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Marco Navarro-Genie

“The business of government is not to prop up businesses,” harrumphed Marco Navarro-Genie, president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), the Halifax-based right-wing think tank that rarely encounters a government program (or government for that matter) it does not think should shrivel up and die. “The real point,” he continued, “ought to be whether government should be engaged in doling out public money to money-making industries.”

Navarro-Genie was ruminating on the debate over the Liberal government’s plan to eviscerate the provincial film tax credit and wipe out the province’s film and television industry.

But let’s expand this interesting discussion, shall we?

Marco, meet John, and John…

John Risley

John Risley

First, there’s John Risley, the billionaire president and CEO of Clearwater Fine Foods, all-round capitalist curmudgeon and — not coincidentally — chair of the AIMS board.

Then there’s John F. Irving, member in good standing of that Irving clan, a director of J. D. Irving, owners of the Halifax Shipyard and — not coincidentally again — AIMS past chair.

John F Irving

John F Irving

Given Navarro-Genie’s concern about “doling out public money to money-making industries,” there must be some interesting conversations around the AIMS board table.

J.D. Irving is the money-making, hand-over-fist 2012 recipient of more than $300 million in public largesse ($260 million of it forgivable) to gear up for the federal shipbuilding contract.

One can argue whether the investment was necessary, or wise. One cannot doubt the “money-making” Irvings asked the then-NDP government to “prop up” its business.

Let us also consider John Risley, who — never one to miss an opportunity — piled on in the film tax credit debate, declaring the McNeil government “cannot afford to be subsidizing any industry to this extent.”

Except, of course, when the industries are his. Social media has gone giddy this past week calculating just how often Risley has tapped government money trees for millions in direct grants and/or loans, indirect funding for scientific research and here’s-our-resources-for-your-profit giveaways.

And Risley calls the film tax credit “nuts”?

What is nuts is the stunning hypocrisy of the likes of AIMS, John Risley and Marco Navarro-Genie.

Last week’s provincial budget shows how governments can be tough-talking, penny-pinching wise and what-were-they-smoking, real-world foolish, both at the same time.

Exhibit A: the evisceration of Nova Scotia’s film tax credit.

Finance Minister Diana Whalen

Finance Minister Diana Whalen

Finance Minister Diana Whalen argued the credit was too generous, went to filmmakers whose films weren’t shot in Nova Scotia and to companies that didn’t owe provincial taxes. (Earth to Diana: you need new advisors who understand the industry.)

While cutting the tax credit may magically make the books appear closer to balance, it will also help dismantle the yellow brick road to prosperity the government claims it’s building.

The industry not only employs more than 2,000 highly-skilled, well-paid, tax-paying workers, but it also spreads its financial, filmic fairy dust over other sectors: it rents hotel rooms, vehicles, security guards, offices, studios, locations; it spends at supermarkets, building supply outlets, furniture stores, clothing retailers, even second-hand shops…

In 1993 when the credit was introduced, Nova Scotia’s film and TV industry was worth $6 million; last year, $150 million.

The government says the credit costs taxpayers $24 million a year. Under Whalen’s new formula, that outlay will ostensibly shrink to $6 million per year — but probably closer to zero as every footloose producer flees to jurisdictions offering more generous rebates.

It’s already happening. Two producers considering filming in Nova Scotia apparently changed their minds after Thursday’s budget. DHX, the Nova Scotia-born-and-based international entertainment conglomerate, says it will shut down its animation facility — 155 jobs — and may move its head office. 22 Minutes, Mr. D., Haven all appear prepared to wave goodbye too.

If so, Whalen’s prediction of a surplus budget in 2016-17 may turn out to be as real as a Hollywood fantasy.

So too any hope (See: the Ivany Report, the future, etc., etc…) of keeping those smart, well-trained people here in Nova Scotia.

As local film industry veteran Keith Currie lamented to Metro’s Stephanie Taylor: “Once again, we’ve managed to take the best and brightest and force them to go down the road.”

All that to pretend to save $18 million — out of a budget of $10 billion.

Penny wise.

Pound nutty.

WhatLiescoversmAs this weekend’s historic Summit of the America’s wraps up —with Cuba finally at the table — here are three short, sort-of-related excerpts from What Lies Across The Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five.

Felix Rodriguez:

  • Rodriguez, the former CIA agent credited with orchestrating the murder of Che Guevera, was in Panama for the summit. His presence provoked anger among many Cubans. If you want to understand the feelings many Cubans have toward him, consider this accidental encounter between Gerardo Hernandez, the leader of the Cuban Five, and Rodriguez at a Miami shopping Centre in 1997.

Posada and the Panama Plot:

  • In 2000, Luis Posada, the most notorious of the Cuban exile terrorists, was arrested at another summit in Panama. Thanks to Fidel Castro — and Cuban State Security!

The Miami River Incident:

  • Speaking of plots against Fidel — there were many — here’s a reminder of the work the Cuban Five did in Miami in the 1990s, and their success in heading off yet another dangerous plot without endangering life themselves. (Compare and contrast with the Posada plot above.)

At what point does lawyerly risk-taking in the public interest become crass ambulance chasing?

Before we consider today’s case — personal injury law firms hovering over last week’s late-night crash landing of Air Canada Flight 624 — let’s layer in some context.

In 2013, the Halifax law firm McInnes Cooper won an $887-million class action law suit on behalf of disabled veterans and their families. For 30 years, successive federal governments had clawed back their benefits. The law firm took on Ottawa’s bottomless pockets. Its lawyers rang up 8,500 potentially un-billable hours — $3.2 million — over six years to hold the government to account.

