It remains one of Canada’s largest Ponzi schemes in terms of the number of victims.
Now, the pigeon-breeding scam that bilked more than $70 million from investors, mostly farmers, from across Canada and the United States hits the stage this summer at the Blyth Theatre Festival in Ontario.
“This story speaks to so many critical pieces of contemporary farming in Canada,” said Gil Garratt, the festival’s artistic director, listing challenges, such as bad crop years, erosion of the farm population and farmers juggling off-farm work while dreaming of a return to full-time farming.
“And then you have somebody like Arlan Galbraith who walks in with an opportunity.”
For those who first hear of the scheme, many of its elements seem absurd. Garratt said one of the biggest challenges was how to strike a balance between respecting what happened to Galbraith’s victims and creating opportunities for cathartic relief for the audience.
Twice he approached local writers to work on the play, but they disclosed a personal connection.
So instead, the seven-member cast is writing the show and adding country music.
“This is going to have some pretty beautiful country ballads,” he said, while noting that it would not be a musical.
Once a hog and cattle farmer in Grey County, Galbraith’s business foundered in the 1980s. He hatched his pigeon-fleecing scheme in the early 2000s while working as a breeding technician on a hog operation in western Ontario.
He then peddled the idea of selling breeding pairs to investors and buying back the offspring as a way to help save the family farm.
By the mid 2000s, as prices for corn plummeted and more farmers sought off-farm work, the aspiring Pigeon King’s business took off, particularly in Amish and Mennonite communities in Ontario and the United States.
“He called it ‘pigeon religion’ and he’d hype this up almost like a little cult of pigeon growers and he really just convinced them,” Mark Wolfe, a former employee of Galbraith’s, said in 2008.
As the business progressed, doubts arose about where exactly all of these pigeons were ending up.
In early years, Galbraith said they were racing or sport birds or could be sold for soup. By 2007, he was outlining plans to build a processing facility in northern Ontario to slaughter young birds as squab, even though experts said the birds being bred were not suited for that purpose.
Ultimately, new investors were the only market for the birds and the cash contributed by new investors went to pay older investors.
A year later, Galbraith declared his business bankrupt. He declared personal bankruptcy in 2009.
Nearly 1,000 investors in the scheme, including farmers in Manitoba and Alberta, were left with nothing but pigeons.
Some released the birds; others euthanized them; still others ate them. And some victims lost their farms.
Galbraith was convicted of fraud in 2013 and sentenced in 2014 to seven years in prison. He obtained day parole a little more than a year later.
“There are a lot of outstanding questions,” said Garratt.
“There were cease-and-desist orders against Pigeon King International in Illinois and Iowa and Washington state. A lot of those came in as early as 2006, 2007. And it was another two years really before things collapsed here in Canada, before the RCMP got in-volved and started really doing some significant research into what was happening.”
To develop the play, the cast interviewed many farmers, but don’t expect to see victims identified in the show. Many didn’t want to share their experiences at all; those who did, did so on the condition of anonymity.
“So we’re being respectful of all of that,” Garratt said.
When it came to researching Galbraith, though, there is a wealth of documentation.
“He did a lot of talking to the public. There’s a ton of his own words that are out there in the world,” Garratt said.
“He made himself a kind of public figure.”
One aspect Garratt is keeping secret is how they plan to depict all the pigeons involved.
“You’re going to have to come see the show” to find out.
The Pigeon King runs Aug. 11 to Sept. 23 during the Blyth Festival, which has been extended by an extra week so it can run parallel with the International Plowing Match Sept. 19-23 in nearby Walton.