Brian Pitcairn is one of those fellows who likes to consider the ‘what if’ scenarios in life. That may not exactly square with his conviction that “the Good Lord” is in control of his fate. Then again, maybe it does.
So let’s start with one of those big ‘what ifs.’
“If the Micmac Indians hadn’t helped my ancestors,” he says. “I wouldn’t be here.”
If Pitcairn hadn’t been here, a lot of the recent history of the development of various fledgling First Nations north of Lesser Slave Lake would have been different. Not to say better or worse, but definitely different. He arrived fresh out of college gung-ho as anything to make a difference; he stayed for 40 years, first as a back lakes schoolteacher, later in education administration, band management, financial control, setting up policing programs, working on treaty settlement issues and more. Like many others who show up in the north with youth and energy on their side, if not experience, jobs were more or less growing on trees. And he hadn’t the slightest inkling of what his career and life would turn into.
“I came for a year,” he says, a familiar refrain in these parts. But Pitcairn’s story is anything but familiar. It ranges from the comical well into the bizarre at a few points, bordering on unbelievable. But it seems to have turned out pretty well, all things considered, and includes a lot of useful work, well-intentioned and well accomplished.
The tale of Pitcairn’s Highland ancestors arriving in the New World is one that deserves an article of its own, if not a book. But since the main purpose here is to cover his career in northern Alberta, we’ll let somebody else fill in the details about his Nova Scotia antecedents. Suffice to say that the Micmac saved the lives of the passengers of the HMS Hector in 1788. A few generations later, along came the woman who became Mrs. Pitcairn. However, as Brian tells it, she wouldn’t have been there either had her father, Brian’s grandfather, not been saved by providence from death by flying debris in the great Halifax Explosion of 1917.
“He was an apprentice carpenter,” says Pitcairn. “He was replacing all the windows in a house in Halifax.”
The story goes, handed down in family lore, that the young man had been around the back of a house in what was about to become the blast zone, working on a window. Three times, says Brian, he heard a voice telling him to go around the front of the house. The third time he obeyed, just in time see what he described as “a wave of air” sweep up the hill, destroying everything in its path. When he came to, he was on the other side of the house, apparently having been blown through a front window and out a back one.
“If he’d stayed where he was (at the back window), all that glass would have shredded him,” Pitcairn says.
Many others did get shredded.
With stories like that in the family, young Brian grew up with a strong interest in history. It helped also that his great-uncle who survived the First World War (two didn’t) liked telling stories about it. Brian went on to study history in at King’s College in Halifax, following that up with teaching degree at St. Mary’s. All he needed then was to find a job.
“I applied all over the place (in his home province),” he says. “I had 21 interviews. They all said, ‘We’ll get back to you,’ and they never did.”
So he asked a friend in the South African embassy if they needed teachers in that country. That led to an offer of a job in what was then Rhodesia, which was in the middle of an armed insurrection.
“I didn’t quite get why they were short of teachers,” he says, and wasn’t bothered much when they asked him if he minded being around guns. His mother was horrified, Pitcairn says, but he was going to go. Would have gone, he says, but fate intervened with a job offer from some place almost as far away and strange as Africa.
“One morning I see an ad for teachers from some place called Northland School Division in Peace River in Alberta.”
An agent for that organization was in a Halifax hotel room, conducting interviews. Pitcairn went and after a 15-minute interview, was offered a one-year contract.
“I guess the Good Lord answered my mother’s prayers,” he says.
Given that Robert Mugabe and his rebel forces were shooting white officials in Rhodesia, if Pitcairn had taken that job, he might not be here and you wouldn’t be reading this. On the other hand, if his mother had known what was in store for him in northern Alberta she might have lobbied the Almighty differently. But that comes later.
Sketching a map on a napkin, the recruiter told him: ‘That’s High Prairie and that’s Grouard. Be at Grouard on August 23. You’re going to be teaching at a place called Atikameg. Try to stay until Christmas.”
“Why do you say that?” asked Brian, puzzled.
“You’ll find out when you get there,” the NSD rep told him.
“How many teachers leave at Christmas?” asked Brian, very curious now.