They won, and were rewarded for their effort.

But they could as easily have lost it all.

So too with Wagners, another Halifax law firm. It spent 16 years fighting provincial governments for compensation for hundreds of physically and sexually abused children at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. Besides providing “total free” legal services during those years, the firm spent $500,000 to pursue the case. Its lawyers eventually won $34 million in settlements for the victims and were awarded $5.78 million in legal fees.

Those cases would never have been heard — and justice done for powerless victims— if those law firms hadn’t taken a risk.

How does that compare to Flight 624?

Well, Air Canada has already ponied up $5,000 to each of the 133 passengers for their inconvenience. Everyone understands that is both proactive PR and an opening gambit. The airline will inevitably pay more. How much is the question. The answer will be determined, in part, by the success of now competing law firms eager to represent the passengers.

“Eager” because this is a win-win. The airline will settle, likely out of court. The law firm will get a good payday.

But do such cases — and settlements — serve the public interest? Or simply make us a more needlessly litigious society?

Ray Wagner, whose Wagners law firm also wants to represent Flight 624 passengers, insists such law suits force public safety improvements.

I doubt that. Change will be spurred, as usual, by the results of the ongoing Transportation Safety Board investigation.

All the rest — in this case at least — is about money.

I’m delighted to report I’ve been nominated for four Atlantic Journalism Awards for my writing in 2014: Best Magazine Article, Best Profile, Best Feature Article and Best Commentary. All of the finalist pieces appeared in St. John’s-based Atlantic Business Magazine, which itself earned seven nominations. You can read the complete list of the nominees here. The awards will be presented at a dinner in Halifax on May 9, 2015.

For those who may be interested, here are links to each of my nominated articles:

Hard… and soft as Harry  Steele 


Photo by Marvin Moore

Atlantic Magazine: Best Profile Article

Harry Steele is happy to chat, he tells me (“let’s have coffee”), but he isn’t particularly interested these days in pontificating about the state of the world, business or otherwise, or being interviewed for publication yet again.

He’s now in the fullness of his 86th year—“I celebrated my 85th in June”—and he’s no longer deeply involved in the day-to-day business of Newfoundland Capital Corporation, the holding company he formed back in 1980 and which has since mutated and morphed into various, almost always successful corporate investment personas: airlines, oil and gas, trucking, coastal shipping, container terminals, newspapers and, now, radio broadcasting.

The reality, Harry Steele is quick to point out, is that he hasn’t been the president of NCC for more than 20 years. He stepped down as the company’s CEO 12 years ago and now, though he is still the nonexecutive (the emphasis is his) chair of the Board, he is more than happy and confident to leave the decisionmaking, and the talking, to his son Rob.

“You should talk to younger people,” he tells me. “I don’t have anything new to say.” (More)

 Spilled Secrets: The Richard Oland Murder Mystery 


Atlantic Magazine Article of the Year

Maureen Adamson showed up for work as usual that sunny summer morning. She inserted her key in the street-level door at 52 Canterbury Street, a refurbished 19th century, three storey, red-brick office building in the heart of historic downtown Saint John, New Brunswick. The door was unlocked. Curious. It was always kept locked.

The door led up a set of stairs to the second floor offices of Far End Corporation, the investment firm owned by Adamson’s boss, Richard Oland, for whom she’d worked as a secretary for 30 years. When she reached the entrance to the offices, she discovered that that door, which was also always kept locked, was ajar too.

Adamson pushed it open, glanced around, saw what she saw and immediately bolted back down the stairs and into a print shop located on the ground floor. (More)


Photo by Laura Hubbard

Feature Reporting: Print


It wasn’t his fault. Rob Thompson was just a bit player in the 1992 Westray mine disaster that took 26 lives. But today, nearly 22 years later, his own small role in that tragedy, not to forget the fact he never got to testify about what he knew in any public inquiry or court case, as well as the reality that what he remembers differs in small, but he believes crucial, ways from some of what others testified to, continues to haunt him 

At the time, they were just one more set of numbers, one more set of test results. Rob Thompson, 26, was a junior lab technologist for SGS, a Swiss-based independent contractor hired to provide onsite, laboratory services for the operator of the new Westray coal mine in Plymouth, N.S. (More)

What would you do to un-Harper Canada

Commentary: Any Medium

For as long as I can remember, Canadian politics has been a pleasantly diverting if meaningless game of rascal tossing. We pick one set of rascals to govern us and toss the last set out. After a while, those no-longer new rascals run amok. Can you say sponsorship scandal? Brian Mulroney? Need we say more? So we kick those rascals out, and let the old lot back for another kick at the governing can. Occasionally, we say a pox on both their sorry houses and elect enough neither-of-the-aboves to make things interesting without fundamentally altering anything significant.

When one rascal party replaces the other, the new government rarely revisits legislation the previous group passed. That’s because, until recently, all parties shared a traditional, transcendent understanding about who we are as a people and what we are as a country. (More)

Photo by Laura Hubbard

It wasn’t his fault. Rob Thompson was just a bit player in the 1992 Westray mine disaster that took 26 lives. But today, nearly 22 years later, his own small role in that tragedy, not to forget the fact he never got to testify about what he knew in any public inquiry or court case, as well as the reality that what he remembers differs in small, but he believes crucial, ways from some of what others testified to, continues to haunt him 

At the time, they were just one more set of numbers, one more set of test results. Rob Thompson, 26, was a junior lab technologist for SGS, a Swiss-based independent contractor hired to provide onsite, laboratory services for the operator of the new Westray coal mine in Plymouth, N.S. — Toronto-based Curragh Resources Inc. He worked 12-hour shifts, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., four days on, four days off. Every hour on the hour, he would conduct yet another test to check the quality of yet another sample of coal. Sulphur content… ash yield… BTUs… The results mattered. If the numbers showed the coal was premium grade, it would command a higher price for the mine’s owners.

