On January 13, 1985, Cst. Allen Garry Giesbrecht uttered his last words in an Edmonton hospital after being shot earlier that evening while attempting to arrest a suspect in Vegreville, Alberta. Days later, on a cold Friday morning, he was piped into the history of the Force, and Canada, leaving friends and family to mourn.
A 5th generation Canadian, Al grew up in a multi-cultural north Winnipeg neighborhood with his parents Allen and Lucy, brother Jerry and devoted younger sister Linda. Born in 1953, he was a product of the post-war baby boom.
As a teen, Al joined Air Cadets, where flying and flight instruction nurtured a dream of one day having a pilot’s licence. Perhaps things common to military and para-military organizations of the time influenced his decision to join the RCMP.
Al graduated from high school in 1971. A future colleague remembers him working in a fast-food restaurant for a short time. By early April 1973, just shy of his 20th birthday, and singing along with Bob Seger, Al and future troopmate Bob Ogilvie were driving west bound to Regina to start their careers as Mounties.
They joined the 1st troop of the 2nd 100 years of the Force. Their first stops were no doubt for haircuts and a mountain of kit. Working and living in close quarters for six months, the troop experienced a demanding curriculum of history, law, forensics, firearms, drill, self-defense, fitness, swimming, polishing, deportment, and discipline. They developed an indescribable camaraderie while calorie requirements turned them into human food processors.
Queen Elizabeth II visited Depot in a horse drawn landau, on July 5th, 1973. She presented a new Guidon to the Force during a colorful parade that included Al and his troopmates in Red Serge and Stetsons.
Over 49 years later, memories are vague, but the consistent ones of Al are of a positive, easy to like person - and that smile! His respectful absence of contrition during caricature displays of “anger” by drill instructors may have impressed them as he was appointed the Troop Right Marker for the last third of training, recognizing leadership abilities.
Boys became men and peace officers as 29 of 32 from across Canada were presented their badges, in the presence of family and friends, and headed off to their first postings. Al was headed to Slave Lake, Alberta, where someone special would enter his life.
Troop #1 graduated and left Depot in October 1973 for their postings. Accompanied by troop mate David Asp, Cst. Allan Giesbrecht arrived at Slave Lake, Alberta while Dave continued north to High River.
Slave Lake was a town of 2,836 located on the southeast shore of Lesser Slave Lake about 250 kms north of Edmonton via an unpaved road. With an economy relying, in part, on the logging and oil industries, pay days were dependably busy at the local hotel bar.
Al joined a busy detachment that policed several towns, First Nations communities and a wide rural area. It provided him with a wide variety of field training experiences, applying, and further developing good people skills. Overnight patrols were made to back country remote parts of the detachment where accommodation might be at a the Wabasca-Desmarais Rectory and travel could involve a floatplane, or a winch equipped 4x4. Both investigative and winching skills were developed.
In the spring of 1974, Al and another member volunteered to coach the Starettes, a local women’s fastball team. Whether driven by a love of ball or ulterior motive, it was a decision that would change his life and that of player Susan Boisvert.
Al and Susan began going out in the summer of 1974 and maintained a long-distance relationship during semesters when she began attending the University of Lethbridge in the fall. Susan was attracted to his fun-loving and good sense of humour but observed he could be gullible at times. Sports was the biggest connection between them, particularly cross-country and downhill skiing, and running.
They continued their relationship as he was transferred to Grande Prairie and Grimshaw for short periods and then to Peace River in 1976. Between those he attended the Musical Ride Equitation Course and, though a good rider, realized a preference for policing back in Alberta rather than the spit and polish reminiscent of Depot days.
By then Al was described as good at de-escalating situations, a good investigator who did things right and someone you wanted as a friend. He was even tempered when dealing with the public and always trying to find the positive in people, keeping them relaxed and off their guard.
