Top Nanaimo news stories of 2014

NANAIMO – Stories and ongoing issues affected daily lives of majority of city’s residents

The News Bulletin chose five top stories from 2014.

The News Bulletin chose five top stories from 2014.

Choosing the top stories for the previous year has the News Bulletin’s newsroom discussing how each event affected residents of Nanaimo.

We primarily look for stories that not only grabbed attention, but also those which affected the day-to-day lives of readers from all aspects of the community.

The stories we chose – the shooting at Western Forest Products; teachers’ strike; municipal election; hotel development; and south-end school closures – had the potential to affect a wide range of Nanaimo residents.

These are also stories which carry over into the new year and our stories take a look at what 2015 means for these ongoing issues.

News about two major parks in Nanaimo almost made our list and were of such significance we felt the need to highlight them in some way.

The decision on what to do with the century-old dams at Colliery Dam Park is one issue that will hopefully be resolved in 2015. The issue has been dragging on for the past two years as city council and staff remain at odds with community members on how to remediate the structures.

New Mayor Bill McKay said one of his first priorities is to come to a decision on the popular Harewood park.

The City of Nanaimo also purchased land in Linley Valley to create a 71-hectare greenspace in the city’s north end. The purchase was a surprise, as council had repeatedly rejected the possibility of buying the land from developers.

The new city council will be tasked with planning and marketing the new parkland, which some say could be a major tourist draw for the community.

– Melissa Fryer, managing editor

Family establishes charity in wake of sawmill shooting

Wednesday, April 30, 2014 etched a tragic note into Nanaimo’s history when the city awakened to news of a shooting at the Western Forest Products mill at 31 Port Way.

Gunfire rang out shortly before 7 a.m., but the enormity of the tragedy unfolded in the hours following as first responders cleared the scene and RCMP forensic units and investigators collected evidence and interviewed mill employees – many of whom texted loved ones from within the locked-down mill to say they were safe.

Four employees had been shot and rushed to hospital. Michael John Lunn, 61, and Fred James McEachern, 53, died of their injuries. Tony Sudar and Earl Kelly survived.

Kevin Douglas Addison, 47, of Nanaimo, a former mill employee, was arrested at the scene shortly after 7 a.m. He was later charged with two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder.

Family, friends and strangers of the victims came out in sympathy, hung red T-shirts on a fence and placed flowers and candles near the mill’s entrance. The event’s effect on the entire community is why it was chosen as one of the News Bulletin’s top stories of 2014.

The mill stayed closed for nearly a week as police continued their investigation and Western Forest Products reviewed workplace security measures.

The families of the victims and the accused wait for the justice system to do its work. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for March 10-13 when Crown counsel introduces the case it will present against Addison.

“There’s really nothing we can do. We just go one day at a time, one hour at a time some days. At least we’re moving forward and we know the justice system takes a long time and we’ll get through this all together,” Marlene Lunn, Michael’s widow, said in an interview in September.

Lunn loved red T-shirts. His family established the non-profit Red Shirt Foundation in May to raise money for research and education to prevent workplace violence. To learn more or donate, please visit the foundation’s website at www.redshirtfoundation.com.

– Chris Bush

Ruling could re-open negotiations

The B.C. teachers’ strike was a notable story in 2014, and while a settlement was reached, contract discussion could re-open between the teachers and the B.C. government.

The strike began in June and delayed the start of the school year in Nanaimo until Sept. 23. A deal was ratified with 86 per cent of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation union membership voting in favour. The contract runs until 2019.

Class size and composition have been tied to the long-standing feud between teachers and province and while there was language that dealt with the issues in the new deal, they haven’t been fully resolved.

Mike Ball, president of the Nanaimo teachers’ union, said the issues were not dealt with appropriately, as there was only $15 million in new money to divide among the schools in the province.

“Really, $15 million extra into the education system is not going to address anything,” Ball said to the News Bulletin in September. “For [Nanaimo school district], that would mean an extra two teachers.”

A five-judge panel for the B.C. Court of Appeal heard a provincial government appeal in October related to class size and composition, stemming from legislation from 2002, which stripped language from the collective agreement of the time.

B.C. Supreme Court Judge Susan Griffin has twice ruled in favour of teachers, and in her last ruling, she awarded $2 million in damages to the teachers’ union.

Ball said that the result of the appeal could come between February and May, which could re-open talks.

“There’s a re-opener clause in there that allows us to re-open the discussions and it’s up to government whether they want to sit down or not and actually renegotiate it,” said Ball.

– Karl Yu

Economic development confident in hotel construction

Commercial negotiations have stalled construction of a new conference centre hotel, according to economic development CEO Sasha Angus, who is “pretty confident” the project is still a go.

