'Pigeon King' story still close to the bone for some
BY LISA B. POT
Convicted fraudster Arlan Galbraith is the main character of The Pigeon King play that premiered at the Blyth Festival last season. However, as the theatre prepares for a remount of the hit play, the actor who plays Galbraith says the real story is about farmers.
“[Farmers] are really the heroes of the show,” said Blyth Festival Artistic Director Gil Garratt, who co-wrote the play and acts in it as well.
He will start shaving his head in May for his dynamic portrayal of Galbraith in a play that has just been picked up by the National Arts Centre in Ottawa for a three-week run as part of its 2018/2019 season. There is hope that the play will tour the country.
Garratt also hopes the farmers who raised pigeons for Pigeon King International (PKI), before it collapsed as one of Canada’s more virulent pyramid schemes, will come see it.
“During the first season, the play did what I hoped it would do... it ended up being a cathartic, healing experience for former pigeon farmers who came to see it,” said Garratt. “Instead of perpetuating their shame, it offered some relief.”
The Pigeon King scandal saw farmers across Canada and the United States in financial straits struggling with shame, bitterness and burdensome debt that some are still paying off. According to research done for the play, other farmers struggled with marital conflicts, emotional stress and trust issues after being conned by the persuasive Galbraith.
Meanwhile, Galbraith was convicted of fraud in March, 2014 for luring hundreds of farmers, many from the Mennonite and Amish communities, into his pigeon buy-back scheme. Paying lucrative prices for farmers to first raise racing, then meat pigeons, only to sell them to new investors without any end market in sight, Galbraith was sentenced to seven years in jail.
It’s estimated investors lost $20 million when the Waterloo-based offices of PKI closed. Farmers were stuck with thousands of birds and nowhere to sell them. Galbraith, a pigeon-breeder himself, was never recorded showing any remorse and has remained steadfast that it was a legitimate business venture. He promoted himself as a saviour of the family farm.
In the end, he also ended up personally bankrupt so there was no restitution for farmers who signed contracts with PKI.
The Pigeon King play follows the entire trajectory of Galbraith’s journey from passionate soliloquies on the importance of the family farm to bumbling attempts to defend himself when he acted as his own lawyer in court.
It was the farmers’ stories that Garratt really wanted to hear and that he went in search of for this story.
“It was really, really hard,” said Garratt. “They were still too upset to talk.” Some farmers were afraid the play would vindicate Galbraith and others were still too bitter as they continue to pay off debt.
“People are just so ashamed. I talked with one woman who said if someone drove by while she was mowing the lawn, she would hide behind the bushes because she didn’t want to be seen,” said Garratt.
It’s why he wanted the play to present some important themes. One, that it could have happened to anyone. Secondly, the precariousness of a family farm income that puts farmers in the line of fire and third, the “seductive optimism” of someone like Galbraith that drew farmers in.
“Farmers who got taken in were not fools or bad farmers,” said Garratt. “[Galbraith] went after communities that were inherently trusting; that relied on relationship and word of mouth.”
Still, if you were one of the farmers who trusted Galbraith, the fall-out has been harsh.
Using a pseudonym, ‘John’ said he would not be going to see the play because he still has a “bitter taste” in his mouth dating back to when he was left with years of debt and the sorry task of having to empty his barn of hundreds of birds he really enjoyed raising.
John and his family bought 500 breeding pairs under the meat-bird program to raise specialty squab. They got in early but lost 70 per cent of the young due to a disease in the birds the first year.
“We called PKI but they did not come out to help us. It was the local vets who came up with ideas to help us through that,” said John.
He never met Galbraith face to face, although he saw him speak at a meeting. “There was something about the guy I didn’t like. He was so smooth and buttery. Turns out I was right when I got that feeling.”
Later, he realized he had been buying basic farm pigeons as breeding stock from PKI; not at all meaty enough for a squab market.
John had, at first, really believed pigeon breeding was a legitimate business after visiting four other set-ups and researching for months. He had hoped to have 750 pairs in rented facilities. Both he and his wife had off-farm jobs.
“I was 52 when I went into it and 55 when it went belly up. How much time does a fella have at 55 to regain those losses?” he asked. He was in it early and long enough to pay feed bills but was left with a “hefty debt”. Looking back at those years, he remembers liking the work of raising pigeons. “All that cooing in the barn. It was a unique sound. Very serene.”
He doesn’t feel serene now. “When I think back I can feel the emotions. It was hard. I remember bawling the last time I did chores, but what do you do? You live and learn. The sun will rise again.”
Trust, though, is another matter. “I can tell you I find it very hard to trust people after that,” said John. “Human beings are the worst species on earth when they orchestrate things like that.”
He says the whole situation left a very sour taste in his mouth. “[Galbraith] was a smart man. Callous. I saw him on television and the interviewer asked him what he wanted to say to the farmers he hurt. You know what he said? He basically said we should ‘suck it up’ just like he had to.”
That was the final straw for John. “I’m surprised nobody went and shot him.”
Dave Sjaarda of Dungannon was another one of PKI’s victims but he has gone to see the play.
“I was really impressed with it. I don’t think they left anything out.” said Sjaarda, who did meet Galbraith when he was raising pigeons in the early 2000s. “We got in it early and we shipped 11 times so at the end of the day, we were only left with a debt of about $5,000.” Using an existing barn, his outlay for renovations was minimal.
Sjaarda recalls asking Galbraith about the end market. “He told me it was my business to grow the birds and his business was his business.”
He was starting to see the writing on the wall and wasn’t surprised when he did not receive payment for his 12th shipment.
