Michael Audain: Builder of B.C.
Socialist-turned-billionaire-housing-developer, Michael Audain has written his memoirs.
November 05th, 2021
Known as one of the province’s most generous art patrons, Audain overcame a difficult boyhood, volunteered for civil rights in the 1960s, worked for B.C.’s first NDP government and built his own art museum in Whistler.
Review by Alan Twigg
These days, when nearly everyone so desperately wants to believe they are special, Michael Audain writes as if he is not.
It’s a hard act to pull off when you just happen to be one of the richest people in the province, but Audain succeeds charmingly in One Man in his Time: A Memoir (Douglas & McIntyre $36.95). His candour can be eye-popping.
Did he really just confide to us his early struggles with impotency?
Did he really just describe himself driving to Washington State with a rope, checking into a motel, and preparing to commit suicide?
Did he really make a second trip to Asia to consult with a Buddhist monk in order to determine whether or not he should marry a woman he barely knew? (They met in a Vancouver hair salon where she told him she wouldn’t date a customer.)
Did he really lose a fortune made trading commodity futures in the early 1970s when he foolishly took off for a beach holiday in Thailand and left administrative control in the hands of a part-time secretary?
Perhaps best of all—did he really trick Premier Dave Barrett into accepting a budget item that increased spending on public housing for British Columbians 18 times more than in the preceding provincial budget?
Audain’s admirable honesty is not intimate. The Chairman of Polygon Homes Ltd. is not confessing. He is instead, reporting. He is aiming for truth. This is a brave and often audacious memoir. You do not have to know or care who Michael Audain is to enjoy the ride.
Miserable and lonely as a boy in England, Michael Audain was mainly raised by an alcoholic father, Jimmy Audain, a cavalry officer, sportsman and rake who beat him badly and very often. His mostly motherless, violent upbringing will be alarming to some readers, along with his equanimity about corporal punishment. Audain suggests “even though people may experience troubled times as youngsters, it doesn’t rule out one day having a fulfilling life.”
As an only child who survived the London blitz, Audain did poorly at school. Bullied as a “toff” and a failure at sports, he was again beaten on a regular basis, but ritualized punishments were common. Someone reared on Rudyard Kipling learns to prefer stoicism and philosophy to coddling. He took refuge in reading.
“Children who are loners tend to become quite impervious to being hurt,” he writes, “because they don’t invest much in social relationships. Introverted people also tend to be more self-sufficient, although perhaps less compassionate than their fellow human beings.”
Audain took much solace from his favourite Anglican hymn, ‘Jerusalem’, so initially he wanted this memoir to be entitled My Bow of Burning Gold, a quote from the hymn. Common sense about common ignorance has prevailed. The replacement title references Shakespeare’s As You Like It. “All the world’s a stage… and a man in his time plays many parts.”
After Audain arrived with his father and step-mother in Victoria. B.C. in 1947, he learned boxing. Trained by Eddie Haddad, a former British Empire champion, he literally learned to defend himself. “I didn’t mind boxing because there was no team involvement.”
Having feared that Michael was a latent pansy, his homophobic father went to Alcoholic Anonymous and would eventually run unsuccessfully for the Social Credit Party.
Art became important to Audain at an early age. In Victoria, he met an old Kwakwaka’wakw carver who was wearing a headband in the carving shed at Thunderbird Park, near Crystal Gardens pool and the Empress Hotel. This turned out to be the first artist Audain ever knew—the great Mungo Martin (1879 – 1962). Fast forward five decades and Audain would amass one of the world’s foremost private collections of Pacific Northwest Indigenous art, giving rise to his remarkable creation of the Audain Art Museum in Whistler.
At age twenty, Audain boarded a freighter bound for Cuba, hoping to meet Fidel Castro, but he ended up instead in London where he was briefly reunited with his remarried mother after their six-year separation. Painfully shy, Audain failed to make contact with anyone within the Angry Young Men literary movement (a prominent group of British writers in the 1950s) but he discovered he liked ballet. There followed escapades in Dublin and Lyon, where Audain was unfairly arrested—a harbinger of things to come.
There is more than a little bit of Forrest Gump in Michael Audain.
He was at Woodstock (he volunteered to give someone a ride there), he met and worked one day for Mother Teresa (in 1976), he lived in the counter-cultural hub of Rochdale in Toronto during its zenith (and avoided LSD), he was at the founding convention of the New Democratic Party (where he had a significant private conversation with Tommy Douglas), he has dined with Charlie Chaplin, James Bond creator Ian Fleming and Queen Elizabeth II, he was on the island of Phuket when the tsunami of 2004 devastated Southeast Asia and he met NAACP representative Medgar Evers.
Regarding the latter, in June of 1961, as one of the white Freedom Riders who went to the American redneck south to support the Black Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Michael Audain was arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, and sentenced to four months of humiliating conditions (steel bunks, lights shone day and night) in the Mississippi State Penitentiary.
