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"Why are heritage sites important? Because long after people's memories fade, the physical resource remains. It's our link with the past. It tells a story. It causes us to ask about the story, and by asking, the story is told over and over again, and documented. That's how we preserve our past."
Malcolm Sissons is a dedicated community builder who has balanced sustainable corporate growth with community service. His family has helped build Medicine Hat literally, brick by brick, and figuratively via his commitment to charitable causes, volunteerism and preserving local heritage.
Malcolm Stewart Sissons was born in Calgary, Alberta, in 1953 and grew up in Medicine Hat. As a fourth-generation Albertan, he comes from a long line of "Hatters." His paternal great-grandfather, James Hargrave, and his paternal grandfather, Herb Sissons, co-founded the Redcliff Pressed Brick Company, which later morphed into what would become I-XL Industries Ltd.
Given the region's abundance of natural resources, including natural gas and clay, I-XL became the centre of the brick industry in Alberta. Over the decades, I-XL provided good, stable work for thousands of Albertans, as well as many beyond Alberta's borders.
With such deep roots in the area, Malcolm's passion for local history came understandably early. After high school, he enrolled in the Arts program at the Collège Universitaire Saint-Jean, a faculty of the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Taking all of his courses in French immersed Malcolm in Francophone culture and history. He eagerly read early accounts of history of the West, often written in French. These firsthand, eyewitness accounts, many of which have never been translated into English, provided Malcolm with a wide perspective and deep appreciation for historical events.
Malcolm followed up his Arts degree with an Education diploma, answering the demand at the time for bilingual teachers. But the opportunity for post-graduate work in Communication Studies, thanks to a Paul Harris Rotary Fellowship, saw Malcolm and new wife and partner-in-life Jennifer set off for Grenoble, France.
Upon their return to Canada a year later, Malcolm's alma mater hired him as a recruiter. He excelled in the role. When the family business called in 1980, Malcolm dutifully answered, moving back to Medicine Hat and joining his cousins in becoming the fourth generation at I-XL.
Malcolm learned the business from the ground up, starting with labouring in clay product factories. This hands-on experience informed his later work as he marketed the company's products all over North America and Japan. He was also involved in a range of professional associations that reflect many aspects of construction and Malcolm's understanding of them. Among the organizations he helmed are the Clay Brick Association of Canada, the Clay Flue Lining Institute of Canada and the Canadian Masonry Research Institute.
Malcolm's keen interest in people, hard work and commitment to the business kept I-XL thriving as he ultimately served as President of I-XL Industries Ltd. and I-XL Masonry Supplies Ltd. for three decades. Along the way, Malcolm introduced many innovations, including a network of sales centres throughout western Canada and high-tech solutions to replace repetitive "hard labour" production areas in the plant.
Then came the devastating flood in 2010 that caused extensive damage in Medicine Hat, including I-XL's brick factory. Although the buildings were intact, damage to kilns and equipment was too great. After 98 years and four generations, the factory was forced to close. "I think probably that was the saddest day in my entire life, the day I had to tell staff that we weren't going to restart the plant," remembers Malcolm.
In a substantial act of generosity, Malcolm's family turned the devastating loss into something positive when they donated the plant site — along with cash to help with cleanup and maintenance — to the Friends of Medalta. Located in the Medicine Hat Clay Industries National Historic District, Medalta not only serves as a museum preserving the region's pottery and brick industry past, but also provides a community hub for current and future Hatters.
Thanks to Malcolm and his family, I-XL support of the community is omnipresent, with donations to many projects in the city, including the donation of the oldest brick house in the province. More recently, he's working on a project to create a historic park on the site of the Redcliff Pressed Brick plant that will be donated to the Town of Redcliff.
Malcolm's contributions go far beyond business and the boardroom table. As an avid historian, he has dedicated years to ensuring that the region's history is preserved and shared with the public. In addition to his book The Bear and the Bone King, his regular "Heritage in the Hat" column in the Medicine Hat News gives readers an understanding of the importance of their city and its legacy.
As the first chair of the Medicine Hat Heritage Resources Committee, Malcolm helped guide the designation of several municipal historic resources, including churches, schools, businesses and private residences. The committee also succeeded in creating the First Street South Municipal Historic Area, marking the first time such a designation was made in Alberta.
Malcolm's community involvement and service extends beyond his historic interests. In fact, he enjoys contributing to community organizations focused on education, arts, heritage, Legion, recreation, city planning and archeology. For example, when Malcolm and Jennifer moved back to the city in the 1980s, the school system had no French immersion program. So they started their own, a preschool program called Au Chapeau (At the Hat). As their three children grew, the program transitioned from kindergarten through to Grade 12. Today, both school districts in Medicine Hat offer French immersion, which some of Malcolm's eight grandchildren have already started to attend.
"The factors that have influenced my involvement with the community stem from history — my family's history here — for sure. I feel such a deep connection to the community that it has shaped the direction that I've followed in terms of my interest in heritage and that sort of thing. Like with working to establish a French immersion program here, I saw Medicine Hat as needing a program and felt the best way was to get out there and help make it happen. Research shows that, as you grow older, having connections to other people is a strong part in staying healthy, which is an important consideration when the tendency these days is to eschew personal contact for collecting digital followers."
To honour his professional and personal commitment to the region, Malcolm received the Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee Medal, and is a lifetime member of both the Friends of Medalta, and the Historical Society of Medicine Hat and District.
In a nod to his personal heritage, Malcolm is currently learning Scots Gaelic, and he and Jennifer are long-time members of the local Scottish Country Dance group. Malcolm also plays a major role in the South Alberta Pipes and Drums — which has been active for more than a century — performing at events of importance to the community in southern Alberta, such as Remembrance Day services and citizenship ceremonies.
Four generations in, Malcolm maintains the family's tradition of community building. He's even willing to lend a hand as a bricklayer when the need arises; he recently completed a brick mural project with local artist Jim Marshall, proving that the best community builders are those who aren't afraid to roll up their sleeves and put in a hard day's work. It's all part of a day in the life of dedicated Hatter Malcolm Sissons.