Thompson had found himself working at Westray in his hometown of Plymouth more by accident than design. He’d grown up on his grandfather’s small family farm. “I had a normal childhood,” he recalls. “I did all the things I should, and all the things I shouldn’t.” He attended the local school, which was across the street from his house. It is not lost on Thompson today that the school is where authorities staged their press conferences after May 9, 1992.

Thompson left home in 1983 to attend nearby St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish where he studied geology and chemistry. “At the time, I didn’t have a plan,” he admits, but he’d heard “rumblings” about the possibility a new mine would soon open in Pictou County. “It just seemed like a good career to get into.” After graduating in 1987, he bounced around a bit, got married, and had a child. Then, “a guy I went to school with was friends with someone in the coal company,” he says. The new Westray mine, announced to much fanfare on the eve of the 1988 provincial election, opened officially in the fall of 1991. Thompson began work at the SGS lab on April 15, 1992.

Two weeks later, on April 29, 1992, a provincial mine inspector named Albert McLean toured Westray’s underground labyrinth. After he saw the amount of coal dust, a fine, extremely combustible powder created from the coal as it’s mined, McLean cited the company for violations of the Nova Scotia Coal Mines Regulation Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Although McLean’s report that day didn’t note the actual levels of coal dust underground (the miners themselves would later report seeing drifts up to half a metre thick on the floor in some sections), he issued a series of orders, including one instructing the company to immediately begin spreading stone dust to reduce the risk of an explosion and a second ordering management to develop and file with the department a sampling and testing program to ensure the level of coal dust in the mine never exceeded the 35 per cent allowed by law. He gave the company 15 days to comply.

Rob Thompson never saw McLean’s orders, which were posted in the miners’ changing room. But on May 6 at around noon, his boss, Robert O’Donnell, the head of the lab, asked him to run a different test. This one was to determine the percentage of coal dust in a series of samples Trevor Eagles, an engineer-in-training at Westray, had scooped up from four different sections of the mine. The samples, Thompson remembers, looked like “a fine, black talcum powder.” Thompson conducted these tests in between his other tests and then telephoned the results to Eagles. Thompson read off the numbers, 23 per cent ash, 33 per cent ash, 41 per cent ash and 39 per cent ash, hung up and went back to his business.

They were still just numbers to him.

An hour later, however, “four or five guys from the [main] office showed up to confront my boss. I can’t say for sure who showed up at the lab,” he admits today. “I was so busy with everything else that I didn’t have time to process the people doing the complaining.”

Standing off to one side, Thompson remembers asking the lab’s senior technician what was going on.

“They’re here about the results of that test you did,” the tech told him.

“How bad were they?”

“Real bad.” It turned out that any result below 65 per cent was considered explosive; meaning every sample Thompson had tested was a bomb waiting to be set off.

Eventually, O’Donnell called Thompson over to his desk. “Let’s go downstairs and we can walk everyone through how the test was done.” Thompson did as he’d been asked. “They accused me of doing the test wrong,” he remembers. “They left in a huff .” After that, Thompson went back to doing what he was doing. “I assumed the problem would be dealt with.”

A few hours later, at around 6:30 p.m., half an hour before the end of an extra shift he’d taken that week, two guys he’d grown up with, Robbie Doyle and Larry Bell (“I coached Larry in baseball”), stopped by the lab to shoot the breeze before they began their own shifts down in the mine. They talked about nothing in particular, Thompson recalls. He did not mention the results of the tests he’d run, or his encounter with management. It didn’t seem important. At 7 p.m., he headed home. He was looking forward to spending time with his wife and child.

Just over 58 hours later, at 5:18 a.m. on May 9, 1992, a spark, probably from a cutting tool ripping into hard rock, ignited a cloud of methane gas and coal dust somewhere deep in the bowels of the mine, triggering an earth-rending explosion that ripped through the mine’s underground tunnels, even shaking homes and shattering windows on the surface in New Glasgow, nearly six kilometres away. By the time the earth stopped convulsing, 26 miners were dead. Rob Thompson’s friends Robbie Doyle and Larry Bell were among those lost.

Eight years later, in 1997, Nova Scotia Justice Peter Richard, who headed up a public inquiry into the disaster, described what happened at Westray as “a story of incompetence, of mismanagement, of bureaucratic bungling, of deceit, of ruthlessness, of cover-up, of apathy, of expediency, and of cynical indifference [caused by] a complex mosaic of actions, omissions, mistakes, incompetence, apathy, cynicism, stupidity and neglect… The Westray story concerns an event that, in all good common sense, ought not to have occurred.”

Cold comfort for those who died. Cold comfort, too, for many of those who survived. Including Rob Thompson.

The problem hadn’t been dealt with. Rob Thompson knew that the moment his brother-in-law called, shortly after 7 a.m. on May 9 to see if he’d been working at the mine that day. Should he have said something to Robbie Doyle and Larry Bell that night back in the lab, he asked himself later? Would it have made any difference? In his more logical moments, he doubted it, but logic offered no solace.

