The Town of Comox has finally confessed that it inappropriately spent funds from the Hamilton Mack Laing trust.
At its Dec. 6, 2017, meeting, the Town Council approved paying $103,000 into the trust, a sum that town staff has classified as misspent prior to 2001, plus interest those funds would have earned.
In a report to Town Council, Comox Chief Administrative Officer Richard Kanigan characterized the misuse of funds as:
“These expenditures may not have been in strict accordance with the terms of the trust, which required the town to use the funds to convert Shakesides into a museum.”
It was an understatement. Some of those expenditures included repairing the Brooklyn Creek stairs, which aren’t even located on Mack Laing’s property.
It’s the first time the town has admitted spending Laing’s trust funds improperly.
And it’s unclear whether the confession is simply posturing for an upcoming B.C. Supreme Court hearing, or a genuine acknowledgement that the town mishandled a binding trust agreement with an important literary and ornithological benefactor.
In any case, the admission makes a start toward reparations for 36 years of disrespecting the Last Wishes of one of the community’s most widely admired citizens.
But not everyone agrees the town has fully owned up to the totality of expenditures disallowed by the trust. And there are other unresolved questions about the town’s accounting and handling of the Laing trust.
These issues are raised in at least a half-dozen affidavits that oppose the town’s court application to tear down Laing’s house.
Mack Laing vs. Town of Comox
Laing was a prolific naturalist, photographer, writer, artist and noted ornithologist, whose work from the Comox waterfront since 1922 earned him worldwide recognition.
Prior to his death, Laing left his waterfront property and his second home (named Shakesides) to the town. After his death, he left the town the residue cash from his estate “for the improvement and development of my home as a natural history museum,” and to support its ongoing operation.
But nearly 36 years later, the town has done nothing to satisfy Laing’s last wishes.
Instead, the town applied to the court last February to alter the terms of Laing’s Last Will, namely to demolish his house and use his trust fund to construct a viewing platform.
To finance the project, the town now proposes to use the $103,000 of misspent money, $75,000 previously allocated, and the balance remaining in the Laing Trust, estimated at around $70,000.
Any money left over would be placed in a reserve fund to maintain the new platform.
But to critics, such as the Mack Laing Heritage Society, the town’s $178,000 deposit into the trust is a hollow gesture because the town had already committed itself to building a viewing platform in its court filing to tear the house down.
The town appears to be simply moving the money it has promised to spend, if the court allows, from general revenue into the Laing Trust. Not so, says the town. They maintain their action was to make Laing’s trust whole.
According to several affidavits submitted to the Attorney General’s office, which is charged with defending trusts made to public institutions, the town’s calculation of misspent funds doesn’t square with its own ledger entries.
Gordon Olsen, who has filed one of those affidavits, was a friend of Laing. He says the documents he has compiled show the town is “way short of making the Laing trust whole.” But he said the details of his claim is in the AG’s hands and will ultimately be made public.
In 2016, Olsen hired a Campbell River accounting firm to review publicly available financial records of the Town of Comox. The review showed the trust fund should be worth in excess of $480,000 today. The firm used figures released by the town and used conservatively calculated interest rates.
The independent analysis suggested that if the town had immediately invested all of Laing’s bequeathed cash plus the income it derived from renting the house for 30-some years, it would have nearly a half-million dollars in the trust fund.
Olsen believes the great disparity in accounting demands a court-ordered forensic audit of the town’s financial records.
A forensic audit is a specialization within the accounting profession to determine negligence or other financial irregularities for use as evidence in court. Most major accounting firms have a forensic auditing department.
The Attorney General’s office doesn’t discuss active cases.
In response to an enquiry from Decafnation about the number and content of affidavits it has received in this case, the Ministry of Attorney General sent this statement:
“The Legal Services Branch of the Ministry of Attorney General is responsible for this case. Applications made to the B.C. Supreme Court will be decided by the Court. As this case is before the courts, we cannot comment further.”
Comox Mayor Paul Ives declined to comment for this story, referring enquiries to town staff.
The purposeful neglect of the Mack Laing heritage house by the Town of Comox has reached a new low.
