Canadian Consulting Engineer

First Nations Friend

"If he had been born in another century, there's no doubt about it, he would have been an explorer," says Stephen Nairne of his late father. David Nairne rode the Trans-Siberian Railway on a solo trip...

October 1, 2001   Canadian Consulting Engineer

“If he had been born in another century, there’s no doubt about it, he would have been an explorer,” says Stephen Nairne of his late father. David Nairne rode the Trans-Siberian Railway on a solo trip, climbed Kilimanjaro with his best friend for his 50th birthday and travelled the Yangtze River with his wife, Judy. He was open and accessible, Stephen says, describing how children flocked to his father when the two of them were trekking in Nepal. “He was very happy when he was travelling.”

David Nairne died in March at the age of 61 after a two-year battle with cancer of the pancreas. He was born in Port Alberni, B.C. and graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in civil engineering in 1964. His career began with Dominion Construction, where he happened to work with Ken Bell. When he started his own firm, David Nairne + Associates (DNA), in 1972, Bell joined him and they soon moved from structural work into civil engineering, later branching out into construction management and architecture.

Fred Dabiri, P.Eng., another partner in the firm, met Nairne across a table when Dabiri was negotiating for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada on behalf of a First Nations band. Nairne was representing the school board. While they were arguing over how much the school board could “squeeze out” of the federal department for three planned new schools, the community they were in was flooded and they were forced to help each other just to get out of the area. The two worked together frequently over the years when Nairne’s firm was hired to complete projects for various bands. In the early 80s Dabiri joined the firm. “We started doing more First Nations work. They were small projects, but they really had an impact (on people’s lives).”

Nairne’s “absolutely straightforward, honest approach” won him the trust of the First Nations communities in B.C. Stephen, who along with his father became friends with many of the firm’s clients, says the work becomes secondary to the relationships formed.

“David and the members of his firm, made a point of getting to know people,” says Amanda Reid-Stevens, the executive director of the Qua’llnagaay Heritage Centre Society in Skidegate, B.C. She worked with Nairne often over the past 25 years. “What I respected most about him, and there were many things, was his honesty,” she says “He didn’t tell you what you wanted to hear, he told you the truth, which isn’t always easy to do. And he was a great debater. I’d always end up snivelling,” she laughs. “He stayed calm while I would turn into a screaming banshee trying to make my point. He could say a lot in very few words.”

Nairne tried to give back to Native communities by hiring engineering graduates from First Nations. “But you could count them on the fingers of one hand,” Dabiri says. So the idea of establishing a scholarship for First Nations civil engineering students at the University of British Columbia was discussed before Nairne’s death, although Stephen says he would probably have been embarrassed to have it created in his name. “He was an extremely low-key guy. He knew the key to communication is not to speak, but to listen.” The David Nairne Scholarship is now established and will be given out yearly beginning in 2002.

Nairne’s practical, commonsense approach served him well in his career, and equally well as he faced his death. “He said ‘Don’t cry for me, I’ve had a wonderful life,'” Stephen recalls. “It has exceeded my expectations by so much.”Sophie Kneisel


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