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#115 “On cultural vandalism”

April 05th, 2017

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 Newcastle Island Pavilion, after it’s restoration, is now popular for weddings and social gatherings.

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.
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.


3 Responses to “#115 “On cultural vandalism””

  1. Richard Mackie says:

    Thanks, Kate, thanks Craig. You are doing great work with the Stolen Church and the Manse, Craig. I’m so sad that other important old buildings are threatened with demolition.

  2. Hello Richard,

    Great work that you are doing. Whenever you feel like it, you can hop on board the Merville hall site and help us to save the two old building, Stolen Church and Manse, that we have populated the site with. I even wrote a letter to the editor saying that the Merville hall would accept Shakesides if the town of Comox would move it out to the site. That council and mayor have no class.

    MCA 2017

    The Merville Community Association (MCA) has elected a new board and it is ready to strike out in a new direction with the intention to make the facility the biggest and yellowest hall around. The new board members are Peter Smith, Signi Caine, John Lapp, Larry Caine, Ian Holm and Craig Freeman, with alternates Destry Glover and Rob Freeman.

    The MCA recently received a BC Rural Dividend grant which it will be using to help with plans to renovate the 102 year old Stolen Church and Manse which have recently been moved to the community site. Additional plans include landscaping around the buildings; creating demonstration garden plots with an irrigation system; installing a solar array; upgrading the interior and exterior of the hall; acknowledging local heritage and creating a small retail outlet for local farmers.

    The MCA has budgeted $250,000 to complete its plans and has put together a fundraising committee that is beginning to beat the bushes for additional government and corporate grants, as well as for private donors, to help to see their projects to completion. Signage will be erected to acknowledge the generosity of the donors, past and future.

    One of the first fundraising events will be the Friday, April 7th concert with the Andrew Collins Trio at the Big Yellow Merville hall, kicking off this year’s FiddleFest. This rocking concert will be followed by a Saturday, April 8th, evening Contra dance with the Trio and the Funtime Fiddlers. Clever donation opportunities will be available at both events.

    Various organizing committees are being set up and the MCA is reaching out to the community to encourage participation in many of its building events. One of the first will be a demolition party to strip out the interior of the Stolen Church so that the walls can be straightened out and a new metal roof installed. Demolition Party treats will be served. Details to be announced and anyone interested in joining in the “fun” for this, or a future, activity can contact Craig at or call 339-4249.


    Craig Freeman

  3. Kate says:

    Wonderful article and awesome lecture. Sorry I could not attend as had a long standing previous commitment.

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