Oak Bay mayor hits mother lode in desk quest: bureau once owned by Tommy Douglas

Sometimes all you have to do is ask.

Oak Bay Mayor Kevin Murdoch discovered that last month when he announced on Facebook that he was looking for an old desk to put in his office.

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It wasn’t a cost-saving move, although Murdoch said he was open to donations. He was just hoping to find something with a bit of history, something that could be passed down from one mayor to the next.

His Facebook post generated a smattering of interest. But Murdoch said in an interview that the offers began pouring in after the Times Colonist caught wind of his quest and published a story, along with his email address, on the front page.

By this week, he had received upwards of 40 offers of desks from all over Vancouver Island — so many, in fact, that he had to open a spreadsheet just to keep track.

“What I really enjoyed was hearing the personal stories that accompanied these objects made for such simple and ordinary use,” Murdoch said. “The histories were often family related, sometimes linked to well-known businesses or individuals, and almost universally came with the hope their desks’ lives would continue through useful and appreciated service.

“Apparently, if you give people the chance to be generous, they will take it.”

Murdoch was so impressed by the offerings that he ended up picking two desks — each with a remarkable story behind it.

One will take centre stage in the mayor’s office at municipal hall, while the other will sit in council chambers, where it will be used by members of the public when they come to speak — once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

The latter one may prompt an increase in people wanting to address council, since they will get to sit behind an oak desk once owned by former Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas, widely considered to be the father of Canada’s universal health-care system.

Murdoch, who has researched the desk’s history, says it was given to Douglas in 1944 and spent the next 17 years in the constituency office where he met with residents.

> See DESK, A2

When Douglas resigned in 1961 to re-enter federal politics, he gave the desk to another Canadian luminary, Thomas (Tommy) Shoyama.

Despite the bitter experience of being sent to a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War, Shoyama went on to serve in the military, became an economic adviser to Douglas, and helped craft the medicare system.

Shoyama later took the desk with him to Ottawa, where he held key roles in the public service, including as an adviser to the Privy Council on the Constitution. He moved to Oak Bay in 1980 and taught at the University of Victoria.

Shoyama kept the desk covered in plastic and used it as a potting table in his solarium, recalls his long-time gardener, Patryck Fielding.

“I used to kid him about it,” she said. “I used to say: ‘My goodness me, this desk has such provenance and here you are potting up peas and things.’ And he’d laugh and say:, ‘Well, it’s a good use for it. What else am I going to do with it?’ ”

When Shoyama downsized his home prior to his death in 2006, he gave the desk to Fielding, who adopted the same practical approach.

“It’s been sitting down in our laundry room area and we’ve using it as a folding table for laundry,” she said.

But when her husband read about Murdoch’s quest, Fielding got in touch with Shoyama’s surviving partner, Hazel Morris, and they agreed to donate the desk to Oak Bay.

“It was just time to get it back in politics again,” she said. “It has such a big history.

“I know the professor would just be tickled pink to know that it was being appreciated by more than just us here at my house. He was something else. He was a very lovely man.”

The other desk destined for the mayor’s office belonged to former B.C. Court of Appeal Chief Justice Gordon McGregor Sloan, who acquired it when he was first appointed to the court in 1937, Murdoch said. A former MLA and attorney general, Sloan was an active community leader in Oak Bay.

After his death in 1959, the district dedicated a Garry oak tree near his home on Beach Drive as the “Sloan Tree” — a commemoration ceremony that was presided over by Murdoch’s grandfather, Oak Bay Reeve George Murdoch.

The desk and matching wardrobe have remained in the Sloan family ever since, and will be returning to Oak Bay from Campbell River. Murdoch said the family did not wish to be interviewed, preferring to let their donation speak for itself.

As for all the other heirlooms that people offered, Murdoch hopes to find a way to share photographs and stories about some of the desks as a way to honour the generosity and memories of those who contacted him.

“I think these stories need to be shared,” he said.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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