Civilization ends at Westlock
Skipping ahead a bit, we find young Mr. Pitcairn in Edmonton, pausing to consult with his cousin Andy Bowes, who was stationed there in the RCMP. This was in August of 1974.
“No one in their right mind goes north of Westlock,” Bowes told him. “It’s the end of civilization.”
“What can you tell me about it?” asked Brian.
“Basically it’s the wild west,” said Bowes.
The bus took Brian through Athabasca and Slave Lake. He remembers the latter as not much to look at, with mostly aspen trees south of the railway tracks “and a big tree in the middle of the intersection where the 7-11 is now.” The bus proceeded on new pavement going west and dropped him outside ‘The Zoo’ in High Prairie.
“Young man, what are you doing up here?” asked the bus driver.
Pitcairn told him.
“God speed to you,” he said.
The first thing Pitcairn saw were half a dozen guys, “two-sheets to the wind,” in front of the hotel, looking at him. Then an RCMP officer appeared and escorted him to the Northern Lights Inn. Pitcairn asked him how a guy gets to Grouard.
“I guess you better buy a car,” the cop said.
So that was the first order of business, assisted by Jim Gibbons at the Royal Bank and Rollie Johnson at the GM dealership.
“Rollie had already sold a dozen cars to new teachers,” he says. “He loved it.”
Oddly enough, while Brian was in Gibbons’ office waiting for the loan to be approved, he got an offer of another job.
“A guy pokes his head in the door: ‘Are you a teacher?’
It was the superintendent of the High Prairie School Division, and he wasn’t above a bit of poaching. He offered him a contract on the spot.
“No one in Alberta wants to come up here,” he said.
“But I already have a contract,” said Brian.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll get it broken.”
Pitcairn declined, feeling he had to honour the promise he’d made. Later, at the Northland orientation session for new teachers in Grouard, he was approached by somebody from the AVC. Same thing: come to work for us. We pay better, etc. Apparently this sort of thing was going on constantly. There was such a demand for teachers and not enough people willing to take them or stick around once they did.
“But I wanted to find out if I could do what I’d been hired to do,” he says. “There were 17 of us that came out from Nova Scotia. We were idealistic.”
One piece of advice they got at the orientation struck Pitcairn as odd – not to mention contrary to what he’d been taught. They were told to stay away from getting involved in the community. They’ll lose respect for you. Keep them at arm’s length.
“That’s the old Indian Agent approach,” Pitcairn says. “Very much the role at that time, that familiarity breeds contempt.” It was advice he ignored.
Other advice seemed more practical. For example, what to do if the heater fails in your trailer and how to light a fire under your propane tank.
One of the new teachers accepted the offer of a teaching job from AVC.
“The rest of us stayed loyal to the ideals we’d developed,” Pitcairn says. “We were coming out to make things better for the Native people. We knew very little of what we were getting into.”
A wolf snack in the middle of nowhere
Pitcairn was assigned the oldest group at the school in Atikameg, on the Whitefish First Nation to a Grade 8 and 9 class. He would have his work cut out for him.
“Only one kid was fluent in English,” he says.
There was no TV to the community – which may not have been a bad thing, but it would have helped with English fluency. CKYL from Peace River was the only radio station, and it wasn’t too popular.
“They called it the ‘pigs and chickens radio,’” he says, because it seemed all it carried was farm news. Mail had to be picked up at the Gift Lake store. A radio phone at that same location was the only way to make a call out. And when the weather was bad, “a float plan was the only way out. It didn’t bother any of us.”
The principal was an Englishman named John Catt, who guarded the skimpy school supplies closely.
“We had to tap dance and sing to get a bloody pencil out of him,” says Pitcairn. “A constant struggle. We had to make do.”
In the classroom, the struggle was getting across in a language unfamiliar to most of his students. After a while, one of them – Earl Laboucan – came forward offering to help. He had picked up the language during the summer, when his dad Harry took farm work in the Peace River area. His mom Yvonne was the first community health rep in the community (“One of Indian Affairs’ better ideas.”)
“So I used Earl as a translator,” Pitcairn says.
Laboucan was one of the success stories. Inspired by a film on the navy that Pitcairn showed, he went on to finish his high school in Slave Lake, studied business administration and joined the navy.
