Paul St. Pierre, B.C.’s superb chronicler of the beautiful Chilcotin and its all-too-human characters, passed away last July. But friends and family waited until Sunday, the weekend of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, to formally say goodbye to the former Vancouver Sun columnist, Liberal MP, gifted writer and, in the words of publisher Scott McIntyre, “accomplished shit-disturber.”
The timing was no accident, clearly a request from the man, himself, who considered Mexico a second home. He particularly relished that country’s Day of the Dead (Nov. 1), an annual holiday set aside for prayers, cemetery visits and celebration of the deceased, replete with ubiquitous, symbolic skulls. No doubt, it appealed to St. Pierre’s life-long love of the off-beat.
So Mexican snacks, a mariachi band and, yes, skulls, were prominent at the packed gathering inside the historic community hall in Fort Langley, where St. Pierre lived for many years. Even some of the goodies depicted those good old skulls, complete with gleaming eyes. It was a good, relaxed, shambling event, of a kind the guest of honour would certainly have enjoyed, if he happened to be peering in from the nearby cemetery, where his gravestone is inscribed: “This was not my idea.”
Since St. Pierre lived past the age of 90, few contemporaries were there to “tell lies” about their old friend, except for 95-year old Ron Rose, who knew him well from their many years at the Vancouver Sun. The ageless “Ramblin’ Rose” brought the house down with his well-delivered tales of life in the outdoors with his irascible companion. After describing one long weekend of hunting and fishing misadventures at St. Pierre’s tumbledown Chilcotin cabin, with only whiskey and canned salmon for nourishment, Rose concluded: “We drove all night back to Vancouver. After a couple of hundred miles, I noticed he wasn’t talking. I asked if he was mad at me. ‘Shut up,’ he said. ‘Can’t you tell I’m writing my column?’”
On another occasion, St. Pierre, with his freshly-earned pilot’s licence, offered to fly Rose from Victoria to Vancouver in a little Cessna for Thanksgiving. The confident new pilot told Rose the flight was a snap. “Paul said it was all right to fly across the strait if you climbed until you reached the middle, so you could coast back either way if the engine quit.”
Said Rose: “We survived one scrape after another by dint of the indomitable cussedness that made him unique. He was just what he seemed, and you couldn’t ask for a rougher diamond.”
We learned other things about Paul St. Pierre.
As he grew older, he took to calling libraries to see if they still stocked his books. When he phoned the library in his hometown of Halifax, he was pleased to find they did have a few Paul St. Pierre books on their shelves. He then asked what they knew about the author. “Oh, he’s dead,” the librarian replied.
He was never one to mince words. A Fort Langley writer recalled her first volume of verse being reviewed by the eminent St. Pierre in the local paper. “It was a scathing review, the worst I’ve ever had,” she said. Many years later, she hadn’t quite forgiven him, but she looked at things differently. “He made me realize writers need a tough skin. I learned something. So today, I thank him for that bad review.”
Mischief was no stranger to the great, man. We heard of a single mom with a couple of kids who was enamoured of his writing. A friend took her favourite book to St. Pierre and asked him to sign it. She explained how much her friend loved his books, and that she was a single mother. After asking her friend’s name, he wrote in the book: “Dear Mary Lou. Thank you for that beautiful weekend in Vegas. Paul St. Pierre.”
In his latter years, St. Pierre used a motorized scooter to get around. Notorious for driving as fast as he wanted, regardless of the speed limit, he asked a nephew to tinker with his scooter. “Make it go faster,” he ordered. He liked going to Wal-Mart and “accidentally” running into store displays, knocking them askew.
The same writer whose poetry St. Pierre had reviled also noted that a year or two before he died, he showed up at a public meeting in a wheelchair to oppose the three-storey Coulter Berry building proposed for Fort Langley’s historic downtown. “The character of Fort Langley will be gone,” he told the meeting. “We really need a three-storey store like we need a cholera outbreak.” Said the women: “He was an activist in his local community to the end.”
Then, as the rain pelted down outside, the band began to play. After that, the sombrero-topped Mariachi members led a damp, musical procession from the community hall to the cemetery a block away. Despite the rain, about 50 mourners/celebrants gathered around Paul St. Pierre’s grave in the deepening, late afternoon gloom. They placed candles, they remembered, they drank tequila, they went home. And It was good.
(if you want to learn more about this great writer from a long-ago era, read Tom Hawthorn’s fine Globe and Mail obit here)