This month, the public learned that the chairman of the Audain Foundation had given the largest monetary gift to an art gallery in Canadian history.
Michael Audain handed over $ 100 million to support the creation of a new Vancouver Art Gallery building in the block-sized parking lot on West Georgia Street near Stadium Station.
Many Vancouverites know Audain as the founder and longtime chairman of Polygon Homes. Others hail him as the most generous patron of visual arts in BC long before the $ 100 million donation. Lots of people have visited the art museum that he and his wife, Yoshi Karasawa, created in Whistler. Still others are aware that he worked for the NDP government in the early 1970s and played a central role in the creation of BC Housing.
But not many people know that his great-great-grandfather was the ruthless 19th century coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, a Scottish immigrant and industrialist.
Audain writes honestly about this and many other fascinating aspects of his life in his new autobiography, A man in his time.
He points out that the fortune from the Dunsmuir side of his family was “reduced to a smoking ruin when I arrived”. It was due to “several generations of quarrels and poor living”.
“For most of my life, I had a hard time avoiding identifying with my Dunsmuir ancestors,” Audain reveals in the book.
His grandmother married a Sandhurst-trained officer, Colonel Guy Audain, who lived the high life on his family’s money. His father, the hard-drinking Jimmy Audain, retained a fondness for local Indo-Canadians in Victoria, a remnant of his father’s time in the British Army in India.
Audain, an introvert, bluntly describes his rather unhappy childhood. It included escaping a canal island in World War II, experiencing brutal corporal punishment in a British school and failing to impress its teachers with much academic or athletic skill.
It was only at university that he figured out how to cope with the exam.
One of the most fascinating parts of the book relates to his experience as one of Freedom Riders. These were groups of white and African American civil rights activists who traveled by bus through the deep south to challenge racist laws.
Audain also sat in the back of the bus with black passengers, rejecting offers to move to the area only for whites. He also sat in the “Colored” section of a bus stop in Jackson, Mississippi. And to do so, Audain was arrested.
A detective demanded to know if he was a member of the Communist Party.
“No, I actually voted Progressive Conservative in the last Canadian election because I wanted to support John Diefenbaker,” Audain replied.
It was nonsense, the detective believes, because it is not possible to be progressive and conservative at the same time. Therefore, he should be a communist.
This landed Audain in a Mississippi prison, which he describes in rather graphic detail. When he was released, he was greeted by an angry crowd, including a young man who sprayed urine on his shirt and pants.
A man in his time includes many other dramatic and entertaining moments, including when NDP leader Tommy Douglas urged him to remove a picture of Fidel Castro from Audain’s table at the founding NDP Convention.
He describes his “transformation from a reform-minded social worker to a large-scale housing developer” as a “natural progression”.
He was invited into housing construction by a developer named Vern Paulus in the 1980s, just as he was on the verge of writing a novel based on a 17th-century Greek who became prime minister of a kingdom in Southeast Asia.
Audain consulted with a Buddhist monk, who let him know that he would succeed in business and as a writer. But the monk’s advice was that it would be better to get started because he wanted to make some money and he could always write a book later. This persuaded Audain to accept Paul’s invitation.
“Certainly in that role, I have been able to create far more affordable homes for ordinary BC families than I could ever have had if I had stayed in the public or non-profit sector,” he writes.
Audain also shares his thoughts on what it was like for his company to be sued during the 1990s leaky apartment crisis. He points out that all claims were settled without the cases ever being heard in court, but not without more than a couple of sleepless nights when a public inquiry into the case was held.
Written in an easy-to-read style, A man in his time reveals how a person’s life can move in dramatically different directions based on a chance encounter, a historical whim, or sheer determination. It is direct but nuanced and learned, yet not pretentious or boring.
When you think about it, the monk was right – Michael Audain would have been very successful if he had decided to become a writer back in the 1980s.