The film was one of several Pitcairn and his colleagues showed in an effort to build the idea of ‘careers’ in the minds of their students. The school division hadn’t been doing anything along those lines, he says, and the attitude of a lot of the older kids was, “Why should we go to school?”
Field trips were instituted, showing a bit of the wider world to the kids. It was a big eye-opener for them, he says, and useful.
Pitcairn says on the whole, he liked his students and they, evidently, liked him. He tells a story about a class visit by the superintendent. These were assessments of the teacher’s control of the classroom, among other things.
“The kids figured it out,” Pitcairn says, “and every time somebody came to inspect me they were model students. If kids didn’t like the teacher they wouldn’t do that.”
He found he was enjoying the job and had no desire to quit at Christmas or even at the end of the year. And he and some of his teaching colleagues did ‘get involved’ with the students, staying after hours to help them, or having them over at their trailer to go over school work.
“We fed them too,” he says. “And on weekends I started hunting with community members, which I’d never done before. Those men knew how to survive in the bush.”
One of those men was Charlie Grey. Pitcairn says he learned many lessons from Charlie – for example how to start a fire with wet wood when you’re freezing to death. And about facing down a pack of wolves.
“White people believe wolves won’t attack people,” Grey told him. “They do.”
Case in point: a year after hearing that, he and Grey were out hunting again and came across a small lake, on the far side of which was a pack of eight or nine wolves.
“We’d better go back to the truck,” said Charlie.
As they retreated, the wolves fanned out and began to follow at a trot.
“How good are you at running in the snow?” asked Charlie. Then: “I don’t think we’re going to make it. We’ll make our stand here.”
Grey took aim and fired three times at the advancing pack, killing one of them.
“I emptied my magazine,” Brian says. “I hit one in the tail.”
The two men stood there and watched as the wolves turned on the fallen member of the pack and tore it apart.
“Load your gun,” Charlie told him.
Brian pulled out a box of bullets and started doing that.
“Right now I’m glad you’re a white man,” Grey told him, referring to his good supply of bullets. Grey had only enough for his clip. Couldn’t afford more, Brian figures.
“He was as cool as a cucumber, and I was thinking, ‘What a strange place for Brian Pitcairn to end his life, as a wolf snack in the middle of nowhere.’ But they took off.”
That was one of many experiences that endeared Brian to the Whitefish community, and perhaps him to them. He signed a two-year contract extension, but after his second year he was informed by the superintendent he was being transferred to Wabasca.
“The principal had told me I was too involved in the community. Getting bushed. I didn’t see that.”
“You can appeal it,” the guy told him. “But you’ll lose.”
He was sorry to go. It hadn’t all been roses and sunshine; the community had its problems and there were a few dark and tragic incidents, “but in all the time I taught there I never had a problem with anybody. People were very considerate and made me feel like I had a second home there.”
Interlude at Wabasca
Pitcairn spent three years at Mistassiniy School in Desmarais – first teaching a Grade 3 / 4 class and then a Grade 4 / 5 group. Knowledge of English was better, which helped, and some of his students went on to do quite well for themselves.
“Several ended up working in technical trades and several went to university in the city,” he says. “Several of them today are teachers in that area.”
Pitcairn enjoyed the kids and the teaching. By the third year, “it was smooth sailing,” he says. One reason was because fluency in English was better. The arrival of television helped, and unlike today, most parents “were concerned that we wouldn’t teach enough English. ‘We’ll teach Cree at home,’ they told the school. ‘You teach English at school. They need English to get a job.’
As at Whitefish, being a schoolteacher entailed more than just the classroom stuff. With no running water in many of the homes, not a lot of washing would go on in winter time and head lice were a problem. A program developed in conjunction with the health authorities of treating kids in the school for lice, and it worked well. It needed community support, Brian says, and it had that.
“Another program we brought in was community night in the showers. It may not sound like a big deal, but they had no way of showering at home. We did it every Thursday. It went over well.”
One character in the community that made a good impression on the young teacher was the lone RCMP officer, Klaus Winzchek, “a really interesting guy.” He and his big German shepherd kept order, somehow. Pitcairn got a demonstration of how they did it one day when he was having coffee at the Shell station with Denny Cardinal.
