Harley-riding Hamilton Mack Laing fills the hall after 104 years

Harley-riding Hamilton Mack Laing fills the hall after 104 years

Archive photos courtesy of the Mack Laing Heritage Society

By Guest Writer

Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries may be a second best to local legend, Hamilton Mack Laing’s account of his motorcycle ride from New York to the San Francisco World Exhibition of 1915.

One hundred and two years after he wrote The Transcontinentalist, this local legendary naturalist’s account of his journey on an early 14 horsepower Harley Davidson continues to fascinate Canadians, some of whom` easily filled the Courtenay Museum’s auditorium this week to hear readings from the new edition of his memoir by author Trevor Marc Hughes.

Hughes presented an animated and illustrated presentation of Hamilton Mack Laing’s previously unpublished memoir, under its new title, Riding the Continent, published by Ronsdale Press, and which is to be released July 15.

Author Trevor Mark Hughes reading excerpts at the Courtenay Museum this week

The lecture presented some of the rich silverpoint photos taken by Laing. The photos reveal a young Laing fresh out of the Pratt Institute Art programme as an early Ansel Adams, pushing the limits of wilderness landscape photography as an art form.

Laing, who built two famous houses of certified national heritage interest in Comox — Baybrook and Shakesides — lived here for many decades (1922-1982).

He was an illustrious early British Columbia writer and naturalist in his own right and is increasingly recognized for his many contributions to Canada’s scientific history. Notably as the mentor of Dr. MacTaggart-Cowan, who was himself the mentor of David Suzuki, and as an early influence on no less than the late Farley Mowat.

Although Laing was a giant in natural history, he is less known as a Harley-Davidson rider. Laing described himself in his mid-30s as a “motorcycle-naturalist.”

For several years beginning in 1914, Laing used the motorcycle to access the natural world, believing it gave him a distinct advantage over other forms of transportation. During this period in his life, he would take on a transcontinental journey, riding across the United States from Brooklyn to Oakland in 1915.

In his presentation of excerpts from Riding the Continent, Hughes presented the story of a pioneering motorcyclist and independently thinking naturalist, as well as an unusual road trip As a well-published motorcycle enthusiast and historian, Hughes ranks Laing’s account as “perhaps the best piece of motorcycle-writing” known to him.

As Laing put it, “the lure of the unending road is a call that will not be denied.”

Hughes pointed out that Laing’s tale presents his experience of a pre- First World War America unspoiled by real roads or automobiles. He meticulously presents the beauty of North America’s bird life, describes the sights, scenery and people he encountered, and takes us along for the ride on a 1915 Harley-Davidson he named Barking Betsy.

As North-America is becoming increasingly conscious of its natural heritage, this is undoubtedly the first of many books by and about Laing that will be coming forth this decade. Hughes’ excellent presentation made a great case that this book is a must for the bookshelves of Comox Valley residents wishing to understand Canada’s history.

Laing’s legacy lives on in his gifting of his house and property to the Town of Comox as a nature preserve. Laing left this gift to the Town of Comox in trust, and it is to be hoped that the Town of Comox will one day find the wisdom of respecting this important national treasure.

Riding the Continent will be available for purchase after July 15 ($19.95, Ronsdale Press).

 

 

WHO WAS MACK LAING?

Hamilton Mack Laing was an important Canadian naturalist, photographer and writer. He moved to Comox in 1922, cleared his land and built his home from a “Stanhope” Aladdin Ready-Cut kit. In 1927, he married Ethel Hart of Portland and they established a successful and commercial orchard which included walnut, pecan, filbert, hazelnut, apple and plum trees. They also grew mushrooms and vegetables. After his wife, Ethel, died in 1944, he sold his original home, Baybrook, and built a new home, Shakesides, on the adjoining lot. He bequeathed the waterfront property to the Town of Comox and it became Mack Laing Nature Park — excerpted from content on the Mack Laing Heritage Society‘s website.

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Comox failed to consult with KFN over Mack Laing Park

Now that Chief Nicole Rempel has made it clear the Town of Comox failed to properly consult the K’omoks First Nations about plans to demolish Mack Laing’s heritage home, a serious question arises: With whom did town staff and council members consult?

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AG delays Shakesides court date by nearly five months

AG delays Shakesides court date by nearly five months

File photo of Shakesides  /  George Le Masurier photo

By George Le Masurier

In a surprising new development, the BC Attorney General has requested a delay in the Supreme Court trial that will determine the fate of Shakesides, the heritage home of Comox pioneer Hamilton Mack Laing.