A week and half after the explosion, Thompson was called back to work. The owners of the Westray mine also had a licence for a strip mine in nearby Stellarton and, in spite of — or perhaps because of — the disaster, needed to ramp up production to fill its contracts. “It was surreal,” Thompson remembers today. “Morally, it didn’t seem right. There were 26 dead, 11 bodies still in the mine and it was almost as if it never happened.”

Almost. The first thing Thompson claims his boss, Robert O’Donnell, instructed him to do the night he returned to work was to throw out “the split,” the untested remainder of those coal dust samples. After Thompson said he thought it was wrong to throw them out, he says O’Donnell didn’t touch them. At the end of his shift, his wife picked him up. They drove to the nearest RCMP detachment. Thompson went inside. Two hours later, he came out to tell his wife to go home. He wasn’t done yet. “I was there for four hours giving my statement. I told them everything I knew.”

By the time he went back to work that night, “everything had been locked down. There was a Mountie monitoring everyone who went in or came out of the place. I knew I was done. They’d figure out soon enough who leaked.” Three weeks later, at the end of his shift, “they gave me my pink slip. My services were ‘no longer required.’”

He was done with Westray. But Westray was far from done with him.

“My name is Robert Thompson,” began the email that landed in my inbox on August 14, 2013. “A long time ago I worked at Westray…” After more than 21 years, Thompson had decided he wanted, needed, to set the record straight. Why?

“A little to clear my name, I guess,” he tells me when we finally sit down to talk. “No, that’s not quite it. I want to get the focus back on what happened. That mine should have been shut down on May 6. There was an opportunity to say, ‘Stop and let’s fix the problem.’ But it didn’t happen. It’s a heavy burden to carry for me when the excuse they used for doing nothing that day was that I didn’t do the test correctly.”

Why did those in authority attack his test results instead of the coal dust problem? And why did those who did testify mis-state crucial details about the date when he did those tests?

He acknowledges “it could be that what I had to say wasn’t that important.” There was more than enough evidence to show the Westray mine had become a ticking time bomb in the weeks and months before the explosion, and that there were dozens of other, better reasons for that.

Thompson’s last contact with officials from the provincial government came in late September 1992 when the Department of Labour’s lead investigator told him, off the record, that “even he didn’t trust the people he was working for. Not a good note for me to end things on.”

“It was tough after,” Thompson acknowledges today. After he lost his job, “they told me I was ‘surplus to needs’”, his wife had to find work to support their growing family, which now included two more children. Thompson stayed home to look after them. Later, he signed on as a lobster fisherman. “It was as far away from mining as I could get,” he says. “I felt a lot of guilt. I didn’t become a drug addict, or an alcoholic, or anything, but it did speed up the breakdown of my first marriage. I spent the rest of that decade running away from Westray.”

In 1993, Thompson took a job as a milkman, delivering to stores and homes in his area. That job ended with a car accident in which the driver of a car, which had pulled out in front of him, was killed and Thompson’s milk van totaled. “I said, ‘That’s it. I’m done. I can’t do it anymore.’”

What made everything worse was that Thompson never had the opportunity to talk publicly about what had happened that day in the lab.

Soon after the explosion, Thompson had been invited to fly to Toronto to take part in a CBC Fifth Estate program about the disaster but, after talking it over with his parents, he declined. “They said, ‘Don’t do it.’ My dad was like, ‘keep your mouth shut. Let it slide.’ They were worried about how it would look, that it could be made to look bad for me. It was all pretty raw at the time.”

Thompson wasn’t called to testify at Judge Richard’s public inquiry. Why not? “That’s something I always wanted to know,” he says today, “I attended a few days of it but, by then, I was in the midst of my divorce.”

He was on the witness list for the criminal trial of Gerald Phillips and Roger Parry, two senior Westray managers who were charged in 1995 with 26 accounts of manslaughter and criminal negligence causing death. But that trial got bogged down in legal wrangling and prosecutors eventually dropped all charges.

So, at the end of the day, Thompson has never spoken publicly about the coal dust test he conducted on May 6, or what happened in the lab later that day. “I had a small part in it, and I don’t feel that was ever given proper consideration.”

During the inquiry, Trevor Eagles, the junior engineer who gathered the samples and to whom Thompson reported the results, did testify. But Eagles told Judge Richard he got Thompson’s test results on May 7, a day later than Thompson says he reported them. “You can find it online,” Thompson tells me of Eagles testimony. “Day 76.” He’s read it often.

That discrepancy has eaten at Thompson over the years. It might simply have been a slip of memory, but Thompson frets that the difference could also be significant. If company officials had had the test results on May 6, as Thompson claims, it means they had 24 hours more in which they could have — should have — taken action to bring down the levels of coal dust, perhaps even averted what was already a looming disaster.

That’s probably wishful thinking. As Justice Richard put it in his report: “It was clear from the outset that the loss of 26 lives at Plymouth… was not the result of a single definable event or misstep… Management failed, the inspectorate failed, and the mine blew up.”

Perhaps more significantly, Richard makes the case that no one would have needed a lab report to know the level of coal dust inside the mine was dangerous. “Mine management was aware of this problem, but failed to respond to complaints by employees or to the orders of 29 April 1992 from the Department of Labour.”

The inspector, Albert McLean, was actually at the mine site again on May 6, the day Thompson says he tested the samples. “What if,” asked Judge Richard, McLean “had returned underground to evaluate the company’s progress in complying with the several oral and written orders issued during the inspectors’ visit of 29 April 1992?”

Richard, in fact, posed a half-dozen rhetorical what-if questions in his report “to underscore the proposition that the Westray story is, indeed, a “‘complex mosaic’ that defies simple cause and effect, blame and punish.”

