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?