Kat Fair expected a typical end to her work week.
The business manager of Queen City Shuttle and Charters began her Friday with the mundane task of working on payroll. Fair’s drivers, meanwhile, were shuttling out-of-town workers to the Teck facility in Trail, ferrying a Cranbrook school group to Kamloops and making the daily return trip from Nelson to the Castlegar airport.
Queen City, which was founded in 1997 and grew from two vehicles to a fleet of 13 in less than 10 years, was a profitable business that had become vital to regional transportation.
So there was no reason for her to expect anything out of the ordinary on the morning of May 10, when owner Alain Chiasson called Fair into his office.
What he said stunned her.
Chiasson told Fair he owed $50,000 in income taxes, was going bankrupt and planned to shut the company down the following Monday. At first, Fair thought Chiasson might be kidding. He’d made similar threats before.
“He would have over-the-top reactions and then you’d just wait for him to calm down,” she says.
Fair had Chiasson call in operations manager Craig Luke. When he repeated the news, Fair says Chiasson put his head down on the desk, exhaled and said he was relieved.
Luke, however, was livid.
“It was completely just needless. That’s what frustrated me,” says Luke. “He basically yard-saled the entire company because of his personal issues. He didn’t care at all about all the staff and the community he left behind.”
Fair and Luke decided to wait through the weekend to see if Chiasson was serious. There was no reason, they thought, to alarm Queen City’s other 22 employees just yet.
When she returned to work, Fair was again summoned by Chiasson. He reiterated his plans to shut down Queen City that day.
Fair told a co-worker the news and then left the office. “I was so angry I couldn’t think clearly,” she say.
Later that evening Chiasson, who declined multiple requests to speak with the Star for this story, made the shutdown official in an email to staff. Queen City Shuttle and Charters was no more.
Anyone who has tried visiting the West Kootenay knows just how difficult the trip can be.
The Castlegar airport’s takeoff and landing reliability fluctuates throughout the year depending on the weather (last January was considered a good month with a 65 per cent rate, up from 51 per cent the previous year). The 2018 closure of Greyhound ended a cost-effective route in and out of the region for low-income riders. The highways, in particular the mountain passes, can be dangerous to cross in winter.
So there was plenty of need for Queen City’s services. The company’s clients included school districts, Selkirk College, hockey teams such as the Nelson Leafs, ski resorts and tourism attractions such as Shambhala Music Festival.
“We had a lot of stuff going on and there was room for more,” says Fair. “The company was set to grow more if it had been managed properly.”
What made Queen City’s closure so shocking was that for nearly a decade its previous ownership grew and nurtured the business.
Mirek Hladik and June Ray were operating an adventure tourism company when they purchased Queen City in October 2010. At the time, the company had just three vehicles and two drivers.
Although Queen City’s services extended far beyond it, the company was best known and appreciated for its airport shuttle services to Castlegar and Spokane.
The shuttle, which Hladik described as a “headache,” didn’t make the company money. “But we kept running it because we knew how essential that service is and how many people rely on that,” says Hladik.
When the pair sold Queen City to Chiasson in February 2018 to concentrate on their other businesses, the company’s fleet had grown to six coach buses, four international vehicles and three shuttle vans.
Hladik and Ray thought they were selling a healthy business with the potential for significant growth. Because they helped finance Chiasson’s purchase, Hladik said they also received periodic financial updates on the company after the sale.
Hladik believes the company had already grown 30 per cent between the sale and its abrupt closure.
“We were shocked,” says Hladik. “There was absolutely no reason to shut it down in my opinion.”
It’s still a mystery to Hladik why his former company has gone under. Like everyone else, he hasn’t heard from Chiasson since May.
‘He was all ready to just be a part of Nelson’
J.M. Alain Chiasson was an unlikely owner of Queen City.
The Lameque, N.B., native was previously a partner at a Yellowknife firm where he practised corporate law with a specialty in mining industries.