At an intellectual level, Rob Thompson understands all that. But it still rankles. “If I had been allowed to testify,” he says, “then we would have discovered the true timeline. Either [Eagles] would be right or I would be. I’m right.”

Why has Thompson decided to come forward now, so many years after the events? “Everything else in my life is sorted out,” he explains. In 2000, he went back to school to study drafting. Today, he’s a senior rebar detailer at Steelmac, a reinforcing steel manufacturer in Antigonish. He’s remarried. “My personal life is great. I have a great wife. My kids are grown; they’re happy… This is the thing that’s still on my to-do list.”

I’d asked Thompson to ask the RCMP for a copy of the statement he gave them back in May 1992. His statement, along with his logbook could help confirm his version of events. But he hasn’t had any luck. It was a long time ago and the files are hard to track down. “I’ll try [the RCMP officer] again this week,” he tells me. Although he worries the police are trying to put him off, he admits: “It might just be me being paranoid. I’m sure it is only that he is very busy with current files.”

In the end, the details probably matter less than Rob Thompson’s need to bear witness to what he saw. “I didn’t sleep well last night because I was thinking about this whole affair,” he writes. “I was at dinner last night and sat at a table with Robbie Doyle’s parents. They are good decent people who didn’t deserve to bury their son because these people weren’t capable of doing their job to make that place safe.”

That, in the end, is what Rob Thompson wants, and needs, to say today.


Originally published in Natural Resources Magazine, March-April 2014.

v25n1_olandMaureen Adamson showed up for work as usual that sunny summer morning. She inserted her key in the street-level door at 52 Canterbury Street, a refurbished 19th century, three storey, red-brick office building in the heart of historic downtown Saint John, New Brunswick. The door was unlocked. Curious. It was always kept locked.

The door led up a set of stairs to the second floor offices of Far End Corporation, the investment firm owned by Adamson’s boss, Richard Oland, for whom she’d worked as a secretary for 30 years. When she reached the entrance to the offices, she discovered that that door, which was also always kept locked, was ajar too.

Adamson pushed it open, glanced around, saw what she saw and immediately bolted back down the stairs and into a print shop located on the ground floor. Preston Chiasson, one of the employees there, followed the shocked woman back up to the office where they tried to make sense of the chaos in front of them: a man lying on the floor, not breathing, his body so badly battered and splattered it would take a professional service specializing in cleaning up after bloody crime scenes days of hosing, scrubbing and painting to erase all traces of the mess.

Chiasson dialed 9-1-1. It was 8:54 a.m. on July 7, 2011.

Within minutes, police had descended on the building, sealing it off with crime scene tape.

Within hours, everyone in Saint John knew that Richard Oland, the 69-year old scion of one of New Brunwick’s most iconic families, was dead, the victim of a particularly brutal murder. What they didn’t know, and still don’t, was who did it. And why.

Richard Henry Oland, businessman, sportsman and philanthropist, was probably best known among ordinary residents of Saint John for his dimple-making, eyescrunching, face-stretching smiles in a series of newspaper photographs: as president of the Canada Games he helped bring to his hometown in 1985, as an Order of Canada recipient in 1998, as the 2010 winner of the Canadian Yachting Association’s Gerry Roufs Trophy “awarded annually to the sailor whose achievement in international offshore racing has had significant impact on the recognition of sailing in Canada,” as a director of major regional companies like Newfoundland Capital Corp. and Ganong’s.

“Dick led an active lifestyle,” his obituary writer would note. “On Sundays he could be found on the slopes of Poley Mountain or riding horseback through Kingshurst. He enjoyed fishing on the banks of the Miramichi and was a Life Member of the Miramichi Salmon Association.” Sailing, however, was Oland’s overweening passion. In 2010, his death notice proudly pointed out, he’d won the US-IRC National Championship in his professionally crewed, New Zealand-built, 15.5-metre yacht, the Vela Veloce. It didn’t mention that he’d recently put that vessel on the market for $850,000 because he was having an even fancier, faster, sleeker boat built for him in Spain.

Given his standing in the community, it was no surprise that more than 450 people, including New Brunswick Premier David Alward, members of his cabinet, MLAs, the Lieutenant-Governor, the mayor of Saint John and a who’s who of New Brunswick’s business and professional elite showed up to pay their respects at his funeral.

“I think it’s always difficult in the best of circumstances for a life to be lost,” Lt. Gov. Graydon Nicholas told reporters. “When you stop and think of all the good this person has done for this community and all of New Brunswick, this is a beautiful celebration of life for him.”

Richard Oland, it turned out, had been doing community good almost up until his last breath. Just two days before he was murdered, he’d met with his old friend Pat Darrah, the executive director of the Saint John Construction Association (who would, six days later, deliver the eulogy at his funeral), Robert Harris, the Bishop of Saint John, and a few others to discuss preliminary plans to raise $10 million to replace the roof and repair stonework at the historic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Waterloo Street in Saint John. Earlier, he’d helped raise funds to build Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Rothesay, the Catholic neighbourhood church from which he was now being buried.

But if the funeral tributes helped focus attention on the good Richard Oland had done in his life, the manner of his death shone a brighter light on some of the darker corners of that life.

In 1981, when he was just 38, Richard Oland had lost a very public, very bitter battle with his older brother Derek over which of them would run Moosehead Breweries Ltd., the family-owned firm started by their greatgrandmother, Susannah Oland. Though Dick had risen to vice president and was clearly angling to succeed their father Philip, Derek outmaneuvered him, threatening to resign and move his family to New Zealand. “I couldn’t work for Dick because of the nature of the guy,” Derek would tell author Harvey Sawler years later, claiming his brother was prone to “argue with anybody.”