At Peace River, Al started out in the detachment but moved to the GIS. His partner, Glen Zubek, also a North Winnipeg boy, recalled an investigation where he and Al, in white shirts and ties, crawled through the bush to watch suspects shooting at a stolen safe with a rifle and then, armed with snub-nosed revolvers, charged in to arrest them when the moment was right.
Al played and coached Fastball where his team won the RCMP Sub-Division league in 1978. He thought curling was silly but enjoyed skating. Though described as “a pylon on skates”, he played hockey and broomball tenaciously but enjoyed refereeing more, a role he was introduced to and practiced with Pete Wlodarczak out of Peace River and later at Vegreville.
Susan continued her education at Lethbridge, and their long-distance relationship, graduating and returning to Slave Lake in 1978. She and Al married in July 1979 and travelled through Europe on a 5-week honeymoon. Making a home in Peace River, Susan taught school for several years, pausing when their son Adam was born in 1982.
Al met Correctional Officer Doug Rhyason while posted at Grimshaw. Through common interests, ride-alongs and working out together, their friendship blossomed. Doug described Al as lacking pretense and a jovial well-liked guy – a journeyman versus professional policeman – whose demeanor caused people to like him and solved many problems. Al influenced Doug in a career move to Edmonton Police Service, while maintaining their friendship. Their wives became close friends, and it was the potential to be closer to these Edmonton friends that influenced Al’s interest in Vegreville.
In early 1984, Al and Susan were expecting their second child and excited to be moving to Vegreville and closer to the Rhyasons. Al preceded Susan, who joined him at the end of the school year. Having endured the upheaval of the transfer, they were blessed in October with the birth of their son Tony.
Friday, January 18, 1985, was a cold and somber day in Slave Lake, Alberta, the hometown of Susan Giesbrecht. As the bagpipes mourned and the trumpet sounded, her husband was laid to rest in the snow-covered cemetery overlooking the town.
Five days earlier, accompanied by three other members, Cst. Al Giesbrecht had entered a house in Vegreville, Alberta to investigate a serious matter. Moments later, shots rang out from a darkened room, leaving him seriously wounded and another member injured. Despite valiant efforts to save him, Al died at an Edmonton hospital hours later, leaving a devastated community of family, co-workers, friends, and citizens.
It was described as the largest police funeral Canada had seen to date with attendance estimated at between 1,500 and 2,000, including masses of scarlet clad RCMP, other police and law enforcement personnel and prison guards, from across Canada. Family, friends, and a grateful community completed the sad mourners who filled the church, school, airport, and other community facilities to their limits that day. A devastated Susan, having been convinced by her mother to attend the funeral, has memories of a sea of red serge, the cemetery and receiving the folded flag of Canada and Al’s Stetson, that she has to this day.
Alberta’s “K” Division RCMP Commanding Officer, Assistant Commissioner Dave Whyte summarized the day saying, “the closer the tragedy is to us, the more difficult it is to bear. The loss of Allen Giesbrecht has left us all shattered.”
Local newspaper man Dan Beaudette described himself as numb for a month. He knew Al personally as a great guy who was willing to sit down and talk about his point of view, a blessing for a newspaper so dependent on the RCMP for information. Al Burchill, the senior RCMP member in the area remembers the sadness and anger in the community, weeks after the tragedy.
A tight knit, fun loving detachment, the Vegreville members, particularly those with Al that day, were numb for several months and though well supported by neighboring detachments in the early days, had to carry on to the extent possible. Adopting some recommendations of detachment commander Peter Wlodarczak, the Force improved its support for all members connected to future incidents of this nature.
Though numbed for a year, Susan, Adam, and Tony moved on with life. Susan served as a Slave Lake high school teacher and counsellor for 23 years and is completing a master’s degree in psychology. Adam and Tony, though too young at the time to understand things, felt the effects, at times, of not having a dad as they were growing up. Both have excelled in athletics, education and employment through their initiative and support of their family and friends.
Al Giesbrecht is remembered as a son, brother, husband, father, friend, and Mountie who gave his life in service to Canada. He was a good man and a Pillar of the Force.