Lorne Larson was working in High Prairie as a district rep of the Alberta Youth Department when he got a call from the minister, Bob Clark.
“Lorne,” said Clark (as Larson recalled in a recent interview). “I want you to get down to Slave Lake and find out what you can.”
This was in 1967. A lot was happening in Slave Lake and around the Lesser Slave Lake area, and not all of it was good.
“There had been a murder,” Larson says. “It scared the hell out of this whole community. Ethnic relations were on edge. School was running under martial law.”
Larson made the drive, met with community leaders and started looking for ways to turn provincial resources into positive change. One was to help get a recreation board set up in the town, so as to start providing programs for young people. Another effort he helped out with was in the establishing what became known as the Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre.
Lorne helping in the kitchen.
As bad as it was, the murder led to some good consequences. One was Larson’s eventual relocation to Slave Lake and involvement in a community that was bursting at the seams, with great gaps in the services it needed to make it the kind of place people wanted it to be.
“It (the incident) gave me an entry into the community,” he says.
He’s been there ever since, and always doing some kind of building – community building, actual building building, facilitating other people’s building by lending advice and tools. Not to mention telling stories about it over a freshly-brewed cup of coffee. The saga continues.
Out of the bush and into social work
How Larson got into social work in the first place is a rather unlikely story. Born in Edson and raised in various rural or semi-rural locations around the province, following his father’s (Carl Larson) postings as a forest or park ranger, Larson seemed to be headed for a career in the bush.
“After high school in Edson I was out in the mountains building ranger stations,” he says. “And I got this bee in my bonnet.”
The bee in his bonnet had a lot to do with a certain young woman who had gone to Edmonton to train as a nurse at the University of Alberta. Larson says he suddenly had a hankering to do something similar. But time was running short.
“So I rushed off an application,” he says.
Asked in for an interview, he was asked what faculty he had in mind. He didn’t know what they were talking about. He settled on history, but soon found that didn’t suit him. Sociology and psychology seemed more the thing, and he ended up getting a degree and then a job in Saskatchewan as a social worker. That was interesting enough – an education for sure – but a change in government spelled all kinds of difficulties for workers such as Larson.Lorne using an air nailer.
“When I went to work there it was the highest-paying department in Canada,” Larson says. “When I left, it was the second lowest.”
An across-the-board wage freeze didn’t help; nor did the new government’s rather petty vetting of all government social workers for socialist attitudes. That may sound like a joke, but it wasn’t particularly funny at the time. Larson decided to look for work back in Alberta. As luck would have it, the new Social Credit government was looking for people.
He applied, an interview panel was convened on the spot and he was offered a position of District Youth Worker, with a choice of a couple of locations in southern Alberta, or High Prairie.
“How much do you expect to get paid?” Larson was asked.
“I screwed up my courage and said, ‘I’m not moving for less than $465 a month.’”
“So (said the department rep), you’d have no objection to $650?”
The rest is local history, as they say, but we’ll tell it to you anyway. Or some of it. The story is getting to be pretty long.
A lot of Larson’s work in the Youth Department (and subsequently in the Preventive Social Services department) took him into the smaller, largely Native communities in the area. It was a great education for him, learning how to make connections in those communities – what worked and what didn’t. One thing that didn’t work so well, he found, was arriving in town in a government vehicle, wearing a tie. On his next trip up north he went in his personal vehicle and dressed down.
“I spent most of my time working in surrounding communities on regional issues,” he says.
Lots of connections were made there, and government funds directed into recreation programs and facilities that improved things in the communities. Those connections continued in Larson’s next venture, which was called the Northern Housing Program.Lorne with June Conrad.
“I just started to get restless,” he says, so when a regional director’s position came up in the provincial housing department, he applied for it. So did Mike Cardinal (later a minister in the Ralph Klein cabinet). Larson got the job.
“We built a lot of houses,” he says. “It was a self-help program. My job was to get the department to buy the materials and get prospective owners to do the work.”
Over the next two or three years, numerous homes were built in remote communities all over the north.
The project at Chipewyan Lake is one that stands out for Larson. Community members had done the work to fall and skid logs for several houses. Hearing that other communities had gotten concrete foundations, they insisted they get it too – this in a community with no summer road access.
“So I got the re-bar and powder in over the frost,” Larson recalls. “They had to get the gravel. They did – worked like slaves.”
Larson says 100 houses were built under the program that first year.
Back to pounding nails
Perhaps it was inevitable Larson would end up as a building contractor. He says his mom thought he might, based on an early incident.
“When I was 15 months old, we had moved into the Red Deer ranger station. I hooked my coveralls on a protruding nail and, after some epithets (so his mother told him), I disappeared and came back with a hammer and drove in that nail.”
Larson says after two or three years, his job as the housing program director was getting to him.
“I remember waking up one morning in a hotel in Bonnyville and thinking, ‘When was the last time I ate?’ It was three days back. I was running myself ragged.”Lorne working on the house.