The Town of Comox had hoped to get its petition to alter Laing’s Trust and tear down his house before the court during its June session. The new delay means the case likely won’t be heard until October.

The town has already requested two three-month delays. The first came after the 2018 municipal election and pushed any possible court date to after Feb. 6, 2019. Then, Town Council asked for another three-month “abeyance,” which expires May 22.

Now, the Attorney General’s office is asking for a further delay of about five months.

A letter to the town and the Mack Laing Heritage Society, which is an opposing party to the case, announced the delay, but gave no specific reason or purpose for it.

Members of the Laing society hope it means the Attorney General’s office is less certain about the merits of the town’s application to alter the trust, and have new concerns about how Comox councils and staff have mishandled Laing’s gifts to the community.

It’s also not known what role the K’omoks First Nations intends to play in this controversy, which has pitted the town against voices for heritage preservation, moral obligation and civil law issues surrounding how local governments should handle citizen’s endowments.

Last month, K’omoks Chief Nicole Rempel expressed her disappointment that the Town Council had made plans for the Shakesides site, which is traditional and sacred land for First Nation’s people, “without prior consultation.” Rempel asked for a halt to all planning and other work until “meaningful consultation has taken place.”

But the town proceeded to refine its plan to replace the house with a viewing platform, which it finally approved this week.

According to the new deadlines for the Supreme Court trial, the heritage society has until Aug. 7 to submit any final documents into evidence. They have already submitted more than 500 pages of affidavits and other documents.

The town and the Attorney General then have until Sept. 4 to respond to those documents.

Another issue that might be weighing on the Attorney General’s office is how a judgement in the Shakesides case could affect other municipalities and other charitable purpose trusts across the province.

Have other municipalities mishandled trusts? How has the Attorney General’s office dealt with those issues, if they were aware of them? How widespread is the altering of trusts freely agreed to by generous citizens and local governments?

Because there is no provincial registry of charitable purpose trusts, the Attorney General’s office may not have known about the Laing Trust until the town petitioned to alter it, some 35 years later.

It is part of the Attorney General’s mandate to provide oversight of such trusts.

 

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Comox failed to consult with KFN over Mack Laing Park

Now that Chief Nicole Rempel has made it clear the Town of Comox failed to properly consult the K’omoks First Nations about plans to demolish Mack Laing’s heritage home, a serious question arises: With whom did town staff and council members consult?

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Comox failed to consult with KFN over Mack Laing Park

Comox failed to consult with KFN over Mack Laing Park

Naturalist Hamilton Mack Laing tending trees in his nut farm, now called the Orchard Park area / Archives photo

By George Le Masurier

Now that Chief Nicole Rempel has made it clear the Town of Comox failed to properly consult the K’omoks First Nations about plans to demolish Mack Laing’s heritage home, called Shakesides, and construct something else, a serious question arises:

With whom did town staff and council members consult?

We know that neither the town or Comox Council consulted in any formal way with the Mack Laing Heritage Society, which is the only other local party to the legal action to demolish the house.

We know the town did not consult with Lacasse Construction, the well-known Comox Valley construction company that has volunteered to take on the restoration of Shakesides, or with any of the two dozen other civic-minded building and architectural professionals.

We know the town didn’t consult with about a dozen Mark Isfeld High School students who wrote letters to the mayor and council supporting the preservation of Laing’s house on Comox Bay.

In fact, as it turns out, the town and council didn’t formally consult with anyone other than themselves.

You might say a recent public engagement workshop on the topic was a form of consultation. But because participants were allowed to hear about only one single possibility for the building’s future, it doesn’t count.

Still, even disregarding the town’s intentional lack of consultation, it’s a mighty big oversight to not consult with the K’omoks First Nation.

“It is therefore with disappointment … that this proposal and future improvements to the Mack laing Parks has already been … decided upon without prior consultation with KFN, Chief Rempel wrote. “The large shell midden here is of significant cultural importance to KFN. It is the resting place for many KFN ancestors. This significance is well-recognized.”

KFN requested a halt to all planning and other work until “meaningful consultation has taken place.”

And it wasn’t the first time KFN has expressed concern about the town’s activities on the waterfront property Laing bequeathed to the Town of Comox.

“We have previously written to Mayor Paul Ives on the importance of this site and area is to the KFN,” Rempel wrote.