Forced to choose between his quarreling sons, Philip chose Derek because “the younger one wanted to be president and hadn’t the experience,” as he rather succinctly if tactlessly explained to a magazine journalist at the time. Dick left the company soon after to focus on an affiliated trucking business and oversee preparations for the Canada Games, but the wounds of their rupture never really healed.

After their father’s death in 1996, Dick, who continued to be a one-third owner of the family company, sued Derek on two separate occasions over his management of the business (both settled out of court) before Derek finally bought him out completely in 2007.

Richard’s relations with his own family also seemed to deteriorate after he left the brewery. “He was never the same with his children,” his wife Constance would tell police the day after his murder. He was a “strong and controlling” man who could be verbally and emotionally abusive with their two daughters, Lisa and Jackie, but especially with his only son, Dennis. All of the children “had issues” with their father, Connie said, but it was Dennis who bore the brunt of Richard’s belief that “a father could not be friends with his son.” After Richard left Moosehead, Dennis told police, “things got complicated with his father… You kept your distance.” Dennis’s wife Lisa said Dennis had done his best to win his father’s respect but could never live up to Richard’s standards.

Though Dick and Connie Oland’s marriage had survived, ostensibly intact, for 45 years, the reality was that they led separate lives, daughter Lisa told investigators. It was not unusual for Dick to not return to the family home in the upscale suburb ofRothesay at night.

For the past eight years, in fact, Richard had been having an affair with Diana Sedlacek, a local real estate agent. As the relationship became more public – there was talk of marriage – Dennis had begun to feel increasingly guilty for not telling his mother about his father’s mistress, exacerbating the already tense relationships between the two men.

Connie was not unaware of Sedlacek, of course, whom she described to police as “Dick’s friend.” She’d actually learned about her husband’s murder as the result of a phone call from Sedlacek.

Oland and Sedlacek had spent the day before his death texting about a trip they were planning to take to Maine. Though they often communicated through texts, Sedlacek invariably phoned Richard at 6:30 each night to talk about their days. That evening, he didn’t answer when she dialed him. At one point, she texted him: “are you there?” No answer. The next morning, Sedlacek drove past his office, saw the commotion and called Connie to ask if she knew why there were so many police cars outside her husband’s office. Connie then called Richard’s longtime employee and friend, Bob McFadden, who delivered the shocking news.

Although there were plenty of people who didn’t get along with Richard Oland – daughter Lisa described him as a hard-nosed businessman who could have had “anyone for an enemy,” and an acquaintance noted that “to know him was not love him” – it didn’t take police more than a few hours to begin posing their most pointed questions about Richard’s relationship with Dennis. While Connie had been quick to tell officers she didn’t believe her 45-yearold son would ever hurt his father, Sedlacek described what she saw as a “strained relationship,” in part because Richard thought Dennis was “lazy.”

When Dennis was younger, Dick had done his best to dissuade his son from working for the brewery that bore the family name, even though Dennis and his cousin Andrew, Derek’s son, who would ultimately become the company’s president, were good friends. Instead Dennis became an investment advisor, working for a number of years in Toronto before returning to Saint John in 1994. As an investment advisor at Wood Gundy, one of his clients was his father but, as even Dennis admitted to police, he was more his father’s order taker than his investment advisor.

When Dennis’ first marriage broke up and he faced the potential loss of his family home – the one that had been willed to him by his grandparents in which his father had grown up, and was located just down the street from the Almon Lane mansion where his father and mother now lived – Richard was quick to step in. He lent Dennis $500,000 to allow him to keep the house in the divorce settlement. Although Dennis was repaying only the interest on that loan, with the principal to be paid off from any inheritance his mother would eventually leave him in her will, the money had apparently become one more source of friction between the two men.

But that loan and Dennis’s own precarious financial situation weren’t the only red flags that led police to suspect Dennis might have had something to do with his father’s death.

As investigators began to piece together the events leading up to Richard Oland’s death, they zeroed in on the early evening hours of July 6. Dennis Oland told police he’d visited his father at the office after work that day to talk family genealogy, one of the few passions the two men shared. It had been, Dennis suggested, an uneventful visit and he left.

But workers at the printing shop below told police they’d heard six or seven “exceptionally loud, quick pounding thumps” that evening from an area of Oland’s office on the floor above them.

Police were also curious about discrepancies between what Dennis claimed to be wearing when he visited his father – a navy blazer, khaki dress pants, dark brown dress shoes and a blue, white-collared dress shirt – and other evidence they’d gathered. Security cameras at Dennis’s Wood Gundy office showed him leaving the building that day wearing a brown sports jacket and beige pants. The police also had a witness, Bill Adamson, Maureen’s husband, who’d been waiting outside the office in his car for his wife to finish work. He saw a man wearing a dark brown sports jacket and light-coloured pants carrying a red, environmentally friendly grocery-style bag enter 52 Canterbury. Adamson did not see the man’s face so he couldn’t identify him.

A short time later, a woman saw a man at Renforth Wharf in Rothesay. He was “dressed very nice.” The man picked something up at the beginning of the pier, the woman said, then walked to the far end where he opened a bag and took something red out. He then wrapped the object he’d initially picked up, put it in the bag and walked briskly back toward the parking lot. “I knew it wasn’t right,” the woman told police investigators. “There was a purpose to what he was doing, a real purpose.” When police later showed her video from Richard Oland’s funeral, she identified the man she’d seen as one of the pall bearers: Dennis Oland. Dennis admitted he’d been to the wharf on his way home that night; he was just looking to see if his kids were still swimming there, he said. They weren’t.

