By voting unanimously last week to demolish Shakesides, the home of noted Canadian naturalist Hamilton Mack Laing, the Comox Town Council has failed to recognize a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build community cohesiveness.
Hamilton Mack Laing was a naturalist, photographer, writer and noted ornithologist, whose work from the Comox waterfront since 1922 earned him worldwide recognition.
Laing gave his waterfront property, his home and the cash 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.
Laing’s own letters, now preserved in the B.C. Archives, show that prior to his death in 1982 he held discussions with Town of Comox officials, and that he was satisfied they would follow-through on the instructions in his Last Will.
But 34 years later, the Town of Comox has done little to satisfy his last wishes and mishandled the money Laing left, raising serious ethical and legal questions. You can read about those here and here.
Those matters may ultimately be resolved in court when the town applies to change the terms of the trust, and effectively negate Laing’s last requests.
But, the ethical and legal issues aside, the Town Council should have heeded those who believe Laing’s importance and his last wishes deserve something better than yet another forgettable viewing platform.
It’s not too late to change course.
The renovation of Laing’s home into some form of a nature interpretive center, and the preservation of his legacy, is an opportunity to strengthen this community by honoring its past, and by bringing people together to rebuild and respect Laing’s legacy gift. This project would undoubtedly inspire Comox Valley people.
Community service groups, such as Rotary, look for opportunities like this to support with funding and volunteers. Many building trades have already agreed to donate their expertise and time to restoring Shakesides. Businesses would surely donate materials. Other volunteers would provide labor and raise the necessary funds.
Approached in this way, Shakesides would become a source of community pride. After all, Laing’s home is an important piece of Comox history. Without history, how do people ever acquire a sense of place, of belonging? Our First Nations people understand this better than the rest of us.
But, instead of inspiring volunteers to collaborate for the common good, the council unanimously chose to perpetuate divisiveness. It’s a discouraging lack of vision and leadership.
Faced with similar dilemmas, other communities have done far better.
A decade ago in Campbell River, for example, that City Council considered demolishing the small waterfront cottage where Sybil Andrews, one of Canada’s important artists, did some of her best work. The cottage had fallen into disrepair. It had no foundation; it sat directly on sand.
Led by the Campbell River Arts Council and the Sybil Andrews Heritage Society, citizens convinced the city to restore the cottage, which they did collaboratively.
The community project inspired the city to create a Heritage Registry (Comox does not have one), and they made the Andrews cottage its first entry.
Today, Sybil Andrews Cottage thrives as a gallery to display the works of local artists and as a site for programs of visual and performing arts. Campbell River’s museum and tourist groups promote tours of the cottage as a community attraction. You can read about it here.
Let’s urge the Comox Town Council to reconsider its options. Let’s hope they will work with the Mack Laing Heritage Society, the Comox Valley Naturalists Society and the community at large to take on a project that strengthens our community’s identity and preserves an important part of our heritage.
For more on this issue go here and here and here.
Mack Laing working in his Baybrook Nut Farm
Laing with spring salmon, April 26, 1929
Laing with nut tree branch, undated
Laing with a 52 pound tyee salmon caught at Comox, 1955
Laing, about a year before his death, July 1981
Mack Laing enjoys the first fire at his new home, Baybrook, on Oct. 11, 1923
Wedding photo Mack and Ethel Laing, 1927
When he died in 1982, well-known Canadian naturalist Hamilton Mack Laing left his possessions, his property and house,and his money to the Town of Comox. His Last Will specified that some of the money be used to create a natural history museum in his house and to invest the other funds.
The town has not fulfilled either of those wishes, raising serious ethical and legal questions.
Why didn’t the Town of Comox follow the terms of Hamilton Mack Laing’s trust after the naturalist’s death in 1982, and turn his Shakesides home into some type of natural history museum? Why didn’t that council immediately invest the $45,000 that Laing left for the town to fund those terms?
Has the town spent money from the trust on items that aren’t authorized by the trust’s provisions? If the town had no intention to follow the terms of the trust, why did it accept Laing’s money?
We can ask these questions of every Comox Town Council and mayor since 1982, because they have all had the opportunity to fulfill the terms of the trust.
But the current Comox Town Council hopes to convince a B.C. court to change the terms of the trust to allow the demolition of Shakesides and relieve the town from restrictions on how to use Laing’s money.
Councillors might reasonably argue they are following the recommendation of an advisory committee report that concluded, on a 3-2 vote, the house should be demolished. But two members of the advisory committee say the process was flawed, and they issued a minority report.
