This month, the public learned that the chairman of the Audain Foundation had made the largest cash 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 on the block-size parking lot on West Georgia Street near Stadium Station.
Many Vancouverites know Audain as the founder and longtime chair of Polygon Homes. Others salute him as the most generous patron of visual arts in B.C. 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, playing a pivotal role in the creation of B.C. Housing.
But not nearly as many know that his great-great-grandfather was the ruthless 19th-century coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, a Scottish immigrant and industrialist.
Audain writes frankly about this and many other fascinating aspects of his life in his new autobiography, One Man in His Time.
He points out that the fortune from the Dunsmuir side of his family was “reduced to a smoking ruin by the time I arrived”. That was due to “several generations of internecine wrangling and bad living”.
“For much of my life I was at pains to avoid identifying with my Dunsmuir ancestry,” Audain reveals in the book.
His grandmother married a Sandhurst-educated officer, Col. Guy Audain, who lived the high life on her family's money. His father, the hard-drinking Jimmy Audain, retained a fondness for local Indo Canadians in Victoria, a leftover from his father’s time serving in the British Army in India.
Audain, an introvert, bluntly describes his rather unhappy childhood. It included escaping a Channel island in the Second World War, experiencing brutal corporal punishment in a British school, and failing to impress his teachers with much academic or athletic prowess.
It was only in university that he figured out how to succeed on exams.
One of the most fascinating parts of the book concerns his experience as one of the Freedom Riders. These were groups of white and African American civil-rights activists who travelled by bus through the Deep South to challenge racist laws.
Audain also sat in the back of the bus with Black passengers, declining offers to move to the whites-only area front. He also sat in the “Coloured” section of a bus stop in Jackson, Mississippi. And for doing that, Audain was arrested.
A detective demanded to know whether 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.
That was nonsense, according to the detective, because it’s not possible to be progressive and conservative at the same time. Therefore, he had to be a Communist.
This landed Audain in a Mississippi prison, which he describes in fairly graphic detail. When he was released, he was greeted by an angry crowd, including one young man who splashed urine on his shirt and pants.
One Man in His Time includes many other dramatic and amusing moments, including the time NDP Leader Tommy Douglas encouraged him to remove a photo 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 residential developer” as a “natural progression”.
He was invited into the home-building industry 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 a chief minister of a kingdom in Southeast Asia.
Audain consulted 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 go into business because he would make some money and he could always write a book later. That persuaded Audain to accept Paulus's invitation.
“Certainly in that role I have been able to create far more affordable homes for ordinary BC families than I ever could have had I remained in the government or non-profit sectors,” he writes.
Audain also shares his thoughts on what it was like for his company to be sued during the leaky-condo crisis of the 1990s. He points out that all of the claims were settled without the cases ever being tried in court, but not without more than a few sleepless nights as a public inquiry was being held into the matter.
Written in an easy-to-read style, One Man in His Time reveals how a person's life can move in dramatically different directions based on a chance encounter, a fluke of history, or sheer determination. It's direct yet nuanced and erudite yet not pretentious or boring.
Come to think of it, the monk was right—Michael Audain would have succeeded marvellously had he decided to become a writer back in the 1980s.