His own losses withstanding, Sjaarda says he’s grateful he only invested in 250 breeding pairs. He knows of Mennonites living nearby who took a “real hammering”.
“You live and you learn,” said Sjaarda. “That Galbraith, he was sharp and definitely not a stupid man. But I can tell you I’d be more leery next time.”
Frank Hogervorst of Avonbank in Granton, Ontario is now settling into retirement but remembers sitting across the desk from Galbraith in the man’s home. “He seemed like a good, honest man.”
Feeling no qualms, and on recommendation from a friend, he signed a contract with PKI. It was, as Galbraith portrayed, an ideal family business. Hogervorst says when he thinks of that time, he mostly recalls how raising pigeons was a uniting family experience.
“We’d spend Saturdays in the barn cleaning the nests and it was great family time,” said Hogervorst, who, like Sjaarda, got into pigeons early.
“It was to be the kids’ project,” said Hogervorst. “We had an existing barn to renovate, borrowed $60,000 and bought 150 pairs of flyers.” The family was under contract to raise sport pigeons for PKI.
At first, the family couldn’t believe how lucrative the venture was. The work was easy and Galbraith’s buy-back of the young was incredibly profitable, allowing for a calculated return on investment (ROI) within two years.
That’s exactly what happened.
“Less than two years later it collapsed but we had our investment back out and the kids received a wage for the work,” said Hogervorst. “We were one of the lucky ones.”
Toward the end, he was beginning to realize what was really going on.
“At first, PKI was sending people (interested in raising pigeons) to see our barn and we were encouraging them. But when we looked at the end user and began to suspect this was a pyramid scheme, we told people not to get into it,” he said.
PKI soon stopped sending prospective clients to see the Hogervorsts.
Still deep in their investment, the Hogervorsts continued to sell young, but Frank warned his children the business would implode. It was just a matter of when.
“They certainly learned a lot about business during those two years,” said Hogervorst.
Looking back now, he wonders at Galbraith’s culpability.
“How could anyone develop such a scheme knowing it would hurt and ruin so many farm families?” he asked.
Many young farm families were looking at pigeons to get ahead in much the same way Hogervorst was: to give his kids a start via PKI. Later, though, when warnings of the scheme were published in magazines such as Better Farming, he wondered if it was tough for farmers not to resist the dream.
What happened with PKI is a word of caution to business owners. “When it looks too good to be true, it generally is. This turned out to be just like that.”
Hogervorst doesn’t doubt Galbraith’s culpability in bilking investors of millions of dollars.
“When you have a business there is either an end user or it’s a scheme. It has to be one or the other,” said Hogervorst. “If he has any innocence, he should have talked.”
Galbraith was a verbose man but he would choose when to talk or not according to Mary Baxter, part of a three-member team from Better Farming that broke the story back in 2007. Working with her were former colleagues Don Stoneman and Robert Irwin. Baxter is now TVO’s southwestern Ontario hub editor.
“If he wanted something from you, he’d talk. If he wasn’t interested, he would blow you off,” said Baxter. She said it was a challenging story to write because nobody wants to think ill of others and the farmers themselves were in a difficult place.
“The farming community is a proud community and they have many reasons to be proud,” said Baxter. “But people’s farms were in jeopardy and people were not happy with me. There was a lot of anger about the coverage.”
However, she’d learned that Galbraith’s former employees had warned him that what he was doing was very likely illegal. Yet Galbraith kept issuing pigeon contracts.
“[Galbraith] always seemed to have responses with enough plausibility to make you pause. It really was never black and white,” she said. “The greatest schemers are the ones who keep you guessing.”
That’s why her biggest understanding from writing the story is that people who get scammed are not stupid. “Everybody and anybody can get scammed. What I really liked about the play was how it respected the farmers involved; that it understood farmers are proud and didn’t want to be seen as victims. All the pigeon farmers ever wanted was to have a good business,” she said.
Providing a vehicle for farmers’ voices is key to the success of the play as the Festival prepares to launch the second season of The Pigeon King on May 30.
“When we did research for this play we listened to the trial and got to go though all the evidence,” said Garratt. “It became very clear that the story was different than the one Galbraith projected.”
However, the outward signs weren’t there. Galbraith did not bounce cheques. Pick-ups were regular and timely until the very end.
“And he was very affable,” said Garratt. “We talked to people who said the business part made them really upset and was a blow to their family, but they would still sit down and have a meal with Galbraith.”
Baxter believes the play has an important role in opening the conversation about what happened.
“It needs to be talked about and I hope the play will foster discussion in a gentler fashion, allowing farmers to talk in a way they could not do before,” she said.
Personally, as the actor who portrays Galbraith in the play, Garratt said it was exciting for him to have “free reign” to capture Galbraith’s showy personality. “I had many comments from people saying how much I was like Arlen.”
It was important to him to capture Galbraith’s likeability, because it was part of the scam; he was believable.
Of the farmers interviewed for the play, most were hesitant to talk and would not see the production. However, once word got out about how the play gave farmers a voice, it turned into a hit performance for the Festival.
“Obviously this play won’t give those farmers their farms back, but we hope it will give them some dignity back,” said Garratt.
With the National Arts Centre producing the play, there is resounding amplification for both the theatre and farmers.
“As a theatre artist and for the theatre company, this is a big, big deal,” said Garratt. “Then to take this play full of farmers and about farmers to the stage in the nation’s capital, well, that’s huge.”
The underlying message that is vital for an urban audience to see and hear is that farmers are attached to their animals.
“To have this play seen in an urban environment; showing that farmers do care about their animals, will have a profound impact,” said Baxter.
For more information on The Pigeon King or the Blyth Festival’s upcoming season, visit its website at www.blythfestival.com.