Hamilton Mack Laing gave his house, known as Shakesides, along with a substantial sum of money in his Last Will and Testament for the purpose of converting it into a public natural history museum. Laing, an internationally respected naturalist and ornithologist, died in 1982.
But the town has done nothing over the intervening 35 years to comply with Laing’s last wishes, and has intentionally let the building fall into disrepair. Council members apparently hope their neglect will garner support for the effort to tear it down.
But the Mack Laing Heritage Society (MLHS) hopes to preserve Shakesides in its current condition, at least until the B.C. Supreme Court rules on the town’s application to demolish the building. That seems reasonable.
And it was in that spirit that MLHS offered to place a tarp on the roof of Shakesides to prevent moisture from entering the building through a decades-old roof and to stop further deterioration of the famous naturalist’s home on Comox Bay.With another wet winter in the forecast, council members should have accepted the offer. Especially because MLHS members proposed to pay the entire labor cost of a professional installation.
And they made this offer with plenty of time to get such a simple task done over last spring and summer.
Vandals recently attacked Shakesides for the second time, but no other structure in Mack Laing Park. That suggests the vandalism is politically motivated. See the full gallery of photographs below.
MLHS President J-Kris Nielsen first presented the group’s offer verbally at a Committee of the Whole meeting on March 22, 2017, complete with projected costs. He followed that up with an April 17 letter to the town detailing a work plan that included drawings and itemized material costs totalling $1,892.80.
The letter was officially stamped “Received” on April 20, 2017.
Seven months later, the town has yet to respond. Not a letter. Not an email. Not a phone call.
The Town of Comox voted unanimously in February to ask the B.C. Supreme Court to release the town from the terms of the trust established by Laing’s Last Will. That would allow them to demolish the house. No court date has been set.
So the council might have figured, why spend even $1,800 to preserve a building we hope to tear down? Fair enough, but doesn’t decency require a reply to well-intentioned citizens, at the least?
And consider this:
The town has hired the law firm Young & Anderson to make their case for demolition to the province’s high court. If they succeed, the town has committed to spend around $300,000 of taxpayer’s money to pay lawyers, demolish the building and build a viewing platform.
Yet council members can’t find $1,800 for a group of passionate citizens to tarp the roof? The MLHS might have even paid the whole bill if council had made a civil response.
It’s shameful. But no surprise.
For 35 years, the Town of Comox has neglected the last wishes of this important literary and ornithological person, and mismanaged his trusts. It’s shameful how the town has claimed Laing’s celebrity, when convenient, but has always ignored his desire for a legacy.
Those who prefer to save Shakesides have criticized council and pressured them to act. But that’s no justification for a town government to disrespect its citizens. Or act vindictively. They deserved a reply.
And, really, it seems only fair to put a tarp on a leaking roof until the Supreme Court hears the case, because there’s no guarantee how the court will rule, or view the town’s behavior in this matter.
Meanwhile, Shakesides recently suffered another attack by pretend graffiti artists.
Like the graffiti attack in April, vandals again spray-painted the historical home with lame images. It wasn’t serious tagging, much less artwork.
These latest vandals might be the same person or group of people. They just made a better effort. We’ll never know for sure.
But it is interesting that, like the last attack, no other sign, bridge, post or tree was spray-painted. That makes it likely that this defacing of public property is somehow connected to the political and legal battle over the preservation of Laing’s home.
And, of course, the defacing fits nicely with the Town Council’s policy of intentional neglect.
Vandals spray-painted the historical home of Hamilton Mack Laing, known as Shakesides, this week with what appears to be a lame version of tagging.
Squiggles of red paint were carelessly sprayed on three sides of the building, and a circle with an upside down ’Y’ was painted on plywood covering the building’s front window.
This doesn’t look like the work of any young graffiti artist. Not a serious one, anyway. They would not spray meaningless scribbles at a fast walk around a building and then produce a 50-year-old peace sign.
No, this seems like the work of somebody without spray-painting skills attempting to inflict maximum damage in the shortest amount of time.
Who would do such a thing? I don’t know, maybe someone angry about something? A jerk?
The front stairway into Shakesides
But it is interesting that no other sign, bridge, post or even tree was spray-painted. That creates the impression this was about something else, possibly the political and legal battle over preservation of Laing’s home.
