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Neil Reynolds

'All I wanted to do is build a house' Add to ...

It was the fifth house that Craig Morrison built with his own hands, and the last. He had built things with his own hands for 70 years, often using lumber he produced at his own small sawmill. Now he would build a modest, single-storey house where he could look after his wife, Irene, suffering from Alzheimer's. He would do the work himself, of course. Didn't everyone in New Brunswick? "I'm not flush with money," he explains now. "I didn't want to go into debt."

Thus it was that Mr. Morrison broke ground three years ago - at 88 - for a bungalow on land overlooking the Bay of Fundy near St. Martins, a seaside village east of Saint John. And thus it was that Mr. Morrison got into trouble with the law for the first time in his life.

In the past two years, building inspectors have hauled Mr. Morrison into court six times, each appearance more harrowing than the last. A couple of weeks ago, the provincial agency that employs building inspectors demanded that the court forcibly remove Craig and Irene Morrison from their home, that the house be bulldozed, and that Mr. Morrison be found in contempt of court - meaning, almost certainly, imprisonment.

Mr. Morrison worked long hours into his 92nd year, fixing the inspectors' long lists of defects. But for the court, he made his position clear: He would not vacate the house. If the court found him in contempt, he would go to jail.

In a memorable account of these proceedings, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal writer Marty Klinkenberg reported Mr. Morrison's lament: "I thought this was a free country, that we had liberties and freedoms like we used to have, but I was sadly mistaken. … All I wanted to do is build a house, and I was treated as if I was some kind of outlaw."

Building inspector Wayne Mercer found many things wrong with Mr. Morrison's house - although it wasn't obvious that the building-code infractions he cited made it particularly unsafe. He noticed that Mr. Morrison's lumber - custom-sawn - did not carry the requisite stickers. The windows did not carry the requisite stickers, either. The roof trusses and floor joists, he thought, were questionable. He wanted the ceilings torn out, drywall removed and wall studs replaced.

"[The inspectors]seemed to find fault with everything I did," Mr. Morrison said. "They were out to get me because I was doing it with my own land and my own lumber and my own trusses and floor joists in my own time."

At one point, a professional home builder, Raymond Debly, volunteered to do an independent inspection. He determined that the house exceeded the requirements of the National Building Code. It was "built like a fort." The lumber, old-growth spruce, was superior to any lumber on the market. ("Some stamped lumber," he said, "shouldn't be used to build a doghouse.") The floors were double strength. ("You could walk an elephant across them.") And the trusses were fine. ("They were built the old-fashioned way," said Mr. Debly, himself 80, "the way we did it in the '60s.")

Mr. Morrison's long struggle with an implacable bureaucracy came to a merciful end in a Saint John courtroom on Nov. 1 when Mr. Justice Hugh McLellan ordered the planning commission to negotiate a settlement with Mr. Morrison, saying, "I'm not going to order a 91-year-old man to jail and have his wife placed in a nursing home." The planning commission subsequently agreed to allow the Morrisons to live in their home, without further molestation, until they die.

Son of a lumberman and cattle rancher, Craig Morrison comes from self-sufficient stock, the sturdy people who built this country with their own hands. He raised seven children (and has 14 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren). Yet, government inspectors almost took him down.

This is a true Canadian story, a cautionary tale of the tremendous power of the state over the individual in an age of pervasive bureaucracy. It is, indeed, a profound parable of irretrievably lost independence and casually forgotten freedoms.

 

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