“A car pulls in with the police Suburban behind. It’s Klaus. He goes to the car. They refuse to do what he’s telling them.”
The officer walked back toward his car, and the crew inside the other vehicle thought he’d given up on them. Guess again.
“He gives a command to the shepherd. That dog comes out of the Suburban and right into the car through the window, and they come out. We just watched as that dog lined them up.”
Pitcairn recalls another incident – one that led to the sacking of the maintenance supervisor for the school division. It turned out he’d been doing sweetheart deals with construction and/or maintenance contractors to look after staff housing. They’d cut corners, saving money on the costs building or maintaining the structures and the contractor and the guy who hired them would split the savings.
“The contractors were not managed, not verified. The attitude seemed to be ‘we can get away with cutting corners. It certainly didn’t do the Native people any good – and here the government thought they were doing these great things.”
The guy responsible for it got investigated and charged, Pitcairn says, and things got better after that.
After three years teaching there, Brian was considering a principal’s position at Trout Lake. At the time that would have meant some tricky driving over lease roads, with big trucks forcing you into the ditch. While he was contemplating that pleasure, somebody from the Lesser Slave Lake Indian Regional Council got in touch with him, offering him a job as assistant director of education for that organization.
“The previous guy had passed away at the curling rink here in Slave Lake. He was allergic to nuts and choked to death.”
He took them up on it. Interviewed by Chiefs Walter Twinn and Frank Halcrow, he was offered the job and accepted it in mid-1979. He was there into 1987.
So what does an assistant director of education do? In short, turning federal education dollars into programs that helped students succeed. This was partly through agreements with school boards, so that supports could be provided to kids from the LSLIRC member bands in those schools.
“We had tuition agreements with 12 school boards,” Pitcairn says. “That was a big deal. We funded programs for children – school councillors, teacher aides, program councillors.”
An example: “We used a tuition agreement with the High Prairie School Division to start Cree as an option here at Schurter School.”
The job included support for post-secondary education as well. There was plenty of room for improvement in that area and plenty of it happened.
A lot went into the success story besides the efforts of Mr. Pitcairn. He acknowledges the tireless efforts of “my friend Richard Davis” of the Swan River First Nation, and of the good work of the CVC/AVC people in getting programs in place to help adults upgrade their education.
“The two guys we worked with (most) were Karl Gongos and Lorne Larson. Lorne was great to work with. If you wanted to build a classroom in a community, he would bend over backward to get the province to set it up.” The LSLIRC side of the deal was to provide tuition and school supplies. Overall, big strides were made. Some of the numbers speak to that.
“When I started there we had four post-secondary students funded by Indian Affairs,” Pitcairn says. “When I left we had about 85.”
‘There’s a cheque here with a lot of zeros’
In 1987, Pitcairn had a chance to return to his ‘second home,’ on the Whitefish First Nation – this time to set up a social support and education program. Things were becoming possible due to the band’s land claim being settled – at least in principle – and there was a lot of stuff to set up more or less from scratch.
“We had to reorganize the finances,” Pitcairn says, “and look at alternative revenue and improve controls on spending. I was involved in getting all that done. I ended up as band manager.”
It was a very busy time. He wasn’t alone in tackling the work – Ray Dupres and Jerome Slavik were part of the team negotiating with the provincial government. Pitcairn dealt with budgeting, controls, dealt with oil companies and formulating a community relations program with the RCMP.
“The biggest problem we had was bootlegging,” he says. “It led to too many deaths in the community. We had to set up a system to work with them so we could shut that down.”
Eddie Tallman was chief during that period. He was a smart guy and good to work with, Pitcairn says. He describes him also as an honorable man. An example of this is Tallman’s refusal to include Lubicon people in the Whitefish land claim, which Whitefish could have done.
“We would have gotten a better deal if we’d done it,” Pitcairn says. “But the Lubicon Lake leadership wanted their own (land claim). So Eddie said ‘thanks, but no thanks.’
The gesture apparently wasn’t understood or appreciated by the other group.
“The day we signed,” Bernard Ominayak (Lubicon chief) attacked Eddie Tallman in the media. We all thought it was ingratitude.”
