Brian Pitcairn, Part IV: One thing leads to another

The fourth installment of our story, in which Mr. Pitcairn tackles a fresh challenge at Loon River

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

“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.
Out to Trout
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.
Next week: The conclusion of our series on Brian Pitcairn

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