Along came another opportunity and he jumped at it. A company called Scanex was building houses in Slave Lake and having a hard time keeping up. Its owner asked Larson if he would help out. They got the homes built, but the company went under and Larson “ended up with a truck and tools.” So he formed Lorne’s Contracting and “went at it for quite a few years.”
Meanwhile, Larson may have been out of the role of community development as a profession, but he hadn’t lost interest in it. He became an Improvement District councillor, serving four terms altogether, a couple of them as reeve.
And while all that was going on, Larson and his wife Pat (Burroughs – they married in 1970) had moved to an acreage by the river on the Old Smith Highway. First they fixed up the cabin on the property to make it liveable; later building their “dream home,” there. Stories of ‘life on the river’ could make another article (or maybe a small book) all on their own, but that will have to wait for the as-yet-unwritten Larson memoirs.
When building slowed down in Slave Lake, Larson went to work for Alberta Vocational College, Lesser Slave Lake (now Northern Lakes College). “I think you need my help,” he says he told them, “and they agreed.” They made him Director of Community Liaison for technical and vocational programs. So it was back to the Back Lakes, consulting with community members and organizing college training programs – such as short courses in welding carpentry and plumbing. He was also involved in organizing carpentry programs in the Metis Settlements.
“We supplied the instructors for their crews and they were building houses. We cranked out 40 journeymen carpenters.”
Back to school and beyond
Larson did 90 per cent of the course work for a University of Alberta diploma in Adult and Vocational Education in Slave Lake, and finished it in Edmonton. In 1988, he and Pat enrolled in Master’s Degree programs at the U of A. But fate intervened.
“I completed the course work, but never finished the thesis,” he says. “I went down with Crohn’s Disease. I was out of the picture for some months and never went back to complete it. When I was well enough to go back to work, I did.”
The work was different. He was in the college’s counselling department, working with students. Then he was back for a while in a community liaison role, until he left the college in 1999.
Since then, Larson has been contracting as a builder and renovator and fixer. He still has a hand in that, but is ‘mostly’ retired.Lorne Larson
That year of 1999 was memorable for another experience. Larson got a role in a play re-enacting and commemorating the signing of Treaty 8 for its 100th anniversary. It was towards the end of his time at the college and the producers were at the college trying to round up likely performers. Larson recalls his co-worker Laura Droine telling him: “They need another white man.”
“Send them in,” he told her. “I didn’t have to audition.”
Larson played the Metis Scrip Commissioner, alongside Treaty Commissioner Laird and Father Lacombe, who were both played by actors from Edmonton. Most of the others were young Native people from in and around Slave Lake, one being Stan Isadore.
“We took it on the road,” Larson recalls. “School performances in Wabasca, Slave Lake, High Prairie, Driftpile and elsewhere. Then we did it at the grand celebration at Grouard (the actual re-enactment).”
Larson likes to tell the story of how he helped Isadore get into character as an ‘angry young man,’ for that final performance. Isadore had admitted he was struggling to find the right feeling for it before going on.
Larson: “You dirty, good-for-nothing savage (and more along those lines)!”
“Stan and I came out of that good friends,” he says.
Discovering Marten Beach
One day in Slave Lake, Lorne and Pat ran into an old hometown friend of hers from Innisfail, Don Manuel. ‘What are you doing here?’ and so on.
It turned out the fellow, a U of A professor, had acquired a lot at Marten Beach and was building a cabin.
“We started coming out here, pitching our tent and pounding nails,” Larson says.
A lot of Manuel’s colleagues from the U of A did the same, in exchange being entitled to use the cabin for a few weeks of the year.Lorne with Robert.
Some years later, Manuel phoned and asked Larson if he would spread the word that the cabin was for sale, since he (Manuel) didn’t seem to be using it anymore.
“You might have spread it far enough,” Larson told him. “So we bought it and continued to renovate it.”
The renovations continue
Towards the end of the 1980s or beginning of the 1990s, the Larsons decided this would be their new dream home and moved from river-side to lake-side. Their home is nestled among the pines and birches on top of a sand ridge. Deer are frequent visitors, along with smaller wild creatures. Occasionally a bear will come by and steal their crabapples. Blueberries carpet the gully below. Birds flock to the feeders off their expansive back deck, the scene of many a friendly neighbourhood get-together in the warmer months, with the sound of waves breaking on the beach 100 metres or so away.
It may not be paradise, but it isn’t far off.
“I don’t use the beach and the lake (anymore),” Larson says. “But I really value it being there.”
Other family members do use it. Son Robert, who came along in the early 1980s lives there, along with grandsons Ashton and Max.
Living in such a nice place, the Larsons tend to get plenty of visitors. Many of them are fellow Marten Beachers, who tend to be much less formal in their habits than their counterparts in town.
“This community is cooperative, supportive, friendly,” Larson says. “It’s just always been that way.”