Municipal District of Pincher Creek councillor Dave Cox is the new reeve.
Cox was elected to the position in a secret ballot amongst the councillors during the annual organizational meeting, Oct. 24.
“I know it’s going to be a steep learning curve,” admits the first-term councillor. “But, I never like to shy away from someone asking me to do stuff.”
He replaces incumbent Rick Lemire, following a run-off between the two.
Elected as the MD’s Division 3 representative in 2021’s municipal election, Cox says he’s looking forward to the new role and ready to roll up his sleeves.
“We have a lot of things going on, some pretty big challenges, especially with our water system … trying to get a reliable source of water to our treatment plant, probably one of our highest priorities right now,” says the new reeve about some of the MD’s priorities in the coming year.
“Road maintenance is probably next as our highest-call item and I believe our administration understands that.”
A former fire chief for the area, Cox is also passionate about seeing a complete twinning of Highway 3 to the Alberta-British Columbia border.
“It’s an important trade corridor. It’s a national corridor and it’s an international corridor with lots and lots of traffic coming from the States,” he says.
“We’re always seeing an increase at our intersections coming on [to Highway 3] so it’s something we’ll need to address.”
Besides the election of Cox as reeve, the MD also has a new deputy reeve. District 5 councillor John MacGarva was chosen over Tony Bruder in a secret-ballot vote.
To say it’s been a tough year for producers in southwestern Alberta might be considered a huge understatement, but it has.
A lack of measurable rain since spring and now a surge in the grasshopper population is hitting farmers twice as hard.
On Aug. 8, the Municipal District of Pincher Creek made the rare move of declaring an agricultural disaster.
This follows a recommendation by its agricultural fieldman and service board, and was rubber-stamped at a special council meeting, also held on the same day.
“Municipal declarations do not automatically trigger access to increased funding programs, provincially or federally,” noted the MD in a statement posted on its website. “It’s rather intended to bring attention to other levels of government on where support is needed for producers.”
To date, the Alberta government has not made any provincewide designation.
Reeve Rick Lemire, a cattle producer himself, doesn’t recall such a declaration being made in recent memory.
“About a month ago, it was brought up. Should we be looking or monitoring this? Since that time, we, as a council, have had phone calls from producers saying it’s time — we’re in sad shape here,” said Lemire. “So we called the special meeting and went over the facts that our ag fieldman provided us.”
Some feedback included situations of stock being sold with a dwindling grass supply and the need and cost to have water hauled in. Lemire knows all too well about those same hurdles, with two of his three dugouts completely dry.
Add to that, the latest wrinkle — grasshoppers.
“What little crop they might have had to cut for feed is being destroyed and all of that within the last month. Grasshoppers come in cycles and this is (their) year,” Lemire continued.
“And, next year could be worse because they’ve come in such large numbers. I know of at least a few producers in the MD that have sprayed their crops twice this year, and if you don’t control it, there’s nothing left.”
According to the MD, drought conditions have impacted 50 to 90 per cent of crops, pasture and range yields, pointing to a lack of spring and in-season moisture combined with long durations of high temperatures and winds.
Figures from Environment and Climate Change Canada show no measurable precipitation for Pincher Creek in the first 10 days of August.
In all, close to two dozen MDs and counties have already made the declaration, including neighbouring Cardston County on July 16, and the list is sure to grow if the dry, hot conditions continue.
Alberta’s rural health-care system needs more public funding, more efficiency and much more local autonomy, residents and esteemed panellists said at Pincher Creek’s health-care forum in late April.
Upwards of 150 people came for a one-hour discussion that saw residents, politicians and one riding candidate engage local doctors and public health policy researchers from the University of Calgary.
Between panellists who said the status quo isn’t holding and residents who said they felt ignored by the province, the conversation registered an uneasy mix of frustration and hope for the future.
‘If you want to findsomeone who can fix this,find a mirror’
Drs. Gavin Parker and Kristy Penner, both of whom practise family and emergency medicine in Pincher Creek and neighbouring Crowsnest Pass, repeatedly called for more community involvement.
“If anybody can help solve this, or at least start to work on this, it’s the people in this room,” Parker started off.
“I do think there is hope,” he continued, qualifying in the next breath that “Clearly, what I’m doing and what we’re doing isn’t working.”
Penner’s prognosis was no less sparing.
“If we keep doing the same thing, we’re only going to be waiting longer” for routine medical services, she told the packed forum, painting graver implications for women and the elderly.
“You’re going to have to leave [home] to have a baby — you won’t be able to get surgery in Pincher Creek or Crowsnest Pass. You won’t be able to get home care or long-term care in your community. And as a senior, you’ll have to move out of your community to access long-term geriatric care.”
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta is working to fast-track foreign-trained doctors’ credentials, while licensed practical nurses are picking up the slack at Pincher Creek’s medical clinic, according to Parker.
But the system can’t build capacity when there aren’t enough doctors to train med school graduates, much less foreign doctors.
