‘It’s been a rough 2020’
Brian Pitcairn of Slave Lake died on Aug. 22 or 23 at the age of 67. He was being remembered last week for his contributions to various First Nations governments and communities in the area, for his love of history, his interest in politics and perhaps especially for his devotion to his family and friends and his community service – most recently as a senior member of the regional library board.
As reported a couple of years ago in a five-part biographical piece in The Leader, Pitcairn was born and raised in Nova Scotia. His younger brother Douglas, reached last week in Dartmouth NS, said young Brian was “a quiet bookworm, a gifted student, who was always very knowledgeable about politics and especially history. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of western history, especially that of the British Empire.”
Douglas went on to say his brother “made a career of helping Indigenous peoples, many of whom hold him in high esteem. He will be missed by those who knew him.”
He was so interested in politics that he ran for parliament as a Social Credit candidate, twice. In Halifax Riding in 1974 his main opponent was Robert Stanfield, the national leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives
After earning degrees in history and teaching, Brian came west to teach school for Northland School Division. Assigned to Atikameg School, he was advised not to get too involved in the community, he recalled in a 2018 interview that stretched over a dozen hours. He completely ignored that advice and got very involved in the community, becoming a sort of adopted member of the Laboucan family. He also taught school in Wabasca and held various administrative positions with the Whitefish, Loon River, Tallcree and Trout-Peerless First Nations. He was a band manager, an education officer, a construction company manager, a treaty negotiator and an advisor on any number of matters with local governments – some of them just getting on their feet. The entire story can be found right here:
Pitcairn had his share of health problems, almost dying at one point from a serious lung infection. Three or four years ago, thanks to a flesh-eating disease, he had his legs amputated below the knees. He had been a resident of Vanderwell Heritage Place seniors’ lodge since then. All along, Pitcairn told The Leader, he had been blessed with the support of a loving family. We reached several of its members by phone and some of them spoke about what Brian had meant to them.
“My mom asked him if he would look after the kids if anything happened to her,” says Gail Thunder. “He agreed.”
Thus it was that Brian took in and helped two of the Laboucan boys – Earl and Ward – complete their high school in Slave Lake. This was when school only went as far as Grade 9 in Atikameg. Earl (who recently also passed away) went on to a career in the Canadian Navy.
Pitcairn never married, but two members of the family consider him their father, and he was grandfather to their kids. To others he was something like a grandfather, an uncle, a brother and a trusted advisor and a guy who was always there for them. His grandkids’ pictures adorned his walls at the lodge. He loved them and was very proud of them, says Jackie Laboucan. Her son James Grey says Brian was a big part of his life, helping him in many ways, including in setting up his carpentry business.
“He treated me like a grandparent,” he says. “He had a lot of knowledge and he was eager to share.”
Herfried Schmidt was a library board colleague of Pitcairn’s. They’d met over 40 years ago when both were teaching in Wabasca. In more recent times, the two enjoyed indulging their love of history in regular gab sessions that lasted two or three hours. Schmidt was due to give his friend a ride downtown on Sunday, Aug. 23, Schmidt says, but he didn’t return his call. He found out the sad news the next day.
“I will miss him and the many interesting discussions we had,” he says. “Brian was a great guy, with a wealth of knowledge.”
Another friend and colleague is Robert Noskey of Loon River. He worked with Pitcairn in the 1990s to set up Loon River Contracting, which was quite successful for a time.
“Everybody hurts,” Noskey says, about losing his friend. “It’s been a rough 2020.”
John Dawson was a friend from Slave Lake. The two were drawn together through politics first, but then discovered they also shared a love of military history of which they were both avid readers. He says they got together frequently to talk about books and swap books and both donated books to the library to improve its collection.
“It’s too bad,” he says.
Last word goes to Blessing Shambare, the Anglican minister at St. Peter’s Ecumenical Church in Slave Lake.
He recalls not long after he came to his current post (from Zimbabwe) he got a call from Pitcairn, asking if they could talk. They’ve been doing that ever since, quite regularly. A lifelong Anglican, Pitcairn’s was raised in the faith “and it never left him,” Shambare says. He says Pitcairn was “a strong spiritual person. He cared for people.”
Pitcairn was predeceased by his parents, as well as brother William Barrie James, and is survived by brother Douglas.