The Pigeon King returns to the Blyth Festival and raises questions about the self-proclaimed Pigeon King himself, Arlan Galbraith.
I’m not alone in my curiousity. Thousands of farmers signed contracts with Pigeon King International (PKI) and ended up stuck with countless unwanted birds and burdensome debt when PKI went bankrupt. Galbraith was later convicted of fraud and ended up jailed for what became known as Canada’s largest ponzi scheme.
It was and is quite a thing as some farmers are still paying off debt.
I had the opportunity to interview a few of Galbraith’s victims for this issue of The Rural Voice in connection with The Pigeon King’s revival for a second theatre season.
There is bitterness; shame over misguided trust; the disbelief that a man who initially seemed so well-intentioned, honest and a believer in the family farm did what he did.
Research into Galbraith and PKI reveals the man was a pigeon lover. He bred and raised pigeons for over 50 years, claiming to have developed his own genetic line which he called Strathclyde Genetics in connection with ancestral ties to Scotland.
He also suffered heartache and loss in his own life. The pig and cattle farm he started with his parents and brother went bankrupt in 1980. Nine years later, a car wreck left his wife a quadriplegic and Galbraith spent years caring for her and their two children until the couple divorced.
He knew loss and pain. He knew the suffering of losing a family farm.
When he launched PKI, Galbraith’s motto was trust. An early PKI flier contained the Biblical sounding quote: “He who does not trust is not to be trusted. My business is built on an everlasting trust.”
This is where one begins to shake their head and wonder at Galbraith’s motives. Did he start PKI with a grandiose vision and idealistic intentions of creating an end market for squab? Did the pigeon business burgeon into such a profitable enterprise that he was seduced by his own power and wealth and became the very antithesis of trust?
Near the end, before the bankruptcy, when his holding barns were packed with pigeons he could no longer sell, he maintained those flocks. He invested in tangibles when most ponzi schemes bank on intangibles.“This suggests that either he didn’t believe he was running a ponzi scheme or that he was just exceptionally bad at it,” stated Jon Mooallem in his article called Birds, published by the New York Times.
All that aside, what really convicted Galbraith in court and in the minds of farmers was his lack of remorse. He never apologized, then or since.
The judge at his trial said Galbraith appeared to “have a lack of insight into his serious criminal conduct” and absolutely no sympathy for his victims. There are also reports he ridiculed those who trusted him.
His motives are a grey area. He might well have loved pigeons, believed in the value of the family farm and wanted to play a role in combining the two.
Ultimately, though, he chose to do it in a way that was against the law. It’s not permissible to run a business built on shady intentions, that pockets farmers’ money for an end market that does not exist. Shuffling pigeons from one barn to the next, and making a huge profit while doing it, is not a legitimate or trustworthy business.
Hindsight, eh? I have no doubt if I’d had a open barn and saw an opportunity for extra income raising beautiful birds, I would have believed Arlan Galbraith too.
Because farmers, at heart, are trusting. They care for their livestock, their families and their communities. They just didn’t know that the man who espoused trust as a cornerstone of his business was not to be trusted.◊ ◊