One of the pioneers of modern Slave Lake passed away last week. Joe Mouallem – who arrived more or less penniless with his wife Fay in Slave Lake in 1964 – had a big influence on the community. For one thing, he was the first Lebanese person to settle here. All the subsequent Mouallems – and others – who came and wove themselves into the fabric of the community over the decades, followed the pioneering path of ‘Uncle Joe,’ as many called him.
Businessman, family man, community builder. All of it was mere potential when Joe and Fay came to Slave Lake in the fall of 1964. It hadn’t been in their plans. Married in Fay’s home town of Pittsfield Massachussetts in 1962, their ambition was to start a construction company there. They’d come to Edmonton to sell the house that Joe owned jointly with his brother. The house wasn’t selling, so they accepted an offer from a couple of High Prairie businessmen to set up and operate a men’s wear store in Slave Lake. Oil had just been discovered there and the prospects seemed good.
Fay writes in an article in Pioneers of the Lakeland, ‘We had just spent eight hours on the road from Edmonton – a rough, rutted and dusty gravel road. We were sure we’d found the wrong place.’ The building proposed for the store looked like something out of a western movie set. And there was nowhere to live in town.
But the couple bore down, worked hard and prospered. They eventually sold the store and moved into the property development business. And never left.
Joe was born Yousef Abdul Kareem Mouallem in 1932 in Kab Elias in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. It was (and is) a fertile place with great gardens and orchards, but at the time, at least very poor. Joe’s father was one of the few people in town who could write, but even so, he could barely provide for his wife and eight children. Joe had a few years of schooling, but had to leave school to work to help support the family. He worked for a farmer for the equivalent of a dollar a day. But Joe was ambitious and wanted more. His father sent him to live in Beirut with an aunt; he worked and learned trades for a man who fixed irrigation systems.
“I learned to fix everything; motors, systems, heating stoves.” The knowledge would come in handy later.
At the age of 10, Joe was summoned back home to help his cousin build a dam, for irrigation purposes. At about the age of 14 he quit and went back to Beirut. There was more work and it paid better. On a visit home to see his sick father, Joe told him he’d like to go to Canada. “I wanted a future,” he said. Sponsored by his aunt who lived in Canada, he arrived by ship at Halifax in December of 1951.
Joe spent the better part of a decade in Edmonton or other places in Alberta, working construction, working on railways and for a time running a pool hall and a bowling alley. He sent money home to his family when he could. In the late 1950s, he got the idea to move to Holland, where he’d heard the chances of doing well in business were good. Stopping in Springfield Massachussetts to visit a childhood friend, he learned of another friend from back home in Pittsfield. So he went there and found work. He also met Fay.
The courtship was fairly short. Joe declared his feelings for Fay while they were on a Ferris wheel at the Fourth of July carnival. By August they were engaged, and they were married on Sept. 1, 1962. Joe worked full time for low pay for a contractor, while taking jobs on the side. In early 1964, they had decided to start their own construction company, but they had no money. Joe owned half of a house in Edmonton still, so they drove across the continent intending to sell it and return to Masachussetts. As noted, they never did.
The above information mostly comes from a memoir the family provided to The Leader last week, called ‘Finding Opportunity.
Times were hard at first. “Uncomfortable,” is the word Joe uses in the memoir.
But things got better. One thing that helped the young business was extending credit to firefighters. People were bringing their cheques in, Joe recalled and asking him to either cash them or keep them safe for them. Many of them didn’t have bank accounts. They trusted Joe and Fay and it worked out well.
The Mouallems were founding members of the Chamber of Commerce and involved in the establishment of the Riverboat Daze festival and the community’s first golf course.
On the political side, Joe supported Larry Shaben of High Prairie through many successful campaigns for the job of Lesser Slave Lake MLA. Joe also belonged to the Lion’s Club and the Elks, which did a lot of fundraising for local improvement projects.
One of his close colleagues and friends from those early days was Dennis Barton, who opened Slave Lake’s first drug store not long after the Mouallems came to town. They collaborated on many projects over 40 years.
“He was one of the major builders of the community,” Dennis says. “He was a partner I respected to the fullest.”
Joe’s list of business accomplishments is probably too long for this article, but a few notable ones were the development of the West Side trailer court, the Schurter and Slave Lake Plazas in the downtown area (now housing Rexall, The Brick and other tenants) and the highway commercial area with Grizzly Ridge Honda and its neighbours. He also donated a chunk of land to the town that now has the Fournier Place subdivision on it.
In later years, the family donated $100,000 to Northern Lakes College for the establishment of a student residence that bears the Mouallem name.
Mouallem means ‘teacher’ in Arabic. Joe says in his memoir that name is respected in his home town, and he always kept that in mind as he was building a new life in Canada. Your family’s good name is more important than money, he said. That’s why he always strove to be honest and fair in his dealings, pay off his debts and try to help others and the community.
Another role Joe played, as noted, was as a sort of patron to people from his home town in Lebanon who – like him – were looking for better opportunities in Canada. Many of them came through Slave Lake (some are still here), working in businesses owned or partly owned by Joe and Fay.
“Then they grew into other communities in the area,” says Ali Mouallem, a relative and business owner in Slave Lake. He mentions Burger Baron restaurants in High High Prairie and Wabasca that were opened by relatives of Joe.
Commenting at town council’s March 10 meeting, Mayor Tyler Warman spoke of the “big impact” Joe Mouallem had on the community over the years. “I was very sad to hear of his passing,” he said.
Joe leaves behind Fay, his wife of 58 years and their sons Joey and Jamel, along with seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
A memorial service had been tentatively planned for April 4. But due to the COVID-19 situation, it has been indefinitely postponed.