The settlement included an ‘investment fund’ from the federal government of several millions of dollars.
“We had been running on a shoestring waiting for it,” Pitcairn says, but when it came it was not at all in the form he was expecting. One day in the office the secretary was opening the mail and said to him: “Brian, there’s a cheque in the mail with a whole lot of zeros.” Sure enough, it was the whole payment – $18 million. He could hardly believe it.
“Don’t tell anybody about this!” he said. “I’m going to town.”
He put it in the bank in High Prairie at the robust rate of 13 and a quarter per cent. The first month’s interested wiped out the band’s debt and the second month’s took care of all outstanding bills.
With finances in good order and things going along well, the band decided a few months later it didn’t need a band manager, Pitcairn says. So they let him go.
“For about a year I didn’t do much. A bit of consulting. I had been living in Whitefish with my family (asked for details about his family, Pitcairn says he prefers to keep them separated from his “business,” which apparently this story is part of. But he does go as far to say he has a family and their love and support has been very important to him.)
Heading up north
In the winter of 1991/92, Pitcairn ran into Chief Bernard Meneen of the Tallcree First Nation, up near Fort Vermilion. Meneen had heard from Chief Tallman about Pitcairn and that he might be looking for work. Tallcree was looking for somebody to operate two band schools. Was he interested?
“I headed north and I did not know where I was going,” Brian says. “I left the pavement at Red Earth and the temperature dropped about 10 degrees.”
It would turn out to be four years of interesting and fruitful work; it was also nearly the death of him. But first things first.
Getting the school staffed, making sure they had competent principals, budgeting, supplies – all useful work that kept Pitcairn busy during the week. On weekends he’d drive home to Slave Lake. If the weather was fine he’d drive south on Hwy. 88; if it wasn’t, it was a seven-hour detour through High Level and Peace River – “otherwise you’d wreck your truck.”
Before long, his duties expanded into other fields.
“One day I got called to the chief’s place. “I understand you worked on the Whitefish land claim,” Meneen said to him.
It turned out Tallcree was trying to settle something similar with the feds. So Pitcairn, with a small group of other band employees, went to work, dealing with Ottawa on money and Alberta on the land question. Meneen had a management style Brian thought quite astute. He’d call a meeting and just sit and listen for a couple of hours while his advisors debated the issue, sometimes quite heatedly.
“Most of the time we could make a consensus,” he says. “I thought it was very effective.”
In any case, the land and money issues were settled and on Pitcairn moved to the next project, which was to set up a policing program. Some funding for such had become available from Canada and Alberta, “so we thought we’d look at developing a band police force.” Two other bands, Little Red River and Beaver wanted to join in. The first meeting was at the RCMP detachment in Fort Vermilion, with Cpl. Sandy White.
“What would you guys like to drink?” he asked.
At that, Chief Meneen fired back: “The last time I was in here I couldn’t even get a drink of water!”
That broke the ice nicely and the collaboration was off to a good start, Pitcairn says.
The Little Red River chief, for unspecified political reasons, said he supported the program, but wouldn’t be doing so publicly. On that basis, a concept was developed that would see band members being trained up and put into service alongside the RCMP, with the Fort Vermilion detachment head jointly commanding the force.
Pitcairn the strength of the program, as he saw it, was the collaboration. It didn’t fit with the ‘fad’ at the time of every First Nation having its own police force. He says he told the provincial authorities what he thought about that – that they would fail – which they didn’t like to hear. However, he was correct; most did. The one involving Tallcree, Beaver and Little Red River, however, did not fail. But it was not all smooth sailing, as we shall see.
One aspect of the plan was to open a police sub-station in Fox Lake.
“We got it going,” he says. “But not everybody was happy about increased police presence in their communities.”
How unhappy Pitcairn was to find out, but first he went home to Nova Scotia to visit his family and while there came down with a nasty lung infection.
“It was doing me in,” he says, but antibiotics helped and he went back to work at Tallcree. When he got to the office there, he could tell something was different.
“The girls were friendly but were kind of avoiding me,” he says. “I had no idea what was going on.”
Meanwhile, his health was far from recovered. Returning to work from Slave Lake one Monday morning he ran into a fellow he knew on the road and stopped to talk.