On July 9, divers searched the waters around Renforth Wharf, but found nothing.

By then, police had already seemingly fingered their prime and only suspect. They told reporters they believed Richard Oland knew his murderer, and that the motive for his killing might have been financial. But they refused to formally publicly identify their suspect.

They didn’t have to.

On July 14, one week after the murder, 20 police officers, acting on a warrant, swooped in on Dennis Oland’s home at 58 Gondola Point Road, the same one he’d inherited from his grandfather, the same one his father had saved from the ashes of his divorce. Police spent eight hours combing the house and grounds and left with four large garbage bags, several cardboard boxes and some paper bags, seizing a total of 57 different items: legal papers, bank statements, a purple purse with a note inside, bedding, clothing, even a dryer lint collector.

Later, they executed search warrants at Dennis’s Wood Gundy office, at Loki (a yacht co-owned by Dennis’s second wife Lisa), and at the Royal Kennebecasis Yacht Club to which the Oland family – and much of the city’s elite – belonged.

It wouldn’t have taken a Columbo to deduce what the police were up to.

Not surprisingly, residents of tightly knit, socially interconnected Saint John, a city of just 120,000 people, were both riveted and rife with rumour: Dick Oland had been bludgeoned to death with an axe handle… Police are about to make an arrest… They’ll never catch the killer… The reason no one has been charged is…

It didn’t help that police not only didn’t arrest anyone for the crime but they also refused to release any of the information they’d filed with the courts to justify their various search warrants. They wouldn’t tell reporters what they were looking for, or if those searches were even related to the Oland homicide investigation.

That police cone of silence, suggested Halifax media lawyer David Coles, “raised suspicions of the man in the street there may be some miscarriage of justice.” Coles, on behalf of the CBC and the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, launched a legal challenge to the sealed search warrants in December 2011. Coles argued that a 1982 Supreme Court ruling required police to disclose any information they’d used to convince the courts to grant them a search warrant once the warrant itself was executed.

The only exception to such blanket disclosure is for the kind of “hallmark” evidence only the killer could know, and which therefore might prove critical to winning a conviction.

But, as chief investigator Const. Stephen Davidson told the court, “Basically, everything that we seize could be hallmark evidence… I don’t think any items can be disclosed at this point.”

Davidson worried too that if the names of witnesses who’d provided information to police were unsealed, some of them would clam up or unnamed others might put pressure on them. One witness who worked in the building where the murder took place and had spoken to police early on, he told the judge, was now saying he was “done cooperating.”

Davidson wasn’t the only one who argued that the details in the search warrants should remain a secret. Gary Miller, a prominent criminal defence lawyer representing Dennis Oland, complained about the “media frenzy” and the already “poisoned atmosphere” against his client in the city. Bill Teed, who represented other members of the Oland family, warned his clients’ right to privacy had not only been invaded, “it’s been run over by a truck… What this family has had to put up with and deal with as a result of this murder, as a result of the investigation, as a result of this media attention… the innocent rights that we try to protect for them has been just about drowned.”

In the end, however, Provincial Court Judge R. Leslie Jackson sided with the media, and slowly, unsealed warrant by un-redacted affidavit by unmasked name, the salacious details, incriminating tidbits and family secrets tumbled out: about the state of the Oland marriage, about Richard’s mistress, about his relationship with his son, about the fact Dennis had become – and still is – the investigator’s only suspect. (The details in this report, in fact, come from those documents. It’s important to note that none of the assertions in those documents has been tested in a court of law.)

On November 12, 2013 – two years, four months and five days after Richard Oland died in his office following what police now say were “repeated blows” to his body, and after having interviewed more than 60 witnesses, seized 378 pieces of evidence and sent 243 items for forensic testing – Saint John police finally charged Dennis Oland with second degree murder in the death of his father.

The year before, in November 2012, investigators had met with the Crown to lay out what they thought at the time was a beyond-reasonable-doubt case against Dennis, but prosecutors, Police Chief Bill Reid said, asked for a “multitude” of additional information and forensics evidence before finally agreeing to proceed.

Which was fine with Reid. “We were in no hurry to make a mistake,” he told reporters the day after the arrest.

Derek Oland believes they have. He quickly issued a statement on behalf of the family declaring “Dennis is, in fact, innocent and we will support him and his family through the course of whatever legal actions unfold.” Refusing to be drawn into the questions and gossip that bubbled just below the surface of everyday life in Saint John for more than two years, Oland urged the community to “allow the evidence to be examined and the rule of law to unfold as it will.”

Whatever the outcome of the trial itself, however, the reality is many of the Oland family secrets are out of the bottle now.


Originally published in Atlantic Business Magazine, January-February 2014.

Andrew Younger

Andrew Younger

I’ve known Andrew Younger since the summer of 1998. I was director of the King’s School of Journalism. He was on the waiting list for our one-year Bachelor of Journalism class. He wasn’t near the top of the list, but he was persistent. He maintained what seemed like daily contact, just letting us know how keen he was to get in. He was clearly ambitious, but invariably upbeat and positive. Eventually, just before classes began, he was admitted.

Within days, however, he had disappeared.

On September 2, 1998, Swissair Flight 111 had crashed off Peggys Cove. The international media descended, and Andrew quickly attached himself to one of the TV crews, spending the next week running errands, humping gear, doing whatever needed doing. Learning.

He returned to classes even more determined to make it in the world of journalism.

