“Wanton cultural vandalism”

“Wanton cultural vandalism”

Fresh out of college in 1982 at the age of 23, Richard Mackie came face-to-face on Newcastle Island with “Torchy” Smith, a B.C. government employee who roamed the province in search of abandoned buildings in provincial parks.

It was his job that when he found one, he burned it down.

Mackie had just taken on his first job: writing a historical report on the Newcastle Island Dance Pavilion. It was the last remaining pavilion of the 10 built by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in the early part of the 20th Century.

The pavilions were featured attractions of the CPR’s coastal resorts, whose guests arrived on the company’s Princess Ships of the British Columbia Coast Steamship Service.

The Newcastle Island Pavilion after it’s 19834 restoration. It’s a popular and busy site for weddings and other social gatherings.

Mackie’s 1983 report noted the historical, recreational and aesthetic values of the last pavilion, and it sent Torchy back to the mainland to start some other fire. The pavilion was restored in 1984 and today is a sought-after location for weddings and other events.

Flush with his initial success, Mackie began a noted career of teaching and writing about history, with an emphasis on heritage buildings. He’s authored half-a-dozen books.

“I got the idea from my Newcastle experience,” Mackie told an audience at North Island College on Saturday, “that if I wrote a report, people would always care. They don’t.”

That’s particularly true in the Town of Comox, which Mackie accused of perpetrating “wanton cultural vandalism.”

He referred to the Comox Council’s decision last year to demolish famous naturalist Hamilton Mack Laing’s original Comox Bay home, named Baybrook, and its plan to demolish Laing’s second home, Shakesides.. The nation’s top heritage experts have criticized Comox for demolishing Baybrook and are fighting the town to save Shakesides.

“In the Comox, you can write all the reports you want, but they’ll tear them down,” he said.

Mackie titled his lecture, the last in an NIC Elder College series featuring authors, “Dead Dog or Land of Plenty? Creating and Effacing History in the Comox Valley.”

He discussed many of the region’s “dead dogs,” which have either been torn down or burned down before they could be restored. It’s a long list that includes the Lorne Hotel, the Elk Hotel, the Courtenay Hotel, the Riverside Hotel and the EW Bickle Palace Theatre.

He lamented the loss of these historical buildings because they serve as anchors for a community’s collective memories, like rooms and artifacts in a person’s childhood home.

He noted the contrast between Cumberland, which has preserved many of its historical buildings, and Comox, which has no apparent regard or respect for its history.

He did have praise for the preservation of Courtenay’s Native Sons Hall and the Filberg Lodge.

Mackie said saving heritage buildings can benefit a community in many ways, including financially.

Campbell River boosted its public awareness when it preserved the home of Roderick Haig-Brown, a more well-known figure but less important to the scientific world than Mack Laing.

And that city also supported the restoration of artist Sybil Andrews’ home, which has since become a popular tourist and event location similar to the Newcastle Island Pavilion.

Referring to the area’s moniker as the “land of plenty,” Mackie asked “plenty of what?” The Comox Valley is destroying its ghosts, he said, with a frontier mentality that doesn’t value these buildings.


Richard Mackie is a former Comox Valley resident. He is the author of Mountain Timber: The Comox Logging Company in the Vancouver Island Mountains (Sono Nis Press, 2009), Island Timber: A Social History of the Comox Logging Company, Vancouver Island (Sono Nis Press, 2000), Trading Beyond the Mountains: The British Fur Trade on the Pacific, 1793-1843 (UBC Press, 1997), The Wilderness Profound: Victorian Life on the Gulf of Georgia (Sono Nis Press, 2009) and Hamilton Mack Laing: Hunter-Naturalist (Sono Nis Press, 1985). Mackie lives in Vancouver where he is Reviews Editor of the Ormsby Review.


Social Studies 02.27.2017

Yes, we know it’s now April. So we’re a little behind. We took a vacation, okay. Chill.

The Decafnation has left its sickly, lifeless existence behind

The Decafnation has left its sickly, lifeless existence behind and transported ourselves to an all-inclusive tropical oasis, where we can eat 15 meals a day and the steel drummers outnumber the the guests. We’ve traded our medical masks for scuba masks, and our serious hats for floppy hats.

So, while we enjoy a complimentary sunset and another free umbrella drink at the tiki bar, we suggest you endure the next two weeks of rain, snow and blustery winter nastiness by rereading every single word on the Decafnation website. We’ll be too busy eating to think of you, but have fun. See you on March 19.

Right now, we have to limber up for the fire-walking limbo contest.

Valley faces a watershed moment

Valley faces a watershed moment

Comox Councillor Barbara Price has offered up misleading statements to defend changes to an antiquated sewerage system that serves only Comox and Courtenay residents.

Price chairs the Comox Valley Sewage Commission, which is itself a misnomer. The Sewage Commission does not serve or represent the Comox Valley. It represents the sole interests of the Town of Comox, the City of Courtenay and CFB Comox.