Maybe it was an attempt to show that a building in a secluded location is vulnerable to defacing by graffiti. But that logic doesn’t hold. It doesn’t explain the worldwide tagging of downtown buildings, railway cars, subway walls, etc.
The whole point of graffiti is to be publicly viewed.
Mayor Paul Ives told me the town will remove the scrawls. They pretty much have to after last year ordering parks staff to remove good-looking murals painted on the window boards by turning the plywood panels around.
Unwanted graffiti is a nuisance and the bane of every property owner. Except that, in this case, the murals made the building look better.
But the town hasn’t always been so keen. Someone painted the word FUCK on the front of Shakesides two years ago and the town just ignored it. A citizen eventually painted over the obscenity.
And the town has ignored other graffiti previously sprayed on parts of the Mack Laing Nature Park.
When a person or organization wants to tear down a heritage building, they employ a variety of tricks to gain public support.
The type of graffiti a young graffiti artist might do, from a building in Olympia, WA.
The most commonly used trick is to let the building fall into disrepair. Spend as little as possible to repair rot or leaks, don’t make improvements and board up the windows quickly. Make it look as bad as possible.
The Town of Comox has used this strategy on Shakesides for 35 years.
Maybe the person or persons who committed this recent act of vandalism wanted to help the town along in its plan to demolish the house. Who knows? Sometimes, people just do dumb stuff.
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.
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.
Two documents have recently surfaced that indicate the Town of Comox had discussions with the Comox Valley Natural History Society about creating a natural history museum in the home of Hamilton Mack Laing. The letters also indicate the society’s interest to take on responsibility for developing a park on Laing’s property.
You can read the letters here, and here.
The letters, written in 1979 and 1981, provide proof that Laing participated in getting assurances that the Town of Comox would carry out his last wishes if he bequeathed them his house, the bulk of his work as a naturalist and a significant amount of money to finance the endeavors.
Laing was an honoured figure in the CV Natural History Society and his caretaker nurse was Alice Bullen, also a member of the society and a Town councillor at the time. The letters show that Laing knew of the society’s communication with the town and supported it.
Up until now, the Town of Comox has claimed that all records and accounts of its dealings with Laing and his representatives have disappeared.
Laing was prolific naturalist, photographer, writer, artist and noted ornithologist, whose work from the Comox waterfront since 1922 earned him worldwide recognition.
Laing lived a Walden Pond lifestyle on several waterfront acres along Comox Bay from 1922 until his death in 1982. Laing was lesser known than Campbell River’s Roderick Haig-Brown, but to serious ornithologists, his work was more important.
When Laing died, he left the bulk of his work to the Town of Comox, and also his waterfront property, his second home (named Shakesides), and the residue cash from his estate “for the improvement and development of my home as a natural history museum.
But 35 years later, the town has done nothing to satisfy his last wishes, and the money Laing left to finance his legacy would have been used for other purposes.
One of the important revelations from the documents unearthed from Laing’s papers preserved at the B.C. Archives is that the town may have competed for the trust, or at least convinced Laing that they were the best holders of his trust.
That may be cause for the B.C. Supreme Court to regard the town’s breach of Laing’s trust as something more serious.
The Town Council voted unanimously this week to try to break Laing’s trust with an application to the high court that argues the trust is “no longer … in the best interests of the town.” The council wants to use Laing’s money to tear down his house and build a viewing platform on the site.
The town’s councillors obviously have little regard for heritage or respect for one of the community’s most famous former residents. Laing’s work and his home have received more support from outside the town.
An independent and nationally recognized heritage consulting firm says that the former home of the naturalist — known as “Shakesides” — is of national importance and should be saved for its historic value and for the enjoyment of future generations.
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 offered its assistance, at no charge, to the Town of Comox, for the duration of the process to repurpose Shakesides, and pretty much guaranteed the town a provincial grant through the Heritage Legacy Fund Heritage Conservation program.
The two letters were discovered by Kate Panyatoff, a former president of the Mack Laing Heritage Society. She was doing research for the Comox Valley Nature’s Cultural and Heritage Group, which plans to publish some of Laing’s work.
Note: This article has been updated from the original post.