Then he started at the tree nursery, and found that, in the North, workplace issues are about much more than race. He discovered that his own employees - although neighbours, friends and relatives - were as prone to trouble on the job as anyone. Last spring, he had to take on the chief's niece, Bertie Cantin, after she knocked over two trays of seedlings and said she'd been injured. The nursery would not help her obtain a doctor's certificate for an insurance claim but offered her a less strenuous job. She chose not to come to work at all, and Brown finally cut her from the payroll - but not before her mother, Joyce, accused him of reverse racism, of acting as a stooge for Mitani, "that white woman" who supposedly had pushed her daughter around.
Brown laughs at the accusation, saying Mitani was the softie while he had to play tough.
“People in Dryden say, `You're the only non-native there. Isn't that strange?' I don't look at them as different any more.”
This was just the sort of poisoned atmosphere Mitani had dreaded when she signed on as Wabigoon's chief tree grower. A veteran of the northern forests, she was to be the operation's scientific brains. But she also knew she would have to run some of the show and wasn't sure how an immigrant from Germany who was married to a Japanese Canadian would command a group of aboriginal people.
"People in Dryden say, `You're the only non-native there. Isn't that strange?' " she says with a shrug. "I don't look at them as different any more."
In jeans and a T-shirt, Mitani looks like a weekend gardener as she picks her way through a row of pine seedlings. Beads of sweat hold still on her craggy face. Her blond hair is spotted with dirt.
When she first arrived at the reserve, she was cautious. She minded how she sat at tables, even placing her hands as unobtrusively as she could, so as not to offend whatever native customs she might not understand. Although she had been in Canada for nearly four decades, and spent most of it in the northern wilderness, the Wabigoon project was the closest she had come to North American Indians since reading Karl May's Wild West novels - the German equivalent of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew - as a child.
Young Erika Remmler had come to Canada as a traveller, fresh out of business school, and fallen in love with accountant Lawrence Mitani. They married and moved to Dryden, one of 300 communities across the country that still rely on forestry - rural Canada's biggest employer.
Fascinated with trees since childhood (her family grew apples near Stuttgart), Mitani earned a horticulture degree, and eventually landed a job with the Ontario government, which used to run most of the greenhouses that supply the industry's reforestation operation. When the government got out of the seedling business in the eighties, she joined a private grower, and then went to work for the natives.
They introduced her to a new way of doing business. "I found them very shy and very sensitive," she says in an accent that betrays her Teutonic roots. "When you talk to them or give them instructions, they always wanted to please and not make mistakes. Not making mistakes was a big thing."
In the past, she had found non-natives more interested in deadlines than in quality control. As well, aboriginal workers seemed less likely to quit, perhaps because they had fewer places to go.
It all seemed to contradict the many warnings people were spreading about the nursery business. In the mid-1990s, the province met disaster when it tried to help the reserve at Whitedog, north of Kenora, launch a tree nursery. The operation lost money no matter how many consultants and guaranteed orders the province poured in. Its isolation did not help, but a greater problem proved to be the local work ethic. People arrived late. They refused to work weekends. Deadlines came and went, and then entire growing seasons were squandered.
For its efforts, the reserve now boasts a greenhouse that could be one of the finest in the region but sits empty.
Wabigoon faced the same problems when Mitani arrived. With plenty of government financing available to native enterprises, capital was no longer a great barrier. The band had bought top-notch equipment, including a computer system to monitor carbon dioxide, sunlight, humidity and temperature, and a machine that can plant 600,000 seeds a day.
But Mitani warned her new employers that even more than high-tech gear they would need a conscientious work force - people willing to sift through seedlings for disease and to monitor growing conditions as meticulously as doctors track their patients. The smallest bout of absenteeism could cost the nursery its crop, she suggested.
The chief, Ruben Cantin, said he understood. He had already talked with people at Whitedog and other first nations around Dryden, and believed his people would meet the challenge.