“It was a bit surprising how delicate some of the white Freedom Riders were,” Audain says. “They complained about nudity in the shower rooms, which they found demeaning because it revealed who was circumcised and who wasn’t—a strange concern. Some even confided to me that their greatest fear was catching athlete’s foot! Others complained bitterly about the food we were provided, saying that it wasn’t a balanced diet or that it bothered their allergies. I must confess, I thought to myself that if these kids had experienced the spartan British boarding schools that I had, they wouldn’t have felt that they were suffering.”
Two years later, Audain read about the murder of Medgar Evers; forty years later Audain returned to Jackson, Mississippi with his daughter Kyra to visit Evers’ home after it became a national heritage site. In 2012, Audain received a citation from President Barack Obama for his service to the Civil Rights movement.
With typical self-effacement, he refrains from mentioning he turned down an invitation to go on Oprah! to talk about his heroism.
Not long after being released from the State Penitentiary and then getting attacked by white racists, Audain worked briefly as a prison guard at Oakalla where he surreptitiously refused to load his gun. Thirty years later he would be pleased to construct townhouses on the site of the archaic Oakalla Prison Farm.
After forming the Nuclear Disarmament Club at UBC in 1960 and serving as its first president, Audain was married, in 1961, at Vancouver’s Unitarian Church (and overcame his impotency problems) with Doukhobor-raised Tunya Swetleshnoff. Their eldest daughter Fenya is named after the best-known, Sons of Freedom Doukhobor activist Fenya Storgeoff, nicknamed ‘Big Fanny’ by the blinkered and biased B.C. press that hurriedly convinced the public it was good idea for W.A.C. Bennett’s Socred government to confiscate Doukhobor children and place them in barbed-wire fenced compounds.
Michael and Tunya Audain were the only outsider witnesses at the outset of the famous, sometimes-nude, Doukhobor protest march from Krestova to the Lower Mainland. They remained active for months as key Doukhobor supporters and Audain also served as liaison for a film made by the French section of the National Film Board, crossing paths with poet Al Purdy in the process.
Again, as a social activist, Audain blew the whistle on the Dickensian practices of the Brannan Lake School for so-called juvenile delinquents. This led to his sympathetic meeting with a former social worker named Dave Barrett and the then NDP Opposition leader, Tom Berger. Not long afterwards, Barrett took over from Berger and was elected as B.C.’s first NDP Premier in 1972. Barrett kept a promise he had made to Audain and closed the Brannan Lake School.
After gaining a Master of Social Work at UBC, Audain was hired to work “doing something called local area social planning” he says, for the Strathcona/Chinatown district of Vancouver where he met realtor Faye Leung and developed his abiding interest in housing and housing policies.
Accepted by both Columbia University and London School of Economics for doctoral studies, Audain chose the latter but was soon diverted in the spring of 1968 by the general strike in France. After he was warmly met by the leader of the student union movement that was taking over the streets of Paris, Daniel Cohn-Bendit—known in the press as “Danny the Red”—Audain became greatly depressed when French idealism fizzled.
After the Gaullist Party won almost three-quarters of the seats in the France’s National Assembly, Audain accepted an offer from the Ontario Housing Corporation that was building thousands of public housing units. “My Ph.D. thesis remains unfinished,” he writes, “something that I have always been rather ashamed about.”
Audain went on to have eight different jobs, including working as a housing policy consultant for the NDP, before being invited to work for Polygon, the foremost builder of private homes in B.C. The latter quarter of his memoir—recounting his transition from being a socialist idealist to a large-scale residential developer—is less engaging because it is less revealing.
Rather than drone on for a 400-page epic, Audain has chosen to encapsulate his life story in 58 chapters that can be viewed as vignettes. Beyond the account of his Mississippi arrest and imprisonment concerns, the longest chapter concerns Audain’s latest passion—elevating the reputation of Quebec painter Jean Paul Riopelle—and it makes for an odd finale.
Tunya, mother of his two daughters, and his current wife Yoshi, have both shared in his love for art (and now twelve Labrador retrievers) but their personalities remain a mystery beyond a few memorable quips from the latter. Ultimately, Audain describes his memoir as a collection of “anecdotes” and “tales.”
Exceedingly frank about his early life, Audain is a paragon of discretion about his epoch of success. The most detailed encounter in the book turns out to be Audain’s recollections of his chat with Queen Elizabeth during a formal reception, having revered her since his boyhood.
Audain’s literary journey in A Man in his Time is all the more impressive if you understand how much he has left out—namely his remarkable record of philanthropy and public service. The adjective beguiling is apt. Rather than trying to be liked or admired, Audain is earnestly taking stock of who he has turned out to be.
This is a thoroughly original book about a vital builder of British Columbia. 9781771623001
An edited version of this review will be published in the Winter 2021-2022 issue of BC BookWorld.