And he did. He became a successful, world-traveling independent documentary producer.

I would often invoke his name, both as an exemplar for waiting list applicants, and also as a reminder to myself of our admissions process’ fallibility.

I wasn’t surprised when he became a city councilor, then an MLA and finally provincial energy minister after the Liberals swept to power in 2013.

But I was shocked — and saddened — when it all came tumbling down just before Christmas. Premier Stephen McNeil whisper-announced Younger had taken a leave of absence to deal with a “personal matter.” Last week, Younger teared up as he announced he was resigning from cabinet “to be there for my son and my wife.”

We know Younger received (continuing) death threats, and police protection. We know the police investigation led to an unrelated, still unexplained, charge of assault against Younger by a former caucus staffer. She has pleaded not guilty.

But there is much we still don’t know, in part because that case is still before the courts and the police investigation into the threats is still ongoing.

Rumours abound.

I haven’t always, perhaps often, agreed with Andrew, the politician. Last year, he wrote a blog post criticizing one of my columns as showing “a shocking lack of research, and is factually inaccurate at almost every turn.”

That said, I wish him the best. This province needs more persistent, upbeat, ambitious men and women.

This week, the Harper government will extend and expand our supposedly no-boots-on-the-ground, six-month military mission in Iraq.

The purpose, according to Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson, is to “degrade and destabilize this gang of thugs [Islamic State], and in doing so, strip [it] of its power to threaten the security of the region, or to launch terrorist operations in Canada.”

Stephen Harper

Stephen Harper

The reality is this soon-to-be-open-ended, bottomless money pit of a misguided mission will achieve none of Nicholson’s objectives, and may actually make us more vulnerable to terrorist attack in the future.

Islamic State is the logical result of cascading, colliding, ill-advised and illogical western military misadventures in a volatile region full of deep-seated historic, religious, ideological, sectarian conflicts we can barely identify let alone wrap our minds around.

This latest mess-of-our-own-making began with George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Canada wisely dodged that bullet.

As Opposition leader then, Stephen Harper had argued for putting our troops in Iraq’s harm’s way. As prime minister, he volunteered us last fall for Iraq II. And now he’s keen for us to push into the front lines of those chasing the Islamic State from Iraq into Syria.

Syria? Wait a minute. Isn’t Syria in the midst of a civil war? Isn’t Syrian president Bashar al-Asaad also fighting the Islamic State? If we take on Islamic State in Syria, are we propping up a reprehensible regime responsible for the deaths of at least 60,000 civilians in the last three years?

We claim we need to fight Islamic State in Syria because the U.S.-led coalition has been so successful in driving them out of Iraq.

How’s that working out?

Well, let’s see. Iran, another non-ally (see nuclear threat) that supports al-Asaad, is also fighting Islamic State in Iraq… when it isn’t fomenting sectarian violence between Iraqi-backed Shia and Islamic-State-encouraged Sunni militias. Not that either side requires encouragement. They’ve been warring since 632 over who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad.


So is Rob Nicholson, whose dismissal of the Islamic State as simply “a gang of thugs” betrays his ignorance of its complex historical, religious and ideological roots.

Instead of adding our inevitably inconsequential military might to an unwinnable conflict, Canada could make a real contribution by focusing instead on helping these wars’ refugees, and understanding why so many young western-raised Muslims, including Canadians, offer themselves as drone fodder for Islamic State. And finding constructive ways to discourage them.

Unfortunately, those aren’t “warrior” enough for the Harper government.

So we are doomed to continue this tragedy of terrors.

They were different men at different stages of their personal lives and professional careers. No matter.

With last week’s too-soon deaths of Allan Rowe, the longtime Global television anchor turned MLA, and Matthew Wuest, the former Halifax Metro sports journalist and founder of the legendary Capgeek hockey insider’s website, the local journalism community is a lesser place.

Rowe, 58, died Monday following an aneurysm; Wuest, just 35, succumbed Thursday after a two-and-a-half-year struggle with colon cancer.

They were each professional storytellers, but their own stories were compelling too.

Allan Rowe

Allan Rowe

Rowe’s journalistic career began in 1982 when he was assigned to cover the sinking of the Ocean Ranger off Newfoundland. All 84 workers had died. Before he’d switched to journalism, Rowe worked as a roughneck aboard the Ocean Ranger, and many of those deaths he had to report on “were close friends of mine.”

Matthew Wuest

Matthew Wuest

Wuest, for his part, was a computer science grad who switched to journalism because computer science turned out to be “not very fun.”

He became the Halifax Mooseheads beat reporter. But in 2009, on a whim, he employed his computer science smarts to create a simple salary cap calculator to determine whether his beloved Detroit Red Wings could afford to sign Marian Hossa.

Fans asked him to design similar calculators for their teams, and Capgeek was born. Within two years, The Hockey News named Wuest one of hockey’s 100 most influential people, and his site boasted four million hits a day during the NHL’s peak signing/trading deadline frenzies.

Ironically, the first time many people knew Wuest had created the popular website came in January when he quietly announced he was shutting it down because of his deteriorating health.

That was something else about both Wuest and Rowe. In a business with more than its share of egos, they were both self-effacing good guys.

AllNovaScotia.com reporter Devin Stevens, who says Rowe hired him “when he didn’t have to,” remembers trying to say thanks when he was about to leave for another job. “Humble to a fault,” Stevens explains, “he wouldn’t have it. I would have made it anyway, he said. That’s the kind of guy Allan was.”

Matthew Wuest.

Allan Rowe.

Two good guys. Two good journalists. They will be missed. RIP.