But he appears to have left a career in law by the time he arrived in Nelson. A notice of suspension from the Law Society of the Northwest Territories dated June 16, 2018 states Chiasson failed to pay his membership assessment.
Hladik thought Chiasson was attracted to the outdoor recreation offered in the West Kootenay.
“Alain was very stoked to move to a vibrant town, get healthy and have a healthy lifestyle and meet adventurous people,” says Hladik. “He bought a mountain bike and a ski pass. He was all ready to just be a part of Nelson.”
But if he intended to be laid back in life, Chiasson was anything but in the office.
Luke and Fair say Chiasson was prone to sudden mood changes and outbursts. He put himself in charge of sales, but had a habit of becoming angry with clients. Luke says he once waited by his bus with embarrassment as Chiasson berated a Canadian border guard over the phone.
Luke had worked at Queen City since 2010, while Fair joined the company in 2016. Neither felt Chiasson respected their experience.
“He wouldn’t listen,” says Luke. “And when I say that I mean you’re having a conversation and he wasn’t even present. So what you’re saying didn’t even matter.
“Other times he would hear what you’re saying and dismiss it, even though we were the experts and he had no clue what he was doing.”
Chiasson did not reply to a request for comment on employee criticisms of his ownership.
He also ignored the pair to the end. In May, Luke and Fair tried convincing him to let them run the business while he found a buyer.
“But he would have none of that,” says Luke.
The days after the closure were a nightmare for Queen City’s staff and their customers.
Because the website hadn’t been shut down, online bookings were still being made. Some riders waited on shuttles at the Castlegar airport that never arrived. Refunds on deposits went out to contracted clients, but there was nothing for people who paid in advance for the airport shuttle.
The angry emails and voicemails also begin to pile up. Fair monitored the messages, but said the closure was so fast that there had been no direction from Chiasson on how to reply to customers.
“It was just bam, nobody knows anything,” she says.
Meanwhile, Luke was mindful of his drivers who told him they were being blamed for the company’s closure. Two drivers were married to each other and had just lost their entire income.
“They’re all part of the community,” he says. “People were pretty upset at these drivers who had nothing to do with any of this.”
Three days after the company shut down, a group of employees learned Chiasson was to meet with a bank receiver at Queen City’s office. The building had been left unlocked but the power was now disconnected, so staff waited in the dark to confront Chiasson.
When Chiasson’s car arrived, he saw the group and drove off. Some time later a police officer arrived and had to be assured the staff didn’t mean Chiasson any harm.
Chiasson returned and was questioned by staff, albeit with the officer present. No, he didn’t know when everyone would be paid, partially because the bank had already closed the company’s account. Fair and Luke estimate 18 or 19 employees are still each owed four days’ pay.
Mostly, Fair says, her former coworkers were too upset to speak.
“What do you say to someone who doesn’t care? It was obvious he just didn’t care.”
In a brief phone interview on May 14, Chiasson declined to answer questions about the company’s closure.
“I tried [and] failed. Didn’t work out and I’m sorry about it,” he said. “I know it’s an important business for the community but that’s the way it is.”
In an email dated July 6, Chiasson referred questions to BDO Canada, which he said acted as receiver for the Royal Bank of Canada.
“I have no comments about the affairs of Queen City Transportation Ltd. since I am no longer involved in its affairs.”
In the two months since Queen City went under, Luke and Fair have done what they can to pick up the pieces.
Luke has begun working for Castlegar’s Mountain Transport Institute, which has opened a charter bus division, purchased some of Queen City’s vehicles and even hired back some of its drivers. The change of scenery has inspired him to build a company out of Queen City’s spare parts.
Fair is still unemployed. She spent weeks providing emotional support to former co-workers, trying and failing to get back the money owed to them, and making inquiries into the legality of the shutdown while also searching for a new job.
She hasn’t moved on, and it may be a while before she can.
“It’s crazy how someone could just come in and just trash something and it’s perfectly legal to do that,” she says. “It’s not moral to do that.”