“Our voice is stronger when it’s collective,” Parker said, acknowledging the residents on Pincher Creek’s Attraction and Retention Committee, the citizen/council body that helps settle incoming doctors within the community, among other functions.
Parker also noted that Albertans who work outside of medicine make up a significant proportion of the CPSA’s board of directors.
“So, if you want to find someone who can fix this, find a mirror. That’s who,” he said.
It’s Friday night:Do you knowwhere your MLA is?
Audience speakers questioned how civic participation could reverse the Government of Alberta’s concentration of authority in a sclerotic Alberta Health Services, the provincial health authority that executes government policy.
“I’ll vote for any party that starts taking that system apart and returning power to the community so that we can make a difference with some of the things you’re asking us to make a difference on,” one speaker said.
“Where’s our MLA?” the speaker asked, drawing groans from the crowd.
“Is anybody from the Alberta government here?” another speaker asked. “Maybe that’s part of the problem,” the speaker suggested, drawing thunderous applause.
In the crowd were town Coun. Sahra Nodge, MD Coun. Dave Cox and Reeve Rick Lemire, and a host of doctors and nurses from Pincher Creek Health Centre.
The NDP’s Kevin Van Tighem, the only riding candidate to show, suggested that Pincher Creek has the talent and the grit to restore the health centre to a model of rural health care.
“Do we have to change ourselves? Or can we change medicine so it fits into our community without the community changing?” he asked from the mic.
The UCP’s 2023 provincial budget funds public health care to the tune of $24.5 billion, a roughly four per cent annual increase. This year’s budget includes $105 million for capital projects under the UCP’s Rural Health Facilities Revitalization Program.
Don’t expect a quick fix
Funding and educational programs need to deliver a robust, “team-based” rural health-care model that empowers Indigenous and rural learners to practise medicine, Dr. Penner explained.
More immediately, Penner said, doctors-in-training have complained about a lack of affordable housing and limited child-care options in Crowsnest Pass.
Melissa Fredette, a registered nurse at the health centre, vice-chair of the town’s Attraction and Retention Committee and mother of three, implored the community to promote Pincher Creek as a career destination for young health-care providers. But Fredette and her colleagues need more local support.
“We’ve just come out of a pandemic. We’re tired in health care,” she said. “We would love to have more help from the people here.”
Once it’s gone, it maynever come back
Aaron Johnston, associate dean of rural medicine at the U of C, warned after the forum that many rural health-care teams are on the verge of collapse.
An under-resourced team “works until it doesn’t work — until there’s the loss of that last one person,” he said. “Lose a rural anesthetist and say goodbye to that town’s surgical team. Lose a team, and good luck restoring the services it was designed to provide.”
“Imagine how difficult it is to recruit 10 highly-trained medical staff at the exact same time,” he suggested, “because that’s what it takes to reboot these services once they’re gone.”
The petition, launched by town resident Elizabeth Dolman on March 17, aims to block the passage of a borrowing bylaw for a multi-million-dollar construction loan, pending a referendum on the loan, Dolman told Shootin’ the Breeze.
“Curling is a wonderful thing, … but people can’t move here for jobs because there’s no place to live. The town’s known this for at least 20 years, and they’ve made plans here and there. But they haven’t done anything yet,” she continued.
The petition is the latest development in a long-running and hotly contentious debate about whether or not to build a new rink and where to build it.
Whatever might be said of the project, the town’s existing curling rink at 837 Main St. is at the end of its working life, according to structural studies dating back at least to 2008. The rink is run by the Pincher Creek Curling Club, at the club’s expense. The club has around 150 members, roughly evenly split between the town and MD of Pincher Creek, according to outgoing president Glenda Kettles.
Council on Feb. 13 narrowly passed a resolution to build a new rink at the Community Recreation Centre at 942 Hyde St., to be renamed the CRC and Events Centre if the build goes ahead. The borrowing bylaw, still before council, was given the first of three readings at chambers on Feb. 27.
Second and third readings are not listed on council’s March 27 agenda.
Pincher Creek holds approximately $3.5 million in debt as of the new year — roughly $1.85 million for the town’s early learning centres and around $1.65 million for Pincher Creek RCMP’s current headquarters at 1369 Hunter St., according to finance director Wendy Catonio.
That burden represents just under one quarter of the town’s approximately $15 million allowable debt limit, which the Municipal Government Act caps at 150 per cent of a municipality’s most recent annual revenue. For context, Catonio said the town’s current debt load is unremarkable compared to regional municipalities.
If passed, the borrowing bylaw would authorize council to take out a loan for up to $4 million in estimated construction costs for the curling rink build. The town would then be obligated to pay down whatever amount it draws on the loan.
The town has meanwhile applied for a federal grant that could cover up to 60 per cent of the build. Tristan Walker, the town and neighbouring MD’s energy project lead, said he hoped for a decision by the grant funder sometime this summer.
Town council in 2017 committed $1.25 million to match the curling club’s hoped-for grant through the province’s Community Facility Enhancement Program. The CFEP grant didn’t come through, and council has included the $1.25 million commitment in subsequent budgets.