“Do you feel good?” the guy asked him.
“If feel fine,” he said.
But the guy kept insisting something must be wrong with him and “he was not the kind of guy to fool around.” Neither was a “little voice” inside Pitcairn that told him to go home. So he did, returning to Slave Lake and lying down. Within 15 minutes of doing so, he says he was “choking for air.”
‘I was a goner’
He went to the hospital emergency and was waiting and, he says, not being taken very seriously.
“The person who saved me was Lynn Garratt. Thank God she was on duty that night. She took one look at me and said, ‘Get him in a room and get oxygen on him.’
What was happening was Pitcairn’s lungs were filling with fluid. Ironically, the oxygen actually made it worse, he says, because at it opened his lungs, they filled more with fluid.
Lying in his room alone at one point, he says, “I realized I wasn’t going to make it.” But he also had what he calls “a massive desire to urinate,” and staggered for the toilet. On his way back he collapsed on a metal tray, making a racket and bringing staff running.
He was shipped to Edmonton by air ambulance, with his friend Dennis Barton along for support.
“My lungs were so filled up they thought I was a goner,” he says.
Long story short – he was in ICU for seven days. At the end of it, the surgeon told him his O2 count had been 65.
“What does that mean?” Pitcairn asked him.
“It means you should have been dead,” the doctor said. “You should have brain damage. It wasn’t us that kept you alive. You can take that any way you want to.”
How he wanted to take it was that a power greater than him had intervened, and he did and he does.
“As far as I’m concerned it’s a miracle from the Lord that I survived it.”
From a medical point of view, it seemed tobacco smoke had caused a mould to grown in the bottom of both his lungs “and it turned into a garden down there.” Having got past the worst of it by miraculous means, an antibiotic cleaned up the infection and he was eventually cleared to go back to work. But before he got there, he ran into an acquaintance from North Tallcree at the truckstop in Slave Lake.
“He goes white as a sheet and says, ‘No, I don’t believe it! You’re dead!’ He kept saying, ‘They told us you were dead!’”
This was quite surprising to Pitcairn. What he found out was that he’d been the target of witchcraft and that it was well known in the community that this had happened, and presumably why.
“People use it against their enemies,” he says. “The Oblate Fathers tried to control that, but never completely succeeded.”
Back at work after a month’s paid leave, he was digging through a mountain of paperwork on his desk, when three people came to visit. What they explained was that a spell had been cast by a local shaman “with the intent of killing me.” It had to do with his work in organizing a police force, “specifically work to establish a sub-station at Fox Lake.”
Pitcairn found out not only what had been done and why, but also the identity of the shaman who had cast the spell.
“I was shocked,” he says, because he knew the guy
“And he only charged 300 bucks to do it!”
Pitcairn says the experience didn’t deter him from continuing his work, “but the chief was oppressed by it,” and took away some of his duties. At Christmas of that year he resigned.
One thing leads to another
“I’m sitting in the Sawridge Mall (coffee area) and this guy called Jerry Noskey sits down. ‘I hear you’re looking for work,’ he says. ”’We’re looking for a band manager at Loon River.’”
Loon River was working on a land claim settlement. It had been accepted in principle by both governments, but seemed to be stalled. Pitcairn accepted the position and got to work. This was March of 1996. Right away he smelled something fishy in the foot-dragging on the part of government, which after a promising start had been going on for about 18 months. ‘There’s something they’re not telling you,’ he said to his employers.
With the help of MP Dave Chatters, they got some answers out of the feds: it turned out due to some perceived connection between Loon River and the Lubicon claim, Loon River was being shelved until Lubicon could be settled. This was unacceptable to Loon River chief and council and they “made short work of that,” Pitcairn says.
But that wasn’t the only factor. It turned out the law firm representing Loon River had just signed a deal “worth millions” with the Department of Justice, setting up a conflict of interest.
“We’ve got to get rid of them,” he advised.
So the band got a new lawyer, the feds appointed a negotiator, and two years later (1998) it was settled. Figuring out the details on the land transfer took a lot of time, effort and lawyers’ fees, but it was eventually worked out.