The minority report, signed by Angela Burns and Mark Ouellette, presents a picture of a corrupted process that did not address two of its three assigned goals. In fact, they claim the committee chair refused to allow discussions related to those terms of reference. You can read the minority report here and draw your own conclusions.
Laing would be disappointed that what he intended as a wonderful gift to a community he loved has turned into a sordid affair.
But the Town Council has created an impression that they don’t care about getting to the bottom of this story. They don’t question why the money was mishandled or how it was spent. And no councillor has fully addressed the ethical issues.
A reporter has quoted Mayor Paul Ives as saying, “That was then, this is now.” It’s a foolish statement meant to deflect any moral imperative to correct the wrong perpetrated by the Town of Comox for 34 years.
If the federal government followed this logic, Ottawa would try to ignore the land claims by Canada’s First Nations people. By accepting the money from Mack Laing’s estate, the Town of Comox accepted the terms of his trust. But, to date, the town has mostly ignored them.
It’s understandable that the town wants to move forward and bring this saga to a close. But it has a responsibility to consider all the reasonable options. You can read about one idea here, or here.
Council believes a modern interpretation of Laing’s ideas can be accomplished by returning the property to its natural state, because, they say, he was a naturalist.
It’s a silly means of justifying the demolition. If the town actually returned the land to its “natural state,” they’d rip out the bridges, walkways, signs, stairs and other human additions and let the property go wild. That’s it’s true natural state.
Vancouver author Richard Mackie lived in the Shakesides house for several months following Laing’s death. A friend of Laing’s, Mackie packaged up Laing’s drawings and writings and notes. He said the house at that time was “beautifully maintained.”
The Town of Comox, however, says Laing didn’t leave enough money to convert the house into a museum in 1982 and maintains that contention today. The town has done few, if any, repairs over the years. They say the house is in such bad shape that it’s unsuitable for public use and must be torn down.
Responding to letter from Citizen of the Year Ruth Masters in 2001, Comox financial officer Steve Ternent (at the time of the letter) wrote to administrator Helen Dale, in part, that “No natural history museum involving the house has been established to date because the house is old, inadequately powered, poorly insulated and subject to flooding in the basement. It would not be suitable for the use suggested in the will;” that is, a public use.
In Ternent’s description, the house sounds horrible and inhabitable. But that didn’t stop the town from renting the house for 31 years, right up until 2013 — another 12 years after Ternent’s description.
Or, has the town exaggerated the condition of Shakesides to make its case for demolition? A visual examination by a structural engineering firm in December of 2015 found that despite issues related to 34 years of neglect, the structure “has performed adequately to date.”
The firm concluded that, “Provided the building envelope is repaired, structural repairs completed and the loads on the building are unchanged, the building structure will continue to perform adequately in the future.”
However, it appears that the Laing Trust has funded trails, stairs and walkways, none of which Laing referenced. Now the town may use Laing’s money to modify the terms of his trust. And they’re threatening critics that any money the town spends on defending its actions will just drag the fund down further.
But isn’t that in itself a misuse of the funds?
Questions about the Town of Comox’s handling of the Mack Laing Trust are not new. Citizens expressed concern many years ago, including Comox Valley Citizen of the Year Ruth Masters.
In April of 2001, she wrote to then Mayor George Kirkwood and councillors asking for financial information related to the trust and suggesting that some of the Laing funds had been used for inappropriate purposes.
Here is Master’s letter:
By Judy Morrison
I attended the recent Town of Comox Open House where one of the featured topics was the Lazo Road shoreline. I have learned much since that date. I now know a lot more about shores and water and and their “systems.” I have also learned more about people, and most of that has been good.
And I learned something about accountability.
I learned that the Town of Comox, when they annexed the Lazo Road shoreline, were given ownership of the foreshore. They can develop or reconstruct it with no accountability to the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations.
I learned that because the project is under 1,000 metres in length, the town is not accountable to the Ministry of Environment for the project’s design or the completed work.
I learned that Mayor Paul Ives seems to rule with an iron fist, and that when I am denied an opportunity to speak at a council meeting, no councillor or administrator disputes the decision. Neither council nor staff hold him accountable.
I learned that our Town Council isn’t accountable to its electorate. Under the guise of a road improvement, a major shoreline reconstruction can occur without accountability under the Municipal Government Act. Regardless of requests from me and a number of other Valley residents, council has not held a public hearing on the subject.