The $1.25 million was always intended to be financed through a loan rather than the town’s capital reserves, Catonio explained.
Coun. Mark Barber, a longtime supporter of the build, told council last month that the curling club would contribute $200,000 through fundraising efforts, adding that the club would donate its ice plant, which Barber said was worth $500,000.
Barber also said the MD would probably kick in some money. Reeve Rick Lemirelater told the Breeze that MD council discussed that possibility in a joint session with town council, but the MD hasn’t made any financial commitments.
In order to be successful, Dolman’s petition would have to satisfy a number of conditions listed in the MGA.
Petitions to council need signatures from 10 per cent of municipal residents, which amounts to roughly 360 people in Pincher Creek, according to the 2021 census.
The petition would have to come to Angie Lucas, the town’s new chief administrative officer, no later than March 30. Lucas would then have 45 days to decide if the petition satisfies the Act’s requirements.
If the petition holds up, council would have to either scrap the curling rink build or put the borrowing bylaw to a town referendum. If the petition fails, council could pass the borrowing bylaw and move ahead with the project, according to Lucas’s latest report to council.
Lucas has recommended that council receive for information an explainer at chambers Monday evening about the petition process.
Few of the project’s vital details have been made public as of Friday afternoon, including a detailed cost estimate, according to an FAQ page on the town’s website.
The curling club owns the existing rink, while the town owns the land on which it sits. There is no plan for what happens at the old curling rink after the building comes down, nor information about the financial implications for the town and tax implications for residents, the FAQ page explains.
The curling club did not respond to a request for an interview before Shootin’ the Breeze published this story online on Friday afternoon.
Roughly 170 people had signed Dolman’s petition to that point. Dolman has said she will continue to collect signatures at Ranchland Mall over the weekend.
Kettles said Friday that the curling club has so far raised around $100,000 toward the new rink.
Pincher Creek town council narrowly approved first reading of a $4-million borrowing bylaw to pay for a new curling rink at the Community Recreation Centre at 948 Hyde St. Council then unanimously voted to expand the project in hopes of qualifying for a federal Green and Inclusive Community Buildings grant for up to 60 per cent of the build.
A second grant could deliver up to $1 million in construction costs, while council has already set aside $1.25 million in its 2023 capital budget.
Council greenlit the new curling rink through a contentious 4-3 split Feb. 13, with councillors voting along the same lines when the borrowing bylaw was put to the test Feb. 27.
Coun. Mark Barber tabled the borrowing bylaw at chambers, stressing that grant funding and a hoped-for contribution by the MD of Pincher Creek would offset the rink’s $4-million price tag.
Both councils discussed a potential contribution by the MD at a closed meeting last month, but MD council hasn’t decided anything, Reeve Rick Lemire told Shootin’ the Breeze last Thursday.
“We’re keeping our options open at this point,” he said.
Mayor Don Anderberg and Couns. Gary Cleland and Wayne Oliver supported Barber’s motion, with Couns. David Green, Sahra Nodge and Brian Wright voting against.
Barber and Anderberg cited the town and MD’s joint master recreation plan, which ranked a new curling rink as a third-tier priority in March 2021, based on a survey of around 630 residents.
The curling club and its estimated 150 members hope to donate $200,000 toward the project, plus an ice plant that Barber said was worth $500,000.
Anderberg said council has funded new walking trails and has started to address upgrades to the Memorial Community Centre arena at 867 Main St., which survey respondents listed as first- and second-tier priorities.
The mayor’s comment drew jeers from residents in attendance, to which Anderberg replied, “I believe the survey was accurate and that it was done for a purpose.”
“I would say we’re aggressively pursuing grant money, and all indications are that there would not be a need to borrow the entire [$4 million] amount,” Coun. Oliver said.
Coun. Nodge was the first to speak against the motion, reminding council that the project remains largely unfunded, and warning that residents might have to support a heavy debt load through higher taxes.
Nodge also highlighted the town’s 2022 master infrastructure report by the engineering firm ISL, a planning document that recommends roughly $13 million worth of sidewalk, storm sewer and other upgrades as part of a 10-year capital plan.
Acknowledging strong support for the curling rink among some portions of the community, Nodge insisted that council hasn’t hadn’t done its homework ahead of the project.
“If this goes ahead, which it probably will, and somebody asks, ‘What are the implications for this on taxpayers for the Town of Pincher Creek?’ I don’t have an answer other than my own speculation, and that worries me.”
Noting the town’s acute, chronic housing crunch, Coun. Green reminded council that the community and the municipality have limited resources to bear across a host of civic projects.
“Consequently, a plan for priority spending should be developed in conjunction with the current council’s strategic priorities from 2022 through 2026, which will help eliminate any reactive or misaligned development decisions,” Green said.
Council then unanimously voted to add a bouldering wall and an exhibition space to the Community Recreation Centre. The additions strengthen the town’s chances of receiving the GIBC grant by making the facility more accessible, according to the grant’s funding criteria.