KFN expressed concerns roughly four years ago when the town demolished Laing’s original home, called Baybrook, which is just across Brooklyn Creek from Shakesides. In particular, KFN noted the town had erected a bench on top of a midden.

Informed local people know — or should know — this area is an important and sacred area for KFN.

A 1990 archaeological investigation for the archaeology branch of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, found that First Nations people “occupied the two kilometre-long Comox Harbour Site, which lies in the lee of Goose Spit” for “at least the last 2,000 years.”

It’s not like the town hasn’t had the time. They have been planning to demolish Shakesides for years. Consulting with KFN is the first thing they should have done.

To make matters worse, during a recent Committee of the Whole meeting, Mayor Russ Arnott claimed he had spoken with KFN. He gave the impression to some that the K’omoks were duly informed and on board with the town’s plans.

But that’s not the case, according to KFN Chief Rempel.

Arnott’s idea of collaboration and consultation appears to be that “when we’ve decided what we’re going to do there, we’ll let you know.”

That approach is understandably offensive to KFN.

The protection of archaeological sites is “a moral and spiritual obligation” for KFN people, Rempel said. And she cited the United Nations Declarations of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and how other jurisdictions, such as the City of Vancouver, have honored it proactively.

“It is KFN’s perspective that all Local Governments should follow these examples, and take the management and preservation of archaeological sites much more seriously,” she wrote to Arnott and council members.

Ditto to that. And we would add the management and preservation of “all sites with a heritage value.”

 

 

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More Mack Laing

Comox failed to consult with KFN over Mack Laing Park

Now that Chief Nicole Rempel has made it clear the Town of Comox failed to properly consult the K’omoks First Nations about plans to demolish Mack Laing’s heritage home, a serious question arises: With whom did town staff and council members consult?

Council vote sends Mack Laing Trust issue back to court

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Council vote sends Mack Laing Trust issue back to court

Council vote sends Mack Laing Trust issue back to court

Shakesides

By George Le Masurier

Comox Town Council voted 5-2 this week to continue designing a viewing platform to replace naturalist Mack Laing’s heritage home, rejecting any other proposals for the property, as it prepares to head back to the BC Supreme Court.

The town has petitioned the court to alter the 37-year old trust left by one of the community’s pioneers, even though it has done nothing over nearly four decades to live up to the terms of the trust.

The recent vote at this week’s regular council meeting was on a motion by Councillor Ken Grant to proceed with one of three options presented to council by Chief Administrative Officer Richard Kanigan.

The option referred to in Grant’s motion was to send comment sheets from the March 27 public workshop back to the designers of the viewing platform and to request a redesign. It was amended to include input from K’omoks First Nation and the Mack Laing Heritage Society.

The other two options were to approve the original concept and, lastly, to “consider a completely different proposal as decided by council.”

By rejecting the last option, Town Council has effectively abandoned any thoughts of saving Shakesides, and will eventually pursue its original petition to the court with a slightly different platform design.

Councillors Nicole Minions and Stephanie McGowan cast the only two votes opposing the motion.

“Councillor McGowan and I voted against moving forward with the platform as we want to explore options around Shakesides,” Minions told Decafnation via email after the meeting.

Councillor Alex Bissinger, who voted with the majority to approve the motion, said her understanding of the vote was “that it will be up to the AG (Attorney General’s office) to decide whether or not saving Shakesides is in the books.”

All three councillors — Minions, McGowan and Bissinger — voiced their frustration with the public workshop process, which they felt was unfairly manipulated in favor of a viewing platform. Mayor Russ Arnott did not present workshop participants with any option other than a viewing platform.

The Mack Laing Heritage Society wanted workshop participants to consider its proposal for saving Shakesides as a community volunteer project, but town staff, with the Arnott’s support, denied the MLHS workshop participation as well as a later request to host a table outside of the workshop meeting room.

The three councillors also refuted Arnott’s characterization of a March 6 council decision as affirming that saving Shakesides was no longer an option.

The three councillors said they did not vote at that meeting to demolish Shakesides, only that whether the house was saved or not, some details of the trust couldn’t be honored and needed court approval to forego them.

Arnott became combative as each councillor spoke in turn, often interrupting each speaker. He interrupted Councillor Minions often, once to admonish her for saying council voted on Feb. 6 to put the matter into abeyance for three months.

Arnott said the abeyance wasn’t for three months, rather for “up to three months.” Yet, he did not bother to correct CAO Kanigan’s report, which they were discussing at the time, that also stated “the three month abeyance ….”

