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Comox must apologize for breaches of Mack Laing Trust

Feb 7, 2019 | Commentary, Mack Laing

By George Le Masurier

Thanks to four brave new councillors, there is an opportunity to draw to a close the Town of Comox’s long history of breaching the trust of Hamilton Mack Laing and misappropriating the funds the famous naturalist left in his Last Will for the community that he loved.

Comox Town Council voted against Mayor Russ Arnott this week and set aside court proceedings to modify Mack Laing’s trust “for up to three months so that council may have discussions with all interested parties.”

Arnott cast the lone vote against the motion, contradicting statements he made during the fall municipal election campaign promising to settle this matter out of court. But new councillors Alex Bissinger, Patrick McKenna, Nicole Minions and Stephanie McGowan all spoke in favor of giving out of court discussions a chance.

Once it was clear the vote for negotiation would win, councillors Ken Grant and Maureen Swift got on board, despite voting for the court action during their previous terms.

That left Arnott alone in wanting to proceed toward an expensive court trial.

The Mack Laing Heritage Society has garnered broad community support for restoring Shakesides as a unifying and heritage-based town project. Some of those supporters believe the town will lose in court, at a minimum being ordered to submit to a forensic audit of the financial matters and forced into mediation.

The vote also put Arnott at odds with the new majority of councillors, who had campaigned for a negotiated settlement out of court.

But the question facing council is how to stop bleeding money on legal expenses — estimated by one observer to have neared or topped $100,000 — with a plan that satisfies the Laing society and is financially sustainable.

Finding that way forward won’t be easy, and yet that’s the task to accomplish in the next 90 days.

But nothing good will happen if council appoints another flawed advisory committee like former mayor Paul Ives did several years ago. That group failed to follow its own terms of reference. The outcome was so incomplete that two members of the committee wrote opposing minority reports.

And that’s why Arnott’s lone vote against at least trying to negotiate a win-win resolution is disappointing. The mayor is obviously entrenched in his position. He has now stated so for the record.

How is that going to help facilitate any open-minded and meaningful conversations over the next three months? At least returning councillors Grant and Swift had the decency to support an opportunity for positive discussions.

Here’s the problem.

Laing left money and his property to the town in a trust that specified the gifts be used to create a publicly accessible natural history museum at his home, called Shakesides.

If the CVLT had existed in 1982, they would have had legal power via a covenant to compel the Town of Comox to keep up its end of the bargain. Mack Laing deserves the same respect as Father Charles Brandt

But now, 37 years after Laing’s death in February of 1982, the town has done nothing to fulfill Laing’s wishes, even though they accepted the terms of the trust when they took his money and property. Over a year ago, the town admitted that it spent Laing’s money inappropriately for years, but only because the Mack Laing Heritage Society had amassed a mountain of evidence detailing the town’s mishandling.

Undaunted, the previous Town Council applied to the BC Supreme Court to tear down Shakesides and spend Laing’s money elsewhere. But the outcome of court actions are always uncertain. And, based on the comments of two Justices so far, the court believes the Laing society has an important case to make.

To prevent further dividing the community, the town needs to make a formal and public apology of its historic wrongdoings. Why? Answer: Because this is a moral issue.

If the town had no intention of abiding the terms of Laing’s trust, it should never have accepted the money and property. But once it did, the town had a moral obligation to follow through. And if the town can behave fast and loose with Laing’s money, what reasonable person would leave the town any gift in the future?

Comox has, so far, proven itself untrustworthy.

The Comox Valley Land Trust, and other similar conservancy organizations, were created to address this exact problem. And the CVLT is currently creating security for the wishes of Father Charles Brandt, who plans to leave his house and property on the Oyster River for a regional district public park.

If the CVLT had existed in 1982, they would have had legal power via a covenant to compel the Town of Comox to keep up its end of the bargain. Mack Laing deserves the same respect as Father Charles.

Can you imagine if the Comox Valley Regional District someday tries to alter the terms of the Father Charles covenant? The public outcry would be overwhelming. There should be no less of a voice in protest against the Town of Comox, if it follows Mayor Arnott’s example and pushes this case through the courts.

Everyone in the Comox Valley who values heritage, and honorable actions by locally-elected governments, should support a negotiated settlement.

That doesn’t mean the solution is simple. But it is possible if everyone comes to the table with an open mind and good intentions.

Mayor Arnott was asked for comment for this opinion article at 3:45 pm PST, but had not responded by 8:35 PST when it was posted. 






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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