The grant requires a carbon net-zero build, which would add about 30 per cent to projected construction costs, according to Tristan Walker, municipal energy project lead for the town and MD.
Walker said the additions would ultimately save money because the grant would cover up to 60 per cent of total construction costs — if council receives the grant.
The recreation centre currently runs year-round, and project supporters say the new amenities would offer a more robust selection of activities.
The borrowing bylaw must be put to a public hearing and two more readings at chambers, according to the Municipal Government Act.
If passed, opponents would have 30 days to challenge the borrowing bylaw, according to finance director Wendy Catonio.
A proposed wind farm in Cardston County is facing opposition from a group of residents who say the project threatens the region’s sensitive environment and that their voices are being ignored as the project approaches the regulatory phase.
The project, dubbed Riplinger by Calgary electricity wholesaler TransAlta, has meanwhile drawn the attention of Pincher Creek’s MD, where the company will likely seek to build a transmission line, according to an information package sent last December to county residents within 1.5 kilometres of the project’s tentative boundaries.
The Riplinger farm would generate power from 46 wind turbines on 14,000 acres of private land roughly 30 kilometres southeast of Pincher Creek, the package states. James Mottershead, spokesman for TransAlta, later told Shootin’ the Breeze the project would involve 50 turbines.
Mottershead said TransAlta “introduced” Riplinger to the MD in May 2022, though the company has not filed an application with the Alberta Utilities Commission, which has broad authority to approve utility projects.
Many people who attended TransAlta’s public information session in Cardston County’s village of Hill Spring last Friday were asked to sign a petition circulated by Riplinger’s opponents.
“This is the wrong place for a wind farm,” Bill Merry said as locals steadily filed into the village community centre.
Merry said he was frustrated that TransAlta “has done absolutely the bare minimum in communicating with the project’s stakeholders,” many of whom Merry said live beyond Riplinger’s 1.5-kilometre radius.
“It’s like they’re trying to shove this under the rug,” he added.
Angela Tabak, who lives in the nearby hamlet of Mountain View, said she’d been networking with residents within the project radius, who can intervene if they notify the AUC that they will be directly and adversely affected by Riplinger.
Merry and Tabak said they hoped for a public hearing where TransAlta would be called to show its plans to protect migratory birds and other wildlife species, as well as the wetlands between the Waterton and Belly rivers. Fifty people had signed the petition roughly an hour after doors opened at the community centre.
Speaking to MD councillors at chambers on Feb. 14, Reeve Rick Lemire held up TransAlta’s information package, which outlines a host of federal and provincial bodies that will enter the regulatory process ahead of the MD and Cardston County.
“This is where we fit into the hierarchy of approvals — when everything else is done,” he told council.
The AUC can approve utility projects over the objections of local governments, according to Alberta’s Municipal Government Act.
“The commission takes into account local governments’ positions on projects, both when they support a project and when they oppose a project. It is incredibly helpful to the commission for municipalities to participate in the AUC’s decision-making process,” AUC spokesman Geoff Scotton told the Breeze.
Paul McLauchlin, president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta, takes a different view.
The AUC “ignores municipal planning authority on a regular basis,” he said earlier this month. “They actually institutionally ignore it.”
McLauchlin said renewable energy will play a critical role in southwestern Alberta’s economic future, adding that many food producers have welcomed projects like Riplinger because developers typically pay well to lease private land. That money spurs investment in ranches and farms, but McLauchlin warned that unchecked development on arable land would jeopardize regional food security.
James Van Leeuwen, who heads a power company in Pincher Creek and sits on the Southwest Alberta Sustainable Community Initiative’s board of directors, said Riplinger would be “unremarkable” if it weren’t tentatively sited near the Waterton Biosphere Reserve, an environmentally sensitive area designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1979.
“Waterton is an ecological gem,” he said.
Van Leeuwen participated in SASCI’s 2018 regional economic study, which was commissioned by Shell Canada, the Town of Pincher Creek and the Alberta Real Estate Foundation, shortly after Shell announced it would probably shutter its Waterton gas plant (Shell Waterton) by 2030.
Shell Waterton employed about 100 people when SASCI published its findings. Most lived in the town of Pincher Creek, while the plantgenerated about 20 per cent of tax revenue in the surrounding MD.
The study found that Shell Waterton generated 10 per cent of regional GDP, which renewable energy projects can’t match.
Van Leeuwen noted that renewable energy projects might pose similar environmental impacts at the construction phase, especially because concrete and steel bear heavy carbon footprints.
“But that’s not the point,” Van Leeuwen said. “What we’re looking at are the impacts over the lifetime of the infrastructure and for renewable energy.… We’re displacing a high-impact energy source with a low environmental impact energy source.”
Speaking at last Friday’s info session in Hill Spring, James Mottershead said TransAlta hasn’t finalized plans for Riplinger, including the proposed transmission line.