Under normal codes of conduct, only one councillor or director of a municipal government has the floor at any one time, and other councillors or directors show respect by refraining from interrupting or calling out comments during that time.

Arnott appeared to be debating each of the three women as they voiced their concerns.

The day after the Town Council meeting, Arnott reached out via email to MLHS President Kris Nielsen to invite him or another representative of the society to participate in last-minute design changes to the platform.

Nielsen declined the offer because he said spending time on the design of a viewing platform was premature, referring to possible outcomes of the now inevitable Supreme Court trial that might deny the town’s petition.

“So for me to entertain some speculative designs/problems is just not in the cards,” Nielsen wrote to Arnott. “I could point out the image of the cart way out in front of the horse picture, but I will refrain from that.”

The town’s petition was first heard by a Supreme Court Justice last April.

A court ruling on the town’s petition could have been made nearly a year ago, but the three Supreme Court dates held so far have been consumed with attempts by the town to deny the MLHS an ability to present its evidence to the court.

The town eventually lost that battle and the upcoming trial will hear evidence from the town and the Attorney General’s office, as well as the Mack Laing Heritage Society.

 

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Town creates confusion, rift over Mack Laing process

Town creates confusion, rift over Mack Laing process

Hamilton Mack Laing  — BC Archive photo

By George Le Masurier

Rather than create a period of community reconciliation over the 37-year mishandling of the Mack Laing Trust, the Town of Comox has used its self-imposed 90-day abeyance of legal action to ignore opposing visions for the famed naturalist’s park and heritage home.

In doing so, the town has also created a rift within the Town Council.

It now appears that, despite the expectations of the public and some council members, the Town of Comox never intended to discuss options for saving the famous naturalist’s home, called Shakesides, during the abeyance.

Since the Feb. 6 Town Council meeting when the abeyance was passed on a 6-1 vote, the town has not entertained any ideas other than its original plan to demolish the house and erect a viewing platform.

The town has not held any good faith discussions with the Mack Laing Heritage Society to search for mutually agreeable ideas that could avert a lengthy and costly trial at the B.C. Supreme Court. Nor has it called for an external, independent audit to determine an accurate accounting of the trust’s current value.

This approach appears to be driven primarily by Mayor Russ Arnott, who cast the only vote against creating the 90-day abeyance.

In public communications, the office of Arnott and town Chief Administrative Officer Richard Kanigan has suggested that because council voted on March 6 to continue “with the modification of the trust in its current format or a modified proposal,” that, therefore, saving Shakesides is no longer an option.

Arnott reinforced that interpretation at last week’s Committee of the Whole meeting and public engagement workshop on visions for Mack Laing Park. Arnott was asked by a Comox resident why the workshop was limited to considering only a single vision — the viewing platform.

“Council voted for modifying the trust. We’re moving forward, not going backwards,” Arnott said.

But not all council members agree with Arnott’s interpretation.

“Speaking for myself, that is not what I voted in support of,” Councillor Alex Bissinger said in an email response to Decafnation.

“My intent with that motion was from the understanding that anything that defers from 1. restoring the house and converting it to a nature museum 2. having an onsite caretaker 3. having the property in that exact location and 4. storing (Mack Laing) artifacts in said museum, would require modifications to the trust, therefore needing to proceed with the court action,” she said.

Bissinger brought the motion forward to council.

“I am still of the opinion and mindset that saving Shakesides is an option, and from the workshop held last week an interesting option came to light, which was to handle it all as a community project. I have emailed the CAO and Council such that this option be discussed in our RCM (regular council meeting) Wednesday,” she said.

Councillor Stephanie has a similar perspective.

“Due to the specifics of the trust, I believe it is going to have to be modified in some way as I don’t believe archives and certain things are feasible and safe to keep on site without risk of damage. However, this vote, in my mind, did not mean Shakesides being restored was not an option,” she said in an email response.

“There seems to be some confusion, however, and as a team, (we) will need to clarify, both with each other and the public,” McGowan said.

Councillor Nicole Minions declined to comment, but did say, “We will be discussing Mack Laing and the Public Session during our upcoming Regular Council meeting this Wednesday, April 3rd, which will open communication of our Council business in the public.”

Arnott did not respond to a request to comment for this story.

 

What is the value of Laing’s trust?

The exact current value of the financial trust Mack Laing left to the Town of Comox has never been conclusively determined by an external audit.

The town claims Laing left $48,000, an amount disputed by by the Mack Laing Heritage Society. They say the amount was about $60,000.

