The province announced it will put $1.4 million into shoring up the historic headframe/tipple at the old Morden Mine site in Nanaimo. (John Hofman photo)

T.W. Paterson column: O me of little faith

Proposed new legislation is a start even if it does come long, long after so many historical horses have bolted.

Well, February came and went and, with it, another Heritage Week. It wasn’t that I forgot to write something, I chose not to bother. I mean, after all these years of championing heritage it seems that, for the most part, I’ve just been spitting in the wind.

It hasn’t been totally negative, of course. We did, after all, after a struggle, save the Kinsol Trestle. And aren’t we glad, now? It’s the Valley’s crown jewel for tourists with an international reputation that draws 100,000 visitors a year. Not bad for a once derelict railway trestle that a regional director dismissed as a “river of ruin”!

But other heritage and/or historic sites haven’t been as fortunate, falling victim to the bulldozers of “progress” again and again despite the protests of Cassandras such as I.

So, this February, I dismissed Heritage Week as just another government PR exercise and unworthy of further notice on my part.

But wait. In March The Canadian Press reported that the province has introduced new legislation that will “require people to report the discovery of sites or objects of potential heritage value to the government’s archaeology branch. It [will] be mandatory in British Columbia to report the discovery of sites or objects of potential heritage value to the government’s archaeology branch under changes to legislation introduced Wednesday.

“Forests Minister Doug Donaldson said amendments to the Heritage Conservation Act would strengthen the protection of archaeological and historic sites and form part of the government’s commitment to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” The proposed amendments, which give the government enhanced powers to refuse, amend, suspend and cancel the permits it issues, are the first changes to the heritage law in 20 years, Donaldson said.

“We’ve heard from First Nations and we’ve heard from others concerned about heritage that these changes needed to take place over the 20 years,” said Donaldson. “So, we’re catching up. I think it’s a recognition that B.C. has a tremendous heritage history.”

People who want to develop land where there is little knowledge of its history may be required to complete an archaeological study on the property and may also be required to obtain and pay for heritage inspections or investigations before receiving permits to alter sites.

Great news so far as it goes because, really, it’s more about First Nations archaeological sites than more recent architectural structures. But it’s a start even if it does come long, long after so many historical horses have bolted.

But there I go, crabbing again. You can imagine my astonishment and delight when, last week, Andrea Rondeau, editor of the Citizen, forwarded a news release from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy announcing that the province is going to fund “restoration” of the historic headframe/tipple at Morden Colliery Historic Provincial Park in South Wellington.

I quote: “A piece of Vancouver Island’s coal mining history will be brought back to life through a $1.4-million contribution from the British Columbia government. Built in the early 1900s by the Pacific Coal Company, the 22.5-metre (74-foot) concrete headframe and tipple structure is all that remains of the Morden Colliery…near Nanaimo. It’s one of only two structures of its kind left in North America. [It’s built of concrete; all similar structures were of timber construction and were demolished or burned when the mines closed. —TWP.]

“Morden Colliery Historic Provincial Park plays an important role in educating visitors about Vancouver Island communities’ rich coal-mining history,” said George Heyman, minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. “Conserving this site preserves a unique piece of our heritage and reminds us of the people who worked in the mines.”

How many times I’ve told the story of Morden, the last surviving structure of its kind in the province and thus a monument to the coal mining industry. An industry that, for 90 years, drove the Vancouver Island economy and led to the founding of no fewer than 10 Island communities, including Ladysmith, Nanaimo and Cumberland.

Why? Because, historically significant or no, this priceless historic structure has never had a dime’s funding from successive provincial governments in 45 years and is steadily deteriorating to the point of eventual but inevitable collapse. My suggestion, years ago, that BC Parks at least shore it up against a seismic catastrophe went unheeded — too unsightly and an admission of the structure’s decline, I thought.

For almost 20 years the original and existing Friends of the Morden Mine Society have laboured to arouse public awareness and interest in this priceless historical asset. With the exception of the former Nanaimo MLA Ron Cantelon, the Liberal party, particularly the minister of the day, Mary Polack, spurned all overtures.

We held open houses, we wrote press releases, I led 30 Black Track Tours of South Wellington coal mine sites as a fundraiser for the society. We drummed up financing for no fewer than three engineering studies of the state of the structure; all three urged immediate remediation. Nanaimo area NDP MLAs Leornard Krog and Doug Routley expressed their support. BC Parks did come up with money to clean up the 10-acre site and install trails and signage. Finally, with the last of the money in the kitty, the previous FOMM board authorized the funding of an on-site memorial to the 1,000 and more Vancouver Island coal miners who died on the job.

Fortunately, new champions stepped forward with a revived FOMM. To get back to the press release: “For the past three years, BC Parks has partnered with the Heritage Branch of the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development and Friends of Morden Mine to conduct conservation work on the aging structure, such as assessing the mine shaft, removing unsecured timbers from the headframe and an engineering analysis.”

Over the next two months crews will stabilize the structure before beginning repairs. Note: repairs. Not even the $1.4 million budget can hope to restore Morden; it’s too far gone, a sad fact that current FOMM president Sandra Laroque, whose father and grandfather were coal miners, noted: “The mine is very close to being destroyed. Most of the posts are not holding it up,” she said. All that can be done now with this pioneering concrete structure is to reinforce it against further deterioration and collapse.

The park will be closed during repairs.

As legal owners of the park the province has the responsibility of maintenance, a responsibility that only now is being acknowledged. Fortunately, the province also has the necessary deep pockets. Ultimately, the park will be part of a multi-use trail to and across the Nanaimo River following the historic mining railway right-of-way which originally ran through what’s now Hemer Provincial Park to Boat Harbour.

“This park is a vital reminder of the significant role of coal mining communities on Vancouver Island and is an increasingly valuable asset to the region’s many tourist attractions and educational opportunities,” said Doug Routley, MLA for Nanaimo-North Cowichan.

So — I’m at it again — what took so long? The park was established in 1974, for crying out loud! All of those years of neglect cannot be fixed now, only reinforced and cosmeticized.

But if that keeps Morden upright, go for it, and I sincerely thank everyone, past and present, who have given their hearts, their time and energy to the cause. And thanks, too, to the NDP government for honouring its — our — labour roots. We owe the miners of old to remember them and this is the single best way to do it just as the Kinsol Trestle honours our Island railway history.

Now: How about returning the light to the Mount Prevost war memorial since the province and North Cowichan are working together to make necessary repairs and protect it from vandalism?

Just asking.

www.twpaterson.com

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