Peter Magill, Hay River’s man of ‘endless enthusiasm,’ is remembered

Peter Magill, an ambassador of boundless energy for Hay River, has passed away at the age of 58 after a short illness.

Most recently a town councillor, Peter’s infinite creative capacity became legend first through a stint at Buffalo Airways, then as Hay River’s tourism and economic development coordinator.

He passed away on Monday evening, having been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour only in February. Dian Papineau-Magill, his wife, said Peter had chosen to receive medical assistance in dying.

“He chose when he was going to go,” Dian told Cabin Radio on Tuesday. “He used the medical assistance in dying process. It’s really important that people feel comfortable with that, because the process was painless and quite lovely. There was no way I wanted to see him incapacitated and feeling helpless.”

The Town of Hay River said on Tuesday that flags at the community fire hall would remain at half mast until Friday in Peter’s honour.

Born in North Bay, Ontario, on July 3, 1963, Peter worked in sales before Dian’s career as a teacher took the couple to the Northwest Territories. When she found work in Hay River in the fall of 2009, Peter followed.

His résumé landed, with a thud, on Mikey McBryan’s desk at Buffalo Airways.

“He sent this 36-page résumé. It was just huge,” McBryan said by phone on Tuesday. “I talked to him and I heard it right away, you could just tell: he was very good, very passionate, very everything.”

Peter took over marketing for the Buffalo Airwear merchandise imprint McBryan had launched, a line of clothing that was growing in popularity as Ice Pilots NWT, a reality television show about the airline, began to find an audience.

Instantly, Peter was an ideas machine. Buffalo Airways hot sauce? His concept. Persuading Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, a pilot, to fly a Buffalo DC-3? Peter’s plan.

“He was very ambitious and with Buffalo, ambition is number one. He wasn’t scared to take chances and a lot of those chances paid off,” McBryan said.

Peter’s clothing taste was “always a little bit on the hippie side” but, McBryan added, “the designs he made are classic Buffalo Airways now.”

Peter Magill in a Facebook photo uploaded in 2019
Peter Magill in a Facebook photo uploaded in 2019.

His dedication extended beyond invention.

Patrick Teskey, a former NWT resident, remembers contacting Buffalo when he moved to Alberta in the hope of purchasing one of the airline’s ground crew vests.

The package sent by Peter contained not just a vest but messages from the entire cast and crew of the Ice Pilots show, postcards, and Buffalo luggage tags. The vest still hangs in Teskey’s home.

‘Buzzing like a hummingbird’

Dian said she and Peter connected with Hay River the moment they arrived.

Peter was still in school at the time they turned up, studying for his third degree. He had graduated first from Nipissing University with a degree in literature and history, then later studied broadcast journalism at Canadore College, North Bay, before returning one more time to Canadore to study marketing and communications.

“He’d probably still be there if it was OK,” Dian joked of Peter’s fondness for university study.

“But he fell in love with Hay River pretty-much the second he landed here. People just opened their arms and took us in.”

That made Scott Clouthier proud. At the time, Clouthier had been writing a blog about life in Hay River – one of relatively few online resources about the town – and Peter had reached out to him for advice before making the move.

“You knew when he was in the room, right?” Clouthier said. “He would be buzzing around like a hummingbird, trying to engage everybody in conversation. He was always interested in hearing what everyone’s best and wildest ideas were.

“He loved Hay River so much. Even though it was his second home, he treated it like it was his first home and his favourite place in the world. He really wanted to do the best for it and for everybody else who lived here.”

Return to Hay River

After five years, Peter and Dian returned to Ontario for family reasons. McBryan wonders whether Peter’s daily commute might have been a factor, too.

Peter didn’t just work for Buffalo, he became – according to Buffalo pilot and president Joe McBryan, at least – possibly the most-travelled passenger in the history of the DC-3 aircraft.

For years, Peter took a Buffalo DC-3 from Hay River to Yellowknife and back each day, Monday to Friday, with Joe behind the controls.

“Commuting every day was crazy, legitimately crazy,” said Mikey McBryan. “But he did it. And that’s the type of guy Peter was. Most people wouldn’t be able to handle that, and he did.”

Peter, left, on stage in North Bay in 2014
Peter, left, on stage in North Bay in 2014.
Peter on his return to the Northwest Territories in 2017
Peter on his return to the Northwest Territories in 2017.

Peter was soon back in the NWT. In 2017, needing a tourism officer – and knowing of his outspoken love for Hay River – the town reached out to him. Neither he nor Dian needed any convincing to return.

Clouthier remembers thinking how perfect a match that role was.

“He had done great things with Buffalo and he really had a passion for Hay River and wanted to do as much as he could to help promote the town,” Clouthier said.

Even with Peter in a new role, he and McBryan would talk regularly.

“Almost everything I did, he would always be there with an idea,” McBryan said. “Every three months, I would hear from him. He would try to tie it in to what he was doing. I couldn’t be doing a project without him being involved some way, and always positive.”

McBryan in particular remembers Peter’s determination – a testament to his ambition – that the rather flat community of Hay River needed a ski hill.

“He wanted to make a ski hill in Hay River. Literally dig up a hill and make a ski hill,” McBryan recalled.

“I’m like, ‘Peter, why would someone do that?’ I guess [nearby abandoned mining town] Pine Point had a ski hill. He was fixated on getting Hay River a ski hill.”

Peter’s contribution to Hay River was universally acclaimed following news of his passing.

In a statement, Mayor of Hay River Kandis Jameson said: “Peter always had community betterment at the forefront of his interests. His passion and dedication in this respect will not be forgotten.”

Hay River’s non-profit broadcasting societies, of which Peter was a part, said on Facebook: “Peter was all heart and had everyone in his mind, no matter how big or small, when he set forth to do anything for the community, the people, and the world he loved.”

‘He loved deeply’

When the diagnosis arrived two months ago – glioblastoma, a particularly aggressive brain cancer – Dian and Peter “looked at the facts,” she said. Peter decided against chemotherapy and radiation treatment, deciding he favoured “quality over quantity.”

“He wasn’t very old. It was too soon and too sudden, much more so than he deserved,” said Clouthier.

“His love for Dian was always very obvious and very much in the forefront. One of his great legacies is he loved very deeply and he wasn’t ashamed to show that.”

“Peter was many things, to many people: father, brother, son, friend,” Dian wrote in tribute to him. “To me, he was my heart and soul; the very breath that sustained me.

“His eyes made me beautiful. His faith in me made me strong. He made me better.”

“He made an impact with everybody,” McBryan said. “The musician side, the artistic side, anything that was creative, he was in on it.

“That’s why a lot of people are here, is because people like Peter can thrive. He shone in the North, where eccentrics are brought to the top instead of stifled.

“He was a character, and that’s why he’s leaving a mark on a lot of people.”