After the town confessed to spending trust money inappropriately since the world-renowned naturalist died in 1982, they added funds that brought the total to $261,474. But according to an independent audit commissioned by Comox resident Gordon Olsen several years ago, the trust should be valued closer to $500,000.

The discrepancies stem from how the money was invested, the revenue received from renting the house for more than 30 years, missing funds from the sale of Laing artwork and donations to a never established Art Trust, unrecognized inappropriate expenditures and other miscellaneous items.

Only an external audit by an external accounting firm, such as Deloitte or KPMG, could bring closure to that issue.

 

Is the building worth saving?

Those who support tearing down Shakesides and replacing it with a viewing stand believe the building is not worth restoring. The Mack Laing society disagrees.

At last week’s public workshop, Comox Resident John Tayless noted there was an assumption being made at the meeting that Shakesides could not be saved.

“But other engineers say it can and that the building is recoverable,” he said.

Asked how the town determined the building wasn’t restorable, Comox Parks Manager Al Fraser said a “cursory report” was done, but he admitted it was “not comprehensive.” Fraser preferred to call the report a “soft pass.”

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

And later when MLHS President Kris Nielsen asked if the town had commissioned any professional assessments of the heritage value of Shakesides, Fraser said, “no.”

The Mack Laing society has organized more than two dozen community volunteers from the construction industry and created a business plan for restoring Shakesides as a community project.

 

Comox Heritage Register

Councillor Stephanie McGowan gave notice of a motion expected at this week’s council meeting to establish a Comox Heritage Register. Comox is the only municipality in the Mid- and North Island that doesn’t already have a heritage register.

Registering buildings with heritage value opens up a broad range of potential funding for maintenance and capital improvements. Heritage sites like the Filberg Lodge and The Little Red Church could benefit.

The Mack Laing Heritage Society has already paid a provincial heritage consultant to complete a Statement of Significance for Shakesides and Heritage BC has promised substantial grant funding for its restoration.

The chairman of Heritage B.C., a provincial agency committed to “conservation and tourism, economic and environmental sustainability, community pride and an appreciation of our common history,” believes the heritage value of Shakesides demands that Laing’s former home should be “conserved for … future generations” and that the Town of Comox should “use the building in ways that will conserve its heritage value.”

Heritage B.C. has also offered its assistance, at no charge, to the Town of Comox, for the duration of the process to repurpose Shakesides, and has all but guaranteed a provincial grant through the Heritage Legacy Fund Heritage Conservation program.

 

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MLHS issues letter of thanks to Comox Council

MLHS issues letter of thanks to Comox Council

Mack Laing Heritage Society archive photo

By George Le Masurier

The Mack Laing Heritage Society this morning issued an open letter to the Town of Comox mayor and council. Here is their letter:

We, the Mack Laing Heritage Society of the Comox Valley (MLHS), wish to take this opportunity to thank Comox Council. Their decision to postpone any decision related to the Mack Laing Shakesides house Trust property, for three months, is to be commended.

We are encouraged that Comox appears willing to discuss their duties and obligations, as trustees of the Mack Laing Trust. We fully support an open, public, and transparent discussion between the MLHS, Council, and others.

Expert and accurate estimates of time, materials and cost should be sought regarding the conversion of Shakesides into a nature museum/house, as outlined in Mack Laing’s Will and Trust. The MLHS has found many interested local companies and individuals willing to support and assist in all aspects of this project. There are undoubtedly many more who would come forward, if a true community project is approved by Council. Cost to the taxpayer could therefore be minimal.

The MLHS will shortly issue a public position paper. We have always stated that close adherence to the terms of Mack Laing’s Will and Trust is necessary for the success of a modest nature house or museum. Therefore, we support a community-funded and supported Shakesides facility.

Soon, Shakesides could realistically become what Mack Laing intended on his death in 1982 – a small public education facility in the quiet nature park he loved, and which he donated to the citizens of Comox.

The Mack Laing Heritage Society can be contacted at macklaingsociety@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

LAING LINKS

Mack Laing

MackLaingSociety.ca

Comox Town Council

Russ Arnott, Mayor: rarnott@comox.ca

Alex Bissinger: abissinger@comox.ca

Nicole Minions: nminions@comox.ca

Patrick McKenna: pmckenna@comox.ca

Ken Grant: kgrant@comox.ca

Maureen Swift: mswift@comox.ca

Stephanie McGowan: smcgowan@comox.ca

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