Similar to what happened at Whitefish a few years earlier, the settlement brought big benefits to the community. More land, for starters, and money to invest in a municipal water and sewer system, and new housing. Roads were rebuilt, a health centre was established and a new school and community hall came out of it. The old school was turned into the band office.
“It brought an awful lot of improvement,” Pitcairn says. “It was good for the economy too.”
Next up, the chief asked Pitcairn to help manage Loon River Contractors, the band construction company.
“It had a lot of potential, but it needed to be organized and got off the ground, and we did that. In the third year it made a profit.”
There was a lot of work to do and negative attitudes in the oilpatch to overcome, Pitcairn says. Companies in the area refused to hire them and in fact “did everything to obstruct them,” he claims. “We told industry: ‘That attitude has to change.’”
It did change. The company got work, people made a good living and the standard of living of the community rose noticeably.
“So it is possible,” Pitcairn says. “But you have to have good managers who are in it for the good of the community and not to fill their own pockets. It can be done.”
Another key to the success of LRC in those years, Pitcairn says, was that chief and council allowed the managers to run the company with minimal interference.
Pitcairn spent nine years with Loon River – much longer than he ever expected to. He eventually decided to leave after a new council came in and had a way of doing business he wasn’t comfortable with.
“They thought they knew better than I did about how to manage finances,” he says. “We started to have disagreements, for example spending money we didn’t have. It was not something I was prepared to do.”
Thus ended another eventful chapter in Pitcairn’s career, much of which has been left out for purposes of brevity. Not touched on: the infamous and shocking murder case involving the chief, getting screwed around by various bank managers (not from Slave Lake) and ripped off by a mafia-connected contractor. Those stories will have to be told elsewhere.
‘Kind of like a circuit judge’
Pitcairn next landed a job with the province in the ‘Aboriginal Affairs Resource Consulting Program.’ What it amounted to was “helping the province work with Treaty 8 Nations to encourage them to work with the resource industry to enable issues to be dealt with.”
Part of the work was encouraging resource companies to talk to First Nations, “to include them in development plans.”
It was useful work, and Pitcairn enjoyed it.
“It helped that I knew people in First Nations,” he says. “I was on the road a lot, kind of like a circuit judge – a regular visitation program throughout the north. Once in a while you were told to get lost, but not most of the time.”
There were notable success stories. Sturgeon Lake did well working with industry to the benefit of the community. Whitefish and Loon Lake also did well.
In 2010, Pitcairn accepted yet another position with a fledgling First Nation, this time with Peerless/Trout, “helping them get set up.” It was work he was quite familiar with, and it really was starting from scratch. Peerless/Trout FN had been born out of the recent Bigstone land claim settlement.
“We had to find an office, set up an accounting program and do infrastructure planning,” he says. “Water, sewer, roads, a new school. The M.D. helped us.”
One notable incident – and a bit comical, the way Pitcairn tells it – had to do with the settlement ‘distribution,’ or cash payout to the members of the new First Nation. Pitcairn had warned the band’s bank in Slave Lake to expect a flood of people looking to withdraw cash, and on what day it would likely happen.
“How much cash do you think we’ll need?” they asked.
“We figure a million,” he said.
Cheques were handed out in Peerless Lake, and sure enough, the predicted stampede of cheque cashers showed up in Slave Lake. Brinks had charged $20,000 to bring in the million in cash. There were no troubles, Pitcairn says, but the bank ran out of cash at about 4:00 p.m., and the people were still lining up.
“So she (the bank manager) went around to several big corporate clients in town and they decided to make several big deposits of cash and that put us over the line.”
It’s not the kind of thing that happens often, and Pitcairn says it’s fair to say the retail industry in Slave Lake and beyond got a big boost out of it. He thinks it was handled pretty well and turned out well. He contrasts it with a similar payout by a much larger First Nation to its members, when the band’s bank (in Stony Plain) was not even notified it was happening.
“The normal gong show,” he calls it. “I think the only thing that saved their butt is they’re close to Edmonton.”
Meanwhile, back at the office, the actual land settlement for the new band had to be worked out. There were major hassles when the survey work was awarded to the lowest bidder – a firm from “up north” that lacked expertise and – in Pitcairn’s view – wasn’t taking the work seriously. He cites examples.