Ryan Desrosiers, an environmental consultant retained by TransAlta, said the line would probably come through the MD. Transmission lines are regulated by the AUC in conjunction with the Alberta Electric System Operator, according to Geoff Scotton.
Desrosiers said TransAlta hopes to host an information session in the MD sometime this spring.
TransAlta hopes to submit its application for Riplinger to the AUC by June, according to Mottershead.
Pincher Creek’s MD is pausing recreational development pending a review of the district’s land use bylaw.
Council voted last month to put off decisions on all rezoning applications for rural recreational development through the end of June, or until council updates the MD’s land use bylaw. The resolution, tabled by deputy reeve Tony Bruder, follows a recent spate of applications by residents and outside entrepreneurs hoping to launch tourist ventures on MD ranchlands, especially campgrounds.
Ranchers who opposed a rezoning bid by the Waterton outfitter Blak Star Globes had called for a rezoning freeze at a public hearing last November.
Council voted down Blak Star’s application in December, but approved a broadly similar rezoning at the same meeting.
“The perception was that we were picking winners and losers,” Reeve Rick Lemire told Shootin’ the Breeze on Feb 8.
Lemire said the MD has heard from a number of hopeful rural recreational developers since the new year, prompting council to take a beat while it hashes out a consistent policy framework.
Council had planned to update its land use bylaw, which outlines zoning, as part of its upcoming strategic plan — a long-term priority, according to Lemire.
Seven rezoning applications came through council in 2022, five of which were approved, according to MD spokeswoman Jessica McClelland.
The Covid-19 pandemic thrashed Alberta’s tourist economy, plunging tourist spending from $8.2 billion in 2019 to $4.9 billion in 2020 — a 43 per cent decrease, according to Travel Alberta.
But the industry is recovering — tourist spending hit $5.7 billion in 2021 — in part because pandemic travel restrictions inadvertently drew Albertans to camping spots in the Pincher Creek area.
“There’s going to be lots of rezoning applications coming, so we need to look at them with a refreshed perspective,” Lemire said, explaining that council went through a similar process when windmills started to crop up in the MD.
“We did a study that showed us where we wanted windmills to go and where we didn’t want them to go. So, we’re doing something similar here for campgrounds.”
Developers can still file rezoning applications in the interim, but a staff report appended to council’s Jan. 13 agenda notes that “Council has the right to refuse them at first reading.”
A small crowd of people filtered through the doors of MD council chambers on April 12, chattering excitedly, filling the room with more noise than it had seen in years, to witness local resident Dave Friesen receive a certificate of appreciation for his significant contributions to society and his service to the RCMP.
Flanked by friends and family members, Dave Friesen, age 93, made his way to the front of the room and accepted the certificate from Reeve Rick Lemire, as onlookers applauded and cameras flashed. Coun. Harold Hollingshead, who first proposed the idea of the ceremony, shook his hand.
Friesen was an exceptional RCMP officer, dedicating his life to pursuing justice for victims of residential schools, at a time when many were content to ignore uncomfortable truths. He was a trailblazer, who, back in the late 1950s, started one of the first-known investigations into a residential school predator — possibly the only such RCMP investigation made prior to the 1980s.
In 1957, Friesen was transferred to Watson Lake, Yukon, where he investigated cases of sexual abuse involving a staff member at a residential school in northern British Columbia and Indigenous boys. He was relentless in his pursuit of justice, and thanks to his steadfast efforts, a dozen survivors were able to win their lawsuit against the school.
“Sixty-seven years later, these boys are vindicated. They spoke the truth and the truth came out. I appreciate what this council has accepted. Thank you very much,” said Friesen, addressing the crowd at council chambers.
Lower Post Indian Residential School
Friesen, a corporal, arrived in Watson Lake with his wife, Pat, newborn daughter Shannon and three-year-old daughter Trish. The newly built Lower Post Indian Residential School was located half an hour south of the community. Although it lay just across the border in northern B.C., it still fell within his jurisdiction.
It was run from 1951 to 1975 by the Catholic Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who operated 48 residential schools across the country, including the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, where 751 unmarked graves were discovered, and the Kamloops Indian Residential School, where the probable gravesites of 200 Indigenous children were found, both last year.
At the time, Friesen was already well aware of the poverty many Indigenous Peoples faced, and he had no doubt that powerful institutions such as government and churches were seeking to erase Indigenous ways of life through cultural and religious assimilation.
Growing up in the Fort Garry district of Winnipeg in the 1930s, he had many Métis friends and witnessed the ill treatment that befell them.
From 1952 to 1957, he worked in Whitehorse, and prior to that in rural Alberta near Cardston — communities where he came to believe the church had more sway and influence than the police. Friesen attributes this power imbalance to the fact that RCMP officers were often transferred frequently and were never able to spend much time in one place.
“We would spend two, three years at any detachment. The priests and the mission, they were there for 35, 40 years,” he explains.
Friesen’s daughter Shannon, who grew up in remote northern communities has similar recollections.
