Part II of our Brian Pitcairn story, in which he launches his teaching career at Atikameg.
Brian 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 plane 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,” Pitcairn says. “He was allergic to nuts and choked to death.”
Pitcairn 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.”
To be continue