A nearly equal amount of the Comox Valley’s population resides outside these two municipalities and relies on septic systems and wells for their water and sewage treatment. The Village of Cumberland manages its own wastewater.

So Price stretches the truth when she writes that the Comox Valley Regional District is “… planning and managing sewage operations for the region.” That’s a true statement only if you narrowly define ‘region’ as Courtenay and Comox. But Price attempts to give the impression of a broader interest.

The irony of Price’s fake fact is that a Valley-wide sewerage system is exactly what the CVRD should be doing. Instead of furthering the patchwork delivery of wastewater services, which creates inter-jurisdictional fights, the Comox Valley should have a 21st Century model for comprehensive and fair delivery of wastewater collection and treatment.

The issue of the moment is the Courtenay-Comox Sewage Commission’s plan to build a large pump station on Beech Street, which resides in Area B, not within the municipal boundaries of either the Town of Comox or the City of Courtenay.

On that point, Price also misleads readers when she suggests that the commission followed “proper processes” in selecting the Beech Street site, which she also calls the “preferred location.”

A proper process to site such an important public facility would have been transparent. As is required in the Town of Comox, several possible locations would have been identified and the public would have had input before the commission authorized purchase of any property. A fair process would have given a vote to the Area B director who represents people most directly affected by the facility.

But the sewage commission did all of this work in secret. By shutting out the public, and delaying announcement of the property purchase until after the 2014 municipal elections, the commission showed a callous disregard for public sentiment and open governance.

The Beech Street location was not the preferred location of the commission’s own Advisory Committee — formed after the property purchase was announced and comprising elected officials, staff and Beech Street neighbors. The committee gave its top recommendation to upgrading the existing pump station in Courtenay, and for good reason.

Two separate financial analyses — one by the regional district itself and another by a qualified citizen — showed that upgrading the Courtenay No. 1 pump station was less expensive. The independent report predicted savings of $7 million to $12 million in the long-term.

In her op-ed column Price writes that the Comox No. 2 pump station will only be built if it “can be built safely, without harm to neighbours and their necessities (such as well-water access.” CVRD Engineer Kris La Rose made a similar promise in a meeting with Beech Street neighbors last summer. He promised the new pump station would not create any odour or noise discernible beyond the facility’s property line.

Those are bold promises. But can the public have any faith in their veracity? The Courtenay/Comox Sewage Commission made similar promises to residents of the Willemar Bluffs about property erosion and to the Curtis/Brent road residents about odours.

Both sets of residents successfully sued the regional district because the commission’s promises were proved untrue. More than 30 years later, odours from the treatment plant still drift through the neighborhood, which remains skeptical of yet another plan in 2017 to fix the problem.

The Comox Valley faces a watershed moment. Elected officials can choose to invest in patchwork infrastructure that shackles us for decades to deteriorating and outdated technology, or they can create a 21st Century model: a Valley-wide shared service that addresses population growth, new technology and climate change and takes in more service areas and more ratepayers so the burden — and benefits — can be shared more widely.

If not now, then when?

Does the Comox Valley have visionary leaders who see the big picture and consider the long-term? Do we have leaders willing to debate the merits of building a world-class Valley-wide sewerage system with tertiary treatment and resource recovery?

Or, do we have leaders stuck in the past, afraid to think of the greater good because it would be a long, hard sell to voters?

Other North American cities already clean their wastewater to point of reinjecting it into groundwater supplies and, in some cases, directly back into public drinking water systems. They use the byproducts of treatment to fuel their plants, and provide suitable water for agriculture irrigation.

Why can’t the Comox Valley take such a forward-thinking approach?


The pressure mounts on Comox

The pressure mounts on Comox

With new organizations and high-profile individuals joining the movement to preserve the waterfront home of internationally known naturalist and Town of Comox benefactor Hamilton Mack Laing, there are rumors that some Comox Council members might reconsider the town’s plan to demolish the house, known as Shakesides.

Robert Bateman, Canada’s most famous naturalist and painter, is the latest individual to support saving Shakesides.

In a March 23 message to town officials, Bateman wrote, “I have spent my life since the 1960s battling to hold back the destruction of our human and natural heritage … it is your job to protect this property and honour the wishes of its owner ….”

Laing, who died in 1982 at the age of 99, gave his waterfront property, his home, substantial cash and personal papers from his estate to the Town of Comox “for the improvement and development of my home as a natural history museum.” The town accepted the money and, therefore, the terms of the trust.

But 35 years later, the Town of Comox has done little to satisfy his last wishes and apparently mishandled the Laing trust funds. The current Town Council has voted twice to demolish Shakesides, raising serious ethical and legal questions. The demolition was stopped in 2016 by the B.C. Attorney General.