“The church was the lord and master of the community. They were the law. They decided what did and did not happen in the community,” she says.
So great was the church’s influence, that Friesen deliberately avoided attending services because he didn’t want local Indigenous people to associate him with it.
From the outside, Lower Post looked like any other school: a modest rectangular-shaped brick building with stark white paint. But inside, children faced abuse and ill treatment.
At the time, over 100 Indigenous students attended, coming from 40 different communities across the Yukon and northern B.C. The area was home to Kaska Dena, an Athabascan-speaking ethnolinguistic First Nations group made up of five local bands.
Friesen had no way of knowing that abuse within residential schools was a Canada-wide issue at that time, but he was suspicious of one of the school’s employees, who he believed was a predator.
The employee was 34-year-old Ben Garand, a lay brother who was the boys’ supervisor. As Friesen acquainted himself with the community, he caught wind of Garand’s disreputable reputation. Unsavoury rumours had led locals to nickname him “Backdoor Benny,” and, Friesen noted, he was almost always in the company of Indigenous boys, offering them rides in his Plymouth.
Friesen trailed Garand in his cruiser, monitoring all his activities, and for a while he was never able to charge him with anything. Opportunity came when he observed Garand leave the local liquor store with a few Indigenous boys in his car and head out on the highway towards his cottage in northern B.C.
Friesen followed them, planning to charge Garand for transporting alcohol across a provincial boundary. When he arrived at the cottage, he found Garand and four Indigenous boys with multiple bottles of liquor, and alcohol-related charges were laid against Garand.
In the days that followed, he interviewed the boys. Most of them were reluctant to talk, all save one, who recounted enough information for Friesen to lay a charge of indecent assault against Garand.
Friesen expanded his investigation, interviewing more than 30 students at the school. Many confirmed the rumours that Garand would often assault young boys at his cottage.
Once he had gathered enough information, he paid a visit to Father Yvon Levaque, principal of the school, to discuss the investigation. Friesen expected him to be sympathetic to his cause, but says that much to his surprise, Levaque admitted he’d known about the sexual abuse all along, but instead of reporting Garand to the police, the school had decided to fire him and keep things quiet.
“I wanted to protect the church and the school,” said Levaque, according to Mr. Friesen’s recollection.
Friesen was furious and stormed out of the school.
“That was my only interview with Father Levaque,” he says.
From that point forward, whenever Garand was released on bail, Friesen would charge him and lock him up again. By 1958, Garand had four counts of indecent assault against him.
A trial to convict Garand of sexual abuse was scheduled in Prince Rupert, B.C., for Dec. 9, 1958. The boys Friesen had found in the cabin planned to testify. Friesen and the Crown both thought there was a solid case against Garand, but the boys suddenly and inexplicably retracted their testimonies and the case was closed.
“One after the other, they went up to the stand and wouldn’t testify,” Friesen remembers.
Even more puzzling to Friesen was the fact that none of the boys’ parents would talk either. He began to suspect that Levaque or someone else at the school had threatened them to keep them quiet, but he was never able to prove it.
“A lot of people, they just turned a blind eye without a second thought,” Shannon recalls. But with her father, “it was eating him up and it bothered him for years.”
Memories follow as Friesen moves on
Friesen and his family eventually left Watson Lake and served in many different Arctic communities, including Coppermine, Yellowknife, Hay River and Fort Smith, but he never forgot the boys and the case continued to haunt him. He maintained a mistrust of church officials whenever they interacted with local Indigenous groups.
He remembers one incident in particular, in 1964, where three Indigenous boys escaped while being transferred to the Missionary of Holman Island in the Northwest Territories. Friesen was asked to find them, but he wanted no part in it and asked the church to send them home to their families.
“I said the best thing you can do is to get a hold of the diocese in Inuvik, charter a plane and pick the boys up and send them back,” he remembers.
In the end, the boys never returned to the school.
While living in Coppermine, N.W.T. — now called Kugluktuk —he found out that the local Anglican church was bribing Indigenous children by offering them skates in exchange for attending religious services. Friesen appealed to his friends in Manitoba and his brother-in-law in Saskatchewan to help him procure hockey equipment and he built his own rink, so the Indigenous children could skate without the pressure of religious assimilation.
Friesen and his family had a special relationship with local Inuit people.
“We would walk into a tent and they’d feed us and they’d entertain us,” Shannon says. “They’d tell us all these spiritual stories. They’re very spiritual people and you could feel it. They have this intuition built into them.”
Shannon recalls that her father would often be gone for weeks at a time, journeying across the Arctic by dog sled to police remote communities, and that the shaman, whose name was James, always knew when he was about to return.
“He’d stand on the beach and I’d say, ‘Dad’s coming!’ He knew and within an hour you’d see dad’s dog sled,” she says.
Friesen retired in 1973 and moved to the Cowley area shortly after, putting down roots at a farm in the Porcupine Hills, which he affectionately named Dunmovin.
