Of Mooseheads and Hometowns

In Improbable Mutterings on July 18, 2011 at 3:08 pm

The news coming out of my hometown, Saint John, NB, in the past eleven days has been disturbing and mysterious. The “revelations” surrounding Richard Oland’s murder in the print media have swung from the scandalous to the unthinkable – all the while keeping a bulls-eye focus on one of the famous families of the Loyalist City. Conspiracy theories abound; no substantial evidence has been presented. The city is abuzz, and you can hear the noise loud and clear here in Toronto.

All things considered, the amount of scandal that plagues Saint John’s two feudal titans – the Irvings and the Olands – is relatively low. There have been rumoured rumblings around the Irvings for years now – succession issues, whispers of buyouts, and nervous breakdowns – but, given what is at stake, these are all relatively busy-body mutterings, with little impact on the day-to-day lives of Johnners.

As far as bad publicity is concerned, the Olands have seemed rather tame by comparison, though that may be because their collateral influence is lower. True, they have a higher recognition internationally than do the Irvings – but considering that Derek Oland’s strategy to keep succession within one “arm” of the family has been relatively successful, it’s a family that looks, from the outside, to have maintained a certain level of order and decorum.

Dick Oland’s murder washes away some of this calm, while not necessarily revealing any particulars of the disputes that lie beneath. It is widely acknowledged that Dick battled with Derek some decades ago around the development of the Moosehead brand and business. Since then, the younger Oland had made his own way, and rather successfully. A fixture in the community, with many major contributions bearing his stamp, nobody could say that he had rested on his laurels since leaving his family’s cash cow.

But feuding seems to be in the family’s blood. Speculation that Dick’s son Dennis is somehow involved is running rampant, though no evidence – short of police investigating his home and removing many items – has been presented publically. From conversations with several people in Saint John and Rothesay, it seems as if he has been all but convicted in the court of public opinion – though nobody is being foolish enough to say anything openly.

If you’ve never lived in Saint John, it must be difficult to understand the peculiar grip its feudal overlords hold over the populace. It is an old city, a city with long-held traditions and superstitions. If it is a city that believes in hard work and a stubborn resilience, it is also a city that is startlingly lacking in leadership and innovation. It relies on its old-and-trusted blood to lead; it distrusts the vacillations of politicians and the ephemerality of the arts; it has a strong religious base that puts strong stock in a paternalistic guidance and a “slow-and-steady” development.

On the flipside, I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to be one of these powerful families. They are held up as paragons of the community – but that also means they are held to a higher standard of conduct, of achievement, of morals. While families like the Irvings, the Olands, the McCains, the Ganongs, and other brand-name representatives of New Brunswick have reaped the rewards that come with wealth and fame, they have also retreated under a blanket of secrecy and isolation. Their private lives are the stuff of dreams in many parts of the city; their names are synonymous with the privilege known only to monarchy. But I’ve met many of them, and my family considers some members of these families friends; in person, they seem like decent enough people, though they can be distant, as if they are seeing through you. Maybe that’s understandable – they’ve never had a “normal” social frame of reference. We’re talking dynasties that span more than 100 years, in most cases.

Saint John needs to break its reliance on these families. I don’t mean it should stop supporting the businesses and jobs they create – far from it, for they are tremendous employers and benefactors to the region. But there is a vice-like grip on the minds and imaginations of the citizens of the city. The lurid fascination surrounding Dick Oland’s murder is understandable on its own terms, but it is given spectacular dimensions in the context of Saint John’s cultural history. An appalling murder is shaking the city to its very core – and that is a sign of weakness. If one family falls, the fortunes and emotions of a city should not be tied to it, no matter who is responsible.

I love my hometown. I love its gritty realism, its utter lack of pretentiousness, and the loyalty of its citizens to hard work and hard living. But so many of those values are held aloft as being good enough on their own, ignoring the need for truly profound change. The small cadre of artists and intellectuals who have claimed the uptown (and it is “uptown,” and not “downtown” – one way to spot someone “from away”) are fighting the good fight, it’s true – but they seem lonely, and unsupported by the vast majority of the populace. The city I still call “home” continues to live in a kind of historical snow-globe, one where titans of industry commanded the fealty of entire districts of cities, and the pocketbooks of politicians. I long for the day when the city is no longer referred to as the “hometown” of Irving and Moosehead, but given the tenor of the conversation these days, that time seems a long ways off.

