Pigeon King: One of Canada’s biggest scams gets the theatrical treatment at the NAC

The Pigeon King

A Blyth Festival manufacturing

When & the place: April 24 to May 5, Babs Asper Theatre, National Arts Centre

Tickets & occasions: nac-cna.ca or ticketmaster.ca

Severn Thompson thought she knew the tight-knit group round the city of Blyth in southwestern Ontario. Her grandparents used to have a farm in the space, and he or she spent most of her childhood summers in the recent air and pastoral panorama.

But the Toronto-based actor and director was shocked to listen to that one of the biggest scams in Canadian historical past originated in the identical area, not that way back, when neighbouring farmers had been amongst lots of throughout North America who misplaced thousands and thousands of in a scheme primarily based on breeding pigeons.

Yes, pigeons, these nuisance birds that plague cities round the world. For about seven years, beginning round 2001, an Ontario farmer named Arlan Galbraith was capable of persuade fellow farmers there was massive cash to be made in elevating pigeons.

It sounds ridiculous to urbanites, however to farmers in search of different income sources, it appeared like a good suggestion to domesticate new markets for the birds, whether or not as racing inventory or a meals supply. After all, as one farmer defined to Thompson, individuals by no means used to eat hen for dinner each evening both. Why not pigeon?

“Chicken in grocery stores was a new thing that farmers tried and sure enough, made a market for,” Thompson stated in an interview. “That really helped me understand it. Pigeons were seen as another group of livestock that you can raise to keep your life going on a farm, which is no easy task. Nothing is dependable on a farm as far as prices go, so when you have somebody coming around saying I will guarantee you this price, it’s hard to pass up.”

Severn is now directing her third manufacturing of The Pigeon King, a play primarily based on Galbraith and the way he duped so many farmers out of a lot cash. It premiered at the Blyth Festival two years in the past and was such an enormous hit that it returned final summer time. A run at the National Arts Centre begins April 24 and continues till May 5.

Rebecca Auerbach, J.D. Nicholsen and Gil Garratt. From the Pigeon King, a play about one of the biggest farming scams in Canada, through which Arlan Galbraith satisfied lots of of farmers to put money into pigeons. Photo: Terry Manzo



The story got here to her consideration from Gil Garratt, inventive director of the Blyth Festival Theatre, who additionally performs the lead position of Galbraith, after he examine it in The New York Times and acknowledged the storytelling potential. One of their first challenges in creating the play was to trace down of us keen to speak about the truth that they had been conned. 

“So many people around the town of Blyth had been directly affected by it and were not interested in talking,” Thompson stated. “Often the first reflex for people is to blame themselves and be ashamed. This was a considerable amount of money, often retirement savings, and it involved pigeons, which seems very silly to someone who doesn’t know the details. But it was something that tore families and relationships apart.”

Eventually Thompson and the relaxation of the artistic group (Garratt, Rebecca Auerbach, Jason Chesworth, George Meanwell, J.D. Nicholsen, Gemma James Smith and Birgitte Solem) had been capable of finding some victims keen to share their tales. They additionally acquired the audio recordings from Galbraith’s trial, which turned the “bedrock” of their analysis, as Thompson places it.

The play was written in rehearsal, a lot of it primarily based on the actors’ improvisation after listening to the trial recordings. The aim was to shine a light-weight on the complexities of the rip-off.

“The idea was maybe we can break through some of that shame and silence if we can accept it and take a look at it from different perspectives, to show that nobody was a fool about it,” Thompson stated. “Everybody had some very good reasons for getting on board. It felt like a really contemporary issue for today.”

One of the key elements in luring buyers was Galbraith, who represented himself in court docket and continues to take care of his innocence. “He came across as a very genuine person, as somebody who had farmed himself and knew what it was like to buckle under the pressures of farming. I think that made him somebody that other farmers could relate to,” Thompson stated.

“Also a lot of his customers were in the Amish and Hutterite communities, and there was something so winning about the idea of a low-tech business like raising pigeons. As livestock, they’re very hardy, they don’t need much to eat, they’re tough. There was something really attractive about using any barn or shed you might have available to make some extra money.”

In addition to the buyer-beware facet of this too-good-to-be-true funding story, there’s additionally a message for the Canadian regulatory system. Despite complaints about Galbraith’s enterprise, nobody took them critically for years.

“In the States, they caught on and shut it down,” Thompson stated. “But the system in Canada doesn’t appear to help actual investigation of questionable companies until the complaints are coming from (buyers) inside. The downside with schemes like that is that folks inside usually don’t discover till all of it falls aside.

“It can be wonderful if the authorities discovered methods of being more practical find these firms out.”

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