An opportunity for justice
He never expected to revisit Garand’s case, but in December 1995, just before Christmas, he opened the Calgary Herald, only to find out that a lawyer from Whitehorse had launched a lawsuit on behalf of 12 Indigenous men who had attended the school in their youth. The lawyer was appealing for help to locate the documents of the original investigation.
Friesen contacted the lawyer and informed him to communicate with the Watson Lake RCMP in order to find the investigation documents. The RCMP responded to the lawyer within hours, and told him they already had a substantial file on Garand.
Const. Paul Richards, who was stationed in Watson Lake, told Friesen that two people had come forward in the early 1990s, naming Garand and another man — George Maczynski, who had taught at the school prior to Friesen’s arrival — as sexual offenders.
The two men were charged and a trial was scheduled in Terrace, B.C., in December 1995. Maczynski was sentenced to 17 years in prison for 28 counts of indecent assault and gross indecency, among many charges. Garand died of illness while imprisoned at Mountain Institution Penitentiary, and never faced trial.
While news of Garand’s death provided Friesen with little satisfaction, the lawsuit went ahead. The 12 Lower Post survivors sued the government, the church, Levaque, Garand and others for the abuse they faced, and the evidence that Friesen had meticulously compiled proved instrumental in the case.
It was one of the earliest known residential school lawsuits in Canadian history and the survivors were henceforth known as the Trailblazers.
It wasn’t until last year, however, that Mr. Friesen found out why the boys had withheld their testimonies. Patrick White, a journalist for the Globe and Mail who investigated the court case, found that the boys were told that if they took the stand, their lives would be threatened.
The Lower Post Indian Residential School ceased operation in 1975, after which it became a community administration building, but it was only last year that the Kaska Nation began its journey to healing.
Harlan Schilling, deputy chief of the Daylu Dena council, oversaw the demolition of the building in a ceremony last summer. The community has plans to build a new space on the grounds — a multi-use facility where locals can enjoy Indigenous cultural activities like beading, traditional storytelling and tea with the elders, and where survivors can heal and youth can learn the history of their people.
Kaska First Nation gave the local RCMP gifts of beaded orange-and-black tags that read Dene Ts’i-Négedī Koą, meaning “Helping People Build.” It replaced Kaska’s former pejorative for the RCMP, which was “takers of children.”
This message was restated on the certificate of appreciation the MD council gave to Mr. Friesen.
“Yours was one of the first steps to take us from where we were, to where we stand today, and will not be forgotten,” it read. “We have moved from ‘takers of children’ to ‘Helping People Build,’ because of individuals such as yourself. Well done sir.”
Editor’s note: Dave Friesen passed away June 10, 2022, three weeks after this article was published. View obituary.
He was also posthumously awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Medal in December 2022. Read article.
This article was first published in the May 18 issue of Shootin’ the Breeze.
The province is eagerly promoting a tax credit for Alberta’s agricultural processing industry, but food producers in Pincher Creek and neighbouring MD will likely see marginal benefits, according to local government officials.
The initiative will spur the industry through a 12 per cent non-refundable tax credit on corporate investments in Alberta processing plants of $10 million or more, Agriculture Minister Nate Horner said at a press conference Feb. 8.
“At a higher level, this means that we’re not putting raw commodities in train cars and then shipping it away,” Horner said, taking aim at Alberta’s “competitor states” in Idaho, Colorado and Texas.
Alberta farmers had the highest operating revenue in Canada in 2020, with processed exports hitting $6.4 billion the year before, according to Statistics Canada and the Government of Alberta. Raw exports, known as primary commodities, slumped by nearly 10 per cent in 2019, amounting to $5.3 for the year.
Agribusiness in the MD is driven by ranching and grain cropping for animal feed and seed oil, all of which are primary exports, Reeve Rick Lemire told Shootin’ the Breeze.
“I’m not sure how (the tax credit) would benefit us,” Lemire said, noting that any bump to regional agri-processing could indirectly boost local production.
Marie Everts, economic development officer at the Town of Pincher Creek, said on Feb. 10 that local food producers may not have the capital to invest $10 million in their farms or ranches.
“There are obviously going to be places that will see more of a benefit,” Horner granted. The minister qualified that southwest Alberta ranchers can expect higher demand from the region’s beef processing hub in High River.
Horner anticipates an immediate eight per cent return on investment to Alberta taxpayers on the one hand, and a healthy boost to provincial food security on the other.
Multimillion-dollar food processing plants can stay in business for between 40 and 50 years, he explained.
Beef dominated Alberta’s agricultural exports in 2019 in terms of value, climbing 18 per cent year over year to hit $2.4 billion, the GOA reported in 2020. Ranchers, meanwhile, shouldered the province’s biggest share of agricultural operating expenses, shelling out $8.1 billion, or roughly 42 per cent of total farm expenses, according to Stats Can.
Wheat was Alberta’s second-highest agricultural export in 2019, followed by canola seed, crude canola oil and live cattle. Annual wheat exports fell by 13 per cent in value and 10.5 per cent in quantity, according to the provincial government.