We elect councillors to make good decisions. But on the Lazo Road project, they failed to question the pre-packaged solution given to them by staff. Councillors should know that, “If you give an engineer a hammer, all they see is nails.” Mea culpa? No, lack of accountability. Each member of council can do the same research I did, and am still doing, to learn about the Comox environs.
I learned that town staff are not accountable to the council. Letters from the Comox Valley Land Trust and from other individuals were sent to town staff questioning the design for the Lazo Road shoreline project. It appears that those letters were never shared with council.
I was told via email in May 2015 that when the project drawings were done, “ … I [the town’s engineer] am thinking an open house of some sort may be beneficial to the locals in the area including Cape Lazo Recreation Association, so that the design can be discussed in detail with the design team to get a better understanding of the design and to answer any concerns/questions the residents may have.”
Would have been a good idea, but it didn’t happen. Accountability.
I am used to a municipal parks department that would jump at an opportunity to integrate any part of the Comox Valley shoreline into its parks system, in a natural state. To my knowledge, that was never suggested for the Lazo Road shoreline since its annexation into the Town of Comox in 2006. Accountability.
And we, the voters, aren’t innocent either. We are accountable for the Town Council we have in place right now. I guess we deserve them. But I also suspect that we have learned something, too.
Judy M. Morrison is a professional land surveyor. She lives on Lazo Road.
Ah, Canada Day. God save the Queen … and after Brexit, maybe the whole damn United Kingdom.
There’ll be parades today, hot dogs, kids on bikes, a shrill seven notes from an overabundance of bagpipers marching slowly, steadily toward you, like the Scottish Walking Dead, and bright red maple leaves flying everywhere.
In American backyards, on their July holiday, people light up a couple thousand dollars’ worth of high-octane fireworks happily sold to them by American Indians. Ironic?
But at 149 years old, Canadians deserve to celebrate. Here’s my list of the Top Ten most unique things about Canada.
10 — 5-pin bowling
A truly Canadian sport. Balls without holes. Pins on string. And three rolls. A less dramatic version of real bowling, which involves 10 pins and an adult ball. If the Coen Brothers had made the movie “The Big Lebowski” in Canada, it would have been called “Little Lebowski.”
9. — Quantum Computing
Canada leads the world in the use of subatomic particles to process complex calculations more quickly. If you want to know more about quantum computing, ask our Prime Minister
8 — Dinosaur bones
When archeologists get together, it’s never in Hilda, Alberta. But that’s where you’ll find the world’s largest bed of horned dinosaur bones. Thousands of bones clumped together suggests several horned dino herds drowned in the fast rising waters of a tropical storm.
As an aside, a super-majority of Canadians accept the concept of evolution. Even more of us believe Bigfoot is real.
7 — Legalized same-sex marriage
While other nations floundered with the most important civil rights struggle of this century — same-sex marriage — Canada figured it out in 2005. It took the U.S. another decade.
6 — Caesars
Canadians are not boring and we will not abide a blah-meh Bloody Mary. We add Worcestershire and tabasco, maybe lime and a stalk of celery, or, if you’re lucky, a fat dill pickle.
5 — Mike Myers
We could name a long list of famous Canadian comedians, but why not single out Myers, the mastermind behind the Austin Powers vs. Dr. Evil trilogy of movies? Scottie, Noooo. On the other hand, we also gave Justin Bieber to the world.
4 — Election spending limits
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Citizens United, it opened a Pandora’s Box of shady campaign financing practices south of the border. But Canada has spending limits on federal elections that restrict political donations and third party advertisements. Thank goodness.
3 — Neptune
Not the planet. But the University of Victoria research project hailed as one of humankind’s most ambitious scientific endeavors. With Ocean Networks Canada in 2007, UVic created a large-scale underwater observatory. More than 800 km of power cables and fibre optics span the northern region of the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate, collecting data down to 2,660m, allowing ocean scientists around the world to do long-term research via the Internet.
2 — Variable gravity
Forget the latest fad diet. There’s only one sure way to lose weight in this life: move to Hudson Bay. Due to the Bay area’s unique geology, gravity exerts less force here. A 150-pound person willing to put up with extreme cold and sleep year-round with those colorful blankets will enjoy about a one-tenth of an ounce more spring in their step.
Scientists don’t all agree why a part of Canada has less gravity, but it’s likely either due to mantle rocks flowing down toward the Earth’s core, or because glaciers pushed them aside during the Ice Age. Or maybe it’s magic.
1 — Ketchup Chips
You can’t get them anywhere else. And they turn your finger tips red. And that reminds us of the big maple leaf in our flag.
Happy birthday, Canada