“His attitude was: ‘They’re just Indians – who cares if the boundaries aren’t right?’ We made it known to the feds what we thought of that.”
The guy cut his losses and left, Pitcairn says, but got paid out in full anyway, something that didn’t go down well in Peerless Lake.
“That does not happen in the normal world,” he says. That’s how the federal government does things in the Indian world and the Indians get blamed for it.”
When Pitcairn left in 2012, the surveying was still not completed and many issues were still unresolved.
“I don’t know exactly where it’s at,” he says.
One sad reality faced by First Nations with settlement money to spend is they get a parade of what Pitcairn considers charlatans showing up with investment schemes to pitch. One he recalls was “kind of an oil company,” promising Peerless/Trout half the profits from a well-drilling scheme. Another was a big business opportunity in Egypt, with huge profits promised. Another two guys wanted six million to invest in Hong Kong real estate.
“Every one of them was a scam,” Pitcairn says. “I wanted to tell them to go to hell and throw them out the door. But the chief (James Alook) was such a gentleman.”
But the one he liked (sarcastically speaking) the most “was a preacher from Edmonton who said the Lord had given him a vision to get money from us.”
A significant win for the community came via a collaboration with Northern Lakes College. The plan developed that NLC would partner with the band to put trades training capacity into a new school that was being planned for the area. It was yet to come to fruition when Pitcairn resigned.
After some time off to visit his ailing brother in Nova Scotia – a 40-year veteran of the Canadian Army who had cancer – Brian came back for a while to help Peerless Trout get its oilfield construction firm up and running. During that time the band also got some logging work from Al-Pac. He also did some work for Alberta working with First Nations (again) “deal with industry in a positive way.”
He worked there two years, up until the change in provincial government. Well known as a Tory supporter and a rather outspoken one, Pitcairn was not surprised when his contract was terminated.
“I spent a few months doing nothing and got hired to run the Grizzly Apartments in Slave Lake. I enjoyed that work. I think I booted three drug dealers out of the apartments.”
Pitcairn didn’t know it, but health issues were again stalking him and would force a dramatic change in his life. A diabetic, he’d been seeing Dr. Immelman and credits him with getting his blood sugar levels under control. But during a hospital visit, another doctor looked at his feet and asked: ‘Do you mind if I operate on your feet?’
“There was a lot of dead flesh,” Pitcairn says. “Scrape, scrape. It was black.”
The conclusion: he had some sort of flesh-eating disease, and it was getting into the bone.
“They recommended amputation,” he says. “They didn’t think I would survive the operation. They thought I would have a heart attack.”
However, he didn’t. The operation was in ???? 2016. He had both legs cut off below the knee. His recovery went well – surprisingly so according to his doctors – with no complications.
“I’m just full of surprises,” he says. “I credit my creator for that.”
The hardest part of the recovery process? Learning how to go to the bathroom.
“Then getting into a vehicle from a wheelchair. That was a riot.”
Several months later, your Leader reporter ran into Pitcairn at the seniors’ lodge in Slave Lake where he now lives. It’s a good place for someone in his condition, Pitcairn says. Having the support of family and friends in town helps a lot too and he says he’s getting by well enough. In his room, a bookshelf tells the story of his lifelong interest in military history, displaying titles from the Roman times through the present. That sort of stuff, along with the ever-present Holy Bible, is how he spends a lot of his spare time these days. Both, he says, have had a major impact on his life and his outlook.
“I cannot complain,” he says of his circumstances. “I have a loving family and they’re really good to me.”
Getting back to the ‘what-if’ scenarios that this story started with, Pitcairn reflects on his initial intention to stick out his first teaching gig at Whitefish for a year. His life would not necessarily have been less interesting if he’d left after that, but it certainly would have been different. And the reason he stayed?
“I fell in love with the community,” he says. “I really enjoyed it up there. The Good Lord told me, ‘This part of the world is where I want you to work.’
The community was very welcoming, he continues. “They were very good-hearted toward me. One year became three years and the work was interesting. There were a handful of us that wanted to contribute to development in the Aboriginal communities we were in.”
And now you know, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story.