comox Valley recently isn’t enough to offset the drought we’ve been experiencing since February. Low water levels in Comox Lake, and in most of our streams, have brought around the nearly annual stage two water restrictions.

BC Hydro has reduced flows from the lake into the Puntledge River to below minimum fish habitat levels to ensure there will be enough water later to release into the river when the fall chinook start to run.

According to Hydro, precipitation in June was just 33 percent of the average rainfall, and they are not forecasting improvement through the end of September. The forecast for the three-month period of July through September is 56 percent of normal.

That’s better than 2015 when there wasn’t virtually no snowpack and the three-month forecast was 32 percent of normal.

So what happens to the fish in the Puntledge?

BC Hydro’s Stephen Watson told Decafnation that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans have captured most of the summer Chinooks for broodstock. They have also trucked some of the salmon up to the lake, where they hope the fish will spawn in the Cruikshank River.

Low water levels necessitate balancing the risk for fish with power requirements more years than it doesn’t. And, we suspect it will begin happening sooner every year as climate change alters our weather patterns.

Here’s a question you probably never expected to hear: who owns the water?

When rain falls on our planet, it fills up our lakes and streams and replenishes our aquifers. Like the air, rain is just there for everyone, and the concept of “ownership” never enters the conversation.

But down in New Mexico, there’s a legal battle brewing over the privatization of public waterways. And it’s not unlike the Comox Valley concerns about Stotan Falls.

The Guardian newspaper recently reported, “Water itself has always been a public resource for people to fish, paddle, wade and float in. Private landowners have long taken unsanctioned steps to keep the public out of waterways, as in the recent case of an Arizona man convicted of shooting at kayakers boating down a river that runs through his land.”

But the New Mexico state government quietly passed legislation giving private ownership of public waters that flow through privately-owned land. Public access advocates are fighting back, but it will be expensive just to win back what already belonged to the public.

Some good news from Comox Valley schools: Indigenous students in the Comox Valley are graduating at a rate higher than the provincial average.

Seventy-seven percent of Indigenous students in School District 71 completed Grade 12 for the 2017/18 school year. That was a bit higher than the provincial average of 70 percent.

On June 18, the Office of the Auditor General of British Columbia released a progress audit on the Ministry of Education’s changes since the office’s 2015 report on the education of Aboriginal (now referred to as Indigenous) students in the B.C. public school system.

Just a few years prior, in the 2013-14 school year, only 58 percent of Indigenous students graduated.

Got your earthquake survival kit up to date?

Modern technology has enabled scientists to track hurricanes and tornadoes as they develop, giving people time to seek safe shelter. But the recent earthquakes that struck the BC coast and Northern California this week reminds us that it’s the suddenness and unpredictability of temblors that makes them so frightening and potentially deadly.

Even a slightly bigger earthquake that comes without an early-warning system could have easily caused fatalities.

The entire west coast is an earthquake-prone region because it lies within the Ring of Fire, the zone of the frequent earthquake and volcanic activity circling the Pacific Ocean. More than 90 percent of all earthquakes and 80 percent of the most destructive quakes occur in the Ring of Fire.

Vancouver Island also sits on a major fault line, where geologists have determined a subduction zone earthquake – the most powerful type of deadly quakes – occurs every 400 to 600 years. The last one rocked our region in 1700. Do the math.

The US Federal Emergency Management Administration estimates that a megaquake on our coast and the ensuing tsunami would cause about $80 billion in damages and an unimaginable death toll. Dozens of freeway bridges would collapse, entire coastal communities would be submerged. It’s only a matter of time.

California is ahead of Canada in creating shake alert systems. Scientists at the University of Washington and the U.S. Geological Survey are working on a warning system that would eventually be made available to the public.

But early warning systems would give less than a minute’s notice – just enough to shut down automated systems like pipelines, send out text alerts to cell phones or make elevators stop at the next floor and open their doors.

It would be foolish for individuals and property owners to think that such a system was a reason to put off preparations for a major quake. The big shake is coming, and we’d better be ready.

 

 

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