SSS Manhao’s building application with the City of Nanaimo has expired, after the company failed to file the necessary paperwork for its hotel project by its mid-December deadline.

Angus says negotiations with prospective tenants are the reason the company isn’t following its original timeline, pointing out that commercial talks could influence the layout of some of the property. But he also says the Nanaimo Economic Development Corporation is helping the developer with marketing and tour itineraries related to the project and is confident the project is moving ahead.

For nearly a decade the property on the corner of Gordon Street and Museum Way sat empty, reserved for a conference centre hotel.

Last August, Nanaimo dignitaries and representatives from the SSS Manhao International Tourism Group cut a ribbon to signal the construction phase for the 21-storey hotel, which was anticipated to get underway in October.

The hotel, one of two major accommodation projects slated for Nanaimo, never completed its building permit application before its Dec. 17 deadline, and must now reapply.

Tom Weinreich, the city’s manager of building inspections and Angus say it sounds like the developers plan to reapply in 2015.

Despite the delay, Angus believes there’s still excitement about the project, which is anticipated to draw foreign investment and 70,000 tourists annually to Nanaimo. There’s still interest from businesses and a number of deals from Chinese investors, said Angus, who adds its a trend likely to continue and something “we are at the forefront of now.”

Nanaimo has also seen a proposal for a Hilton hotel unveiled for the downtown waterfront this year. Properties on Front Street were recently rezoned to accommodate a 35-storey hotel and developers are now looking to lease 28 per cent of Georgia Park, adjacent to its project, for a loading dock and amenities. A lease agreement is expected to land on the council table this January.

Civic politicians will also decide how the electorate will weigh in on the issue of leasing public parkland.

“I think that both will be moving forward and I know, talking to proponents, they are eager to do exactly that,” said Angus of the two hotels.

– Tamara Cunningham

Election shakes up political power

Voters gave the City of Nanaimo a political shakeup in this year’s civic election, choosing a new mayor and five first-time politicians to take up power seats.

The new leadership is one of the reasons the civic election cracked the News Bulletin’s top five stories of 2014.

Nanaimo’s municipal election heated up long before candidates tossed their hats into the ring, with the B.C. government extending terms of local government from three years to four. The additional year didn’t seem to deter prospective politicians, with 26 council candidates and 10 for mayor. It was the largest leadership dust-up in three decades.

Bill McKay, a one-term city councillor, took the victory in the race for the mayor’s chair, defeating runners-up Bill Holdom and Roger McKinnon with 30 per cent of the vote. He also unseated two-term mayor John Ruttan. The election also saw a majority of new candidates elected, a city councillor reviewed – and absolved – by Elections B.C. for social media use and the ‘historic’ election of a candidate of Snuneymuxw descent.

Now with council’s first full year ahead, McKay said there is a lot of work to do. Resolving the Colliery dams issue and a long, hard look at the Vancouver Island Conference centre will be the “two main thrusts,” but council also needs to determine a new meeting schedule and discuss its strategic direction, he said.

The lease of Georgia Park by the Hilton hotel developers and the 2015 budget are also expected to land on the council table early in the new year.

Wendy Pratt, a first-term city councillor, says there’s a big learning curve to the new job but she’s excited to learn about how the city works so she can help it grow. She also said council plans on more community engagement and she sees the next year as being about learning together.

– Tamara Cunningham

Nanaimo trustees review south-end facilities plan

Although work to convert Cedar Community Secondary to an elementary school has started, Nanaimo school district trustees decided to halt construction to further examine options for south-end schools.

Based on a recommendation by Jeff Solomon, school district business committee vice-chairman, trustees approved a 30-day moratorium on work and awarding of tenders at their Dec. 17 meeting.

Currently the playfield, framing and plumbing work are either complete or near completion and according to John Blain, Nanaimo school district deputy superintendent, the stoppage could lead to the project being completed Aug. 31, as opposed to July 31.

Steve Rae, school board chairman, said the move was made in order to conduct a thorough examination of the plan. He said it’s too early to tell what the final decision will be as it will depend on information gathered during the 30-day period.

School closures, including Cedar, have been a hot-button issue ever since it was announced in 2013 as part of the school district’s 10-year facilities plan. Subsequently, the Snuneymuxw First Nation launched a judicial review, citing the school district failed to consult with it for the facilities plan.

In June, B.C. Supreme Court Judge Christopher Hinkson threw the case out, stating while it would have been preferable for Snuneymuxw to be consulted during the drafting process, there were opportunities during public meetings and requirements for consultation were met.

“In my view, these three steps followed a well-publicized effort at public consultation, which included the views of the petitioners, and constituted an adequate opportunity for the petitioners and any other interested persons to respond to the respondent’s proposal to close the schools…” Hinkson wrote in his ruling.

– Karl Yu