Top Photo: Laing with spring salmon, April 26, 1929. Above: Shakesides today

Comox Council voted unanimously in February to ask the B.C. Supreme Court to release the town from its obligations under the terms of Laing’s trust, which required it to use 25 percent of his money to develop a natural history museum in Shakesides and to invest the other 75 percent to fund ongoing operations.

But at least three Comox Valley groups plan to seek intervenor status in opposition to the town’s application.

The latest to join the movement is the Comox Valley Naturalists Society, commonly know as Comox Valley Nature. In a letter to the Provincial Ministry of Justice, the group asks for a 12-month to 18-month freeze on demolition so it can work with “Heritage B.C. and the National Trust of Canada to prepare a heritage management plan.”

It also requests an independent forensic audit of the town’s handling of the trust’s money. Documents collected by other intervenors show the town spent trust money on improvements outside the park, and that none of the investment income was spent in accordance with the terms of the trust until the early 2000s. The more than $100,000 in rental income from Shakesides was funneled into the town’s general ledger.

Comox Valley Nature also asks the Attorney General to remove Mack Laing Park property, including the Shakesides house, and the trust funds from the town, and place them “in more trustworthy and capable hands.” The group intends to create a consortium of community and provincial groups to take responsibility for the house and park.

Besides Comox Valley Nature, support for Shakesides has also come from B.C. Nature, Heritage B.C., the Comox Valley Conservation Strategy Partnership, Project Watershed and dozens of well-known individuals, including Bateman, author Robert Mackie and columnist Stephen Hume.

This mounting support has at least one council member questioning whether the town should proceed with its Supreme Court application, which could cost more than $100,000. If council was permitted to proceed with demolition, taxpayers would pay an estimated $250,000 in legal costs, demolition and remediation of the site into a viewing platform.

Surely other council members are also wondering if it might create more goodwill and community cohesion to direct that amount toward living up to the terms of Laing’s trust.

An unfavorable Supreme Court decision could be even costlier for Comox taxpayers.

Comox resident Gord Olsen commissioned an independent analysis of the Laing trust by Kent Moeller, CPA, of Moeller Matthews in Campbell River. It showed the trust fund could be worth $481,548 today. He used figures released by the town and conservatively calculated interest rates and added in the investment of rental income.

Moeller’s analysis suggests that if the town had immediately invested all of Laing’s bequeathed cash plus the rental income, it would have nearly a half-million dollars in the trust fund.

Laing left the town about $60,000 in 1942 (note: the price of a newly built similar-sized home in Courtenay in 1982 sold for about $50,000).

According to Bunker Killam, who rented the house, and Richard Mackie who lived there after Laing died to sort and organize his personal papers and belongings, Shakesides was in good condition at the time the town took possession. A nationally recognized heritage consulting firm recently examined the house and determined it is still structurally sound, and are prepared to write a conservation strategy.

No date has been set for the town’s court application to modify the terms of Laing’s trust. Comox Council should recognize this as a grace period to reconsider their decision and save a public relations disaster with just over a year before the next municipal elections.


Was Mother Earth Goddess drunk?

Was Mother Earth Goddess drunk?

Today we celebrate the spring equinox, the beginning of a new astrological year, a time when hope and creativity soar and our hearts beat to the rhythm of the Earth’s renewal. And we just pray to the Mother Earth Goddess that it doesn’t fucking snow again.

Because it’s been one pisser of a winter.

In Greek mythology, Gaia is the personification of Earth, the mother of all life, who should have been up at 3:28 a.m. this morning to preside over the moment of renewal and the divine harmony of the equinox, when life exists within equal hours of lightness and darkness.

But I suspect the Mother Earth Goddess slept in this year, or possibly she’s lying on the floor, sprawled among empty Ouzo bottles, hung over from a rough winter binge. Because that’s how the rest of us feel.

Snow. Freezing temperatures. More snow. Power outages. Cars in ditches. Shoveling. More snow. Shoveling, again. More cold.

The worst winter in recent history makes one wonder if the Mother Earth Goddess didn’t spend the winter in Mexico and forgot about the Pacific Northwest.

So, naturally, her absence raises the epistemic question posed by evil in the world.

Here’s how the argument goes. If God exists and is omnipotent and morally perfect, then why doesn’t God eliminate all evil? For some, the existence of evil proves God doesn’t exist.

But the counter-argument posits that evil exists so that we can know goodness.

Or, as Anne Bradstreet said, “If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.”

In other words, without bad stuff, we can’t appreciate the good stuff. Without Trump, we wouldn’t reflect fondly on Obama … hell, even on George W. Bush.

So as we anticipate smelling the flowers in full bloom, we can recall how dark and dreary our life has been, and be glad we aren’t in that place any more.

Streams will soon be bubbling, trees and grass will be green. Temperatures will rise. Gaia, the Mother Earth Goddess, will sober up and rejuvenate.

As Robin Williams once said, “Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s party!’”