Part III of our Brian Pitcairn story, in which he helps Whitefish get organized, then heads north for further adventures, not all of them healthy ones
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,” he says. “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 interest 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 says 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.
“I 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.
Next week: One thing leads to an other…