Danielle Smith announced last June that she would set the plan in motion if she won the United Conservatives’ leadership campaign, which she did in October.
Premier Smith instructed Ellis in a November mandate letter to “launch an Alberta Police Service” with Justice Minister Tyler Shandro and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs.
Smith further mandated Ellis, himself a former police officer, to work with local law enforcement and municipal governments to “establish a regional approach to policing in Alberta.”
“There’s no decision that’s been made to establish an Alberta Police Service,” Ellis told Shootin’ the Breeze at a virtual press conference Jan. 24.
The minister said all options are on the table when it comes to curbing rural crime, pointing to Alberta Sheriffs’ success in pulling about 2,220 suspected impaired drivers off provincial highways in the last year and a half.
“The reality is that the RCMP are struggling to meet the needs of Canadians when it comes to policing,” Ellis said, later adding, “The problem is that the RCMP just do not have enough human beings to provide their contracted services.”
Local heads of government disagree — forcefully, in some cases.
“I can’t see how making changes in our provincial policing will have a positive effect on our community,” Crowsnest Pass Mayor Blair Painter told the Breeze.
“We’re 100 per cent behind the RCMP,” Reeve Rick Lemire said on behalf of the Municipal District of Pincher Creek.
Town mayor Don Anderberg preferred not to stake a position at all, citing that town council hadn’t deliberated the issue.
Previous councils had expressed concerns about low staffing levels at Pincher Creek RCMP, but Anderberg said the town has always had “a great working relationship” with the detachment.
The Rural Municipalities of Alberta, which represents 69 rural counties and municipalities, including Crowsnest Pass and the Municipal District of Pincher Creek, wrote in a winter 2023 policy statement that “The creation of a provincial police force should not take place unless a detailed feasibility study proves that such an approach will reduce provincial and municipal policing costs and enhance service levels across the province.”
The government’s own findings show that it would cost an estimated $366 million to create an APS and move away from the RCMP. The same report, published by Price Waterhouse Coopers in 2021, concluded that it would cost between $24 million and $49 million less to operate an established APS per year versus the RCMP’s current annual costs, assuming a 20 per cent pay bump in the RCMP’s new collective bargaining agreement with the federal government.
Regional crime is already down considerably across the region, according to the most recent statistics from Crowsnest Pass and Pincher Creek RCMP. As the Breeze reported in the new year, reported incidents of property crime and so-called persons crime (which accounts for assault, sexual assault, kidnapping, muggings, uttering threats and criminal harrasment) are at five-year lows, according to Pincher Creek RCMP’s Sgt. Ryan Hodge.
Crowsnest Pass RCMP’s Sgt. Rendell Guinchard reported similar drops across both categories over the summer.
Both commanders regularly consult with municipalities in their jurisdictions.
Minister Ellis repeatedly praised members of law enforcement, especially Alberta Mounties.
“As a former police officer, myself, I personally didn’t care what uniform I was wearing,” he told reporters. “I just wanted to make sure that I was providing good service to the people that I was representing.”
MD of Pincher Creek council last month approved a rezoning application to expand a gravel pit in Villa Vega, a subdivision in the southwest corner of Division 5, near the intersection of Highway 3 and Highway 507.
The rezoning changes the lot’s land use designation from agriculture to direct control by council through an amendment to the MD’s land use bylaw, advancing the proposed expansion to the development permitting phase.
Craig Anderson filed the application in August on behalf of Alberta Rocks Ltd. Council unanimously rejected a similar application by the company roughly two years ago, according to Reeve Rick Lemire.
Lemire reminded council that the MD hadn’t approved the original gravel pit when it was sunk into the ground about 15 years ago. The lot owner shut the pit down after a sternly worded letter from the MD, but Lemire says the land was never reclaimed.
Alberta Rocks hopes to dig a new pit on the site to extend roughly five hectares. Anderson’s application promises to fill in the pit after it’s retired and then establish suitable ground cover to prevent erosion.
The application says operations would run from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. throughout the week, with no operations on weekends or statutory holidays. There will be no gravel crushing on-site. The application details a September 2019 sound test that showed “low sound levels” during pit operations.
The application says the pit is “downwind” from most Villa Vega homes, but doesn’t include specific plans for dust mitigation.
The application triggered a public hearing in October, minutes of which show Anderson suggesting he’d use dust-control products.
Five of Anderson’s neighbours spoke against the rezoning, raising concerns about noise, dust and unwelcome neighbourhood disruptions.
When council took up Anderson’s application on Dec. 13, Lemire said he couldn’t support the rezoning.
“This project was denied two years ago,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, the same conditions are still there.”
Lemire acknowledged that redesignating the lot under direct control gives council broad authority to impose strict conditions, but said the MD doesn’t have the resources to enforce compliance.
“I just don’t think we have the manpower to do all that at this time,” he explained.
Deputy reeve Tony Bruder also voted against the application, with Couns. David Cox, Harold Hollingshead and John MacGarva voting in favour.