  1. Good story.It captures the essence of what it is like for Saint Johners. I am a former one who moved away in mid career.As a Westsider, my perspective was quite different than that of those from Rothesay….very different. Saint John will not reach its’ full potential until the door of imagination, what is possible, opens.

    It is the closest major city to one of the richest parts of the world (New England) and the transportation links to that market are below mediocre. I know the work is taking place but rail, sea and road transportation to our natural trading partner would open the city up for other entrepreneurs to “see the light.” Until that time it will be the same old same old.

    • I think you’re right, Richard. As a transportation hub, it is still quite busy, but not nearly at what its potential could be. The gradual decay of the rail lines in that part of the world has hurt the city badly, I think. But there’s also an immense labour talent pool there that’s largely moving elsewhere. It will, however, take some courageous investment from outside sources to start a new industry in that city…especially given that there’s little local capital to support much new enterprise.

  2. Nice story Alex. It is weird to know some Olands yet have no knowledge whatsoever of this other, albeit close, branch. It’s a compelling story.

    • It’s very compelling, Craig. I assume you’re speaking of the NS Olands? Overall, they seem like good people, which accounts for some of the disturbing qualities of some of this story. Everyone always says “Things like this don’t happen here,” but the family itself, despite its divides, doesn’t exude drama or scandal.

  3. Saint John is a very weird place. I recently lived there for a short time. And, as an American from the Southeast USA, I had no desire to stay long. It seemed to me to be a place that had plenty of potential. However, the potential was being suppressed by these ultra-rich families that seemed to control everything. These families control huge conglomerated companies that were so vertically integrated, they basically controlled almost every aspect of entire industries. The Irvings own over 300 NB companies. Go to their corporate headquarters in Saint John. The people in that one building control every aspect of over 300 other companies. Competition is suppressed. Therefore no new investment allowed. If you don’t work for the Irvings, Olands, or Mccains, you get your paycheck from the Gov. Plenty of poor people in Saint John. The place made me sad. And, I’ve lived in some pretty sad cities (New Orleans, Atlanta, Memphis). At least in those cities people still had hope. People in Saint John seemed to accept they were less than the people who live in Rothesay; and they deserved their fate. Sad.

    • You’re right on a lot of points, Don. Particularly about the lack of competition. There’s not much of a climate of success in the area in certain sectors — publishing being the first one to come to mind — because as soon as you grow out of your baby socks, they’re buying out your advertising and making sure you accept their only-offer-in-town buyout. This has left a legacy of fatalism amongst many of its middle and lower class citizens: how can anyone possibly reach that bar? There’s little “middle ground” for success: you’re either scraping by, or you’re doing well because you work for one of the organizations that has been bought by one of the “Big Guys.” From a business perspective, I understand the value of a monopoly; but the problem is, there was never a playing field to begin with in that city. That’s meant that the gene pool for business success and investment has always been very small. And attitude is a big part of this, as you’ve observed. Although I would say that part of that is a difference between American and Canadian understandings of economy: we’ve never had as much of a “manifest destiny” myth as you guys have.

  4. This commentary and some of the responses should be submitted as an Op/Ed to the Globe and Mail or the National Post (is that the right description for the public opinion columns?). You and your responders have touched some very fundamental issues in the psyche of this town. There were once many wealthy and poweful families in Saint John, controlling many diversfied industries … now all gone. The reasons are complicated,reflecting both national political and global economic factors but also intertwined with those families you are discussing.More than just the death of a scion … we are dealing with the death of a city.

  5. I feel the same way. Last week my mother called to let me know some very troubling news. I grew up in Rothesay and knew the Olands through the Pony Club. We’re not close, nor would I say they are friends. But we know them, and we like them. What they are going through is tragic.
    I was very disturbed by the news my mother gave me, and she called again yesterday to let me know the “good news”, that the news from the other day was just a rumour. Good news? Hardly, Richard is still dead, a family is in mourning. How is this good news? It compounds the tragedy.

    • Hi Alex. I get daily reports that are also no more than rumours, and not many of them are good. (Then again: would they ever be?) This is part of why I want the police to start releasing a little more information. The climate in the public is positively toxic. How long will it be before some of these speculations become accepted, or urban legend, or what? How long will the family be dogged by myths which have no basis in fact? The levee’s gonna break at some point, and then even more fingers will be pointed. I don’t think this situation is even close to being finished.

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