For years, the residents of the tiny Nova Scotia community of Moser River pleaded unsuccessfully for protection from a group of hooligans who have terrorized the town. Then Donald Findlay died.
by DEBORAH JONES
MOSER RIVER, Nova Scotia, Canada, January 8, 1994
The plaster in Dorothy Findlay’s living room is pocked with bullet holes, macabre souvenirs of a lengthy battle between her husband Donald and a group of young men in this beleaguered coastal village. Coffee cup and cigarette in one hand, Mrs. Findlay points to the scars and describes how community hostilities eventually led to Donald’s murder and destroyed her life. “My husband, my best friend is gone,” she says, tears in her eyes.
Donald Findlay was beaten to death Oct. 1 in a Halifax-area jail minutes after he arrived to serve time for a minor offence. A young Moser River man incarcerated in the same cell block as him will appear in court on March 7 on a charge of first-degree murder.
The people who live in the community of Moser River, 150 kilometres north of Halifax, believe the killing was the result of a long-standing dispute between the town’s few hundred families and a lawless band of 20 to 32 hooligans from Moser River and the nearby hamlets of Ecum Secum, Port Dufferin and Necum Teuch. Long-time residents say they are bums who exist on welfare and unemployment insurance.
Citizens have begged provincial officials for protection from the gang of young bullies, most of whom are said to be members of three families. A police officer once stationed in Moser River formally urged that another officer be appointed after he was transferred out.
Until Mr. Donald Findlay’s death, the calls for help went unheeded. His murder, however, seems to have been the watershed event that will finally bring change to Moser River. Last week, a public inquiry made its pronouncements on the operation of the Halifax jail in which he died. This week, the Findlay family formally began a legal action against the provincial government for its role in Donald’s death. FOR his widow, it’s too little too late.
These days, she rarely leaves her house, so fearful is she of what she would do if she encountered one of the young men she feels caused his death. “I didn’t know I could hate anyone so much,” says Mrs. Findlay, a petite, 36-year-old woman in a neat dress and long brown hair tied back in a pony tail. Her hands shake as she shoos away a friendly Doberman, one of the Findlays three large dogs.
Outside the comfortable cedar house, a dirt road winds three kilometres through the bush to Moser River, on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. The central part of the village (population 300) is a cluster of clapboard buildings strung along both sides of a two-lane coastal highway. There’s a small gas station, a fire hall and two convenience stores. There’s also plenty of evidence of hooligans at work.
The only sizable business in Moser River, a general store, is boarded up and abandoned. A trip through the town reveals that nearly three- quarters of its homes have been broken into. Residents point to almost every house and relate stories of tires being slashed, threatening phone calls, a car fire-bombed with a Molotov cocktail, a man kidnapped by a hitchhiker at knifepoint.
There is tale upon tale of petty thievery. At Eastern Consolidated School, children had raised several hundred dollars to buy computer equipment. The money was stolen from the school office.
At night, citizens try to protect themselves by patrolling the streets. “We go out after midnight, when the trouble usually starts,” says Anthony Turner, owner of a local lumber business. The patrols began after Mr. Findlay’s death, when someone continued to pester his family by gunning a car motor outside their isolated house and shining headlights into the home in the middle of the night.
Bill Findlay, Donald’s 63-year-old father, says senior citizens have armed themselves and are so fed up with the vandalism they’re prepared to shoot to defend themselves and their houses.
The village is served by Royal Canadian Mounted Police based in Sheet Harbour, half an hour away. Because the officers have large areas to oversee, it sometimes takes as long as 45 minutes to respond to calls for help from Moser River.
A further complication is that most residents of the town own police scanners. When a complaint is phoned to police, the information is relayed on the radio for everyone to hear.
Resident David Spackman, for example, believes he received a threatening telephone call last year because of the scanner. While members of the Armed Forces conducted routine diving manoeuvres in the ocean near Moser River, someone slashed their truck’s tires. The soldiers used Mr. Spackman’s phone to call their base, near Halifax, and report the incident to the police. Shortly afterward, Mr. Spackman says, he received a call from a man telling him to keep out of other people’s business.
The petty thuggery of Moser River is not unique among Nova Scotia outports. The province’s fishing and forestry industries are in decline everywhere, leaving communities vulnerable to small-time crime.
But the Findlay murder has moved the town into another, meaner league. “It appears there’s more of a social breakdown in Moser River,” says Dr. Norman Okihiro, a criminologist at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax.
Donald Findlay was a burly man (5-foot-8 and 200 pounds) and he was a scrapper. His neighbours say he was wild as a child, though never what you’d call criminal. He settled down 15 years ago when he married Dorothy and fathered three children, now aged 10, 12 and 14. But he never, ever backed down in a fight – especially with the loose group of young men the rest of the community calls “The Hooligans.”
Councillor Judith Smiley says, “there was always a problem in Ecum Secum with a few renegades. Those renegades have grown up and produced children, and they’re the second generation of hoodlums.”
Ms. Smiley describes the troublemakers as a gang of men in their teens and early 20s. “Not one has ever had a job, they wander around breaking and entering and use the money for drugs.”
One of the fathers intimidates his own family and everyone else he comes near, she says. “He’s a scary character. He’s stolen lots, bootlegged, jacked deer, shunned the law and didn’t do his community service work when he was caught jacking deer. This guy is basically from the Ozarks.”
She continues, “if people could see these individuals, they’re pint- sized, scrawny, little bastards, but just so brazen about what they do.”
So far, the so-called hooligans themselves have been entirely absent in the public debate. Most have refused to talk to reporters. “They’re having a field day down there (in the town), let them have it,” says one woman, bitterly, when I phoned her. Her son, Greg Barkhouse, was convicted of mischief for helping smash the window of Donald Findlay’s truck last year. “It’s all bullshit anyways,” she said, then hung up.
For years Mr. Findlay fought with the hooligans. “My husband was the only one standing up to them,” says his wife bitterly. “We weren’t able to go out to dances for the past five years because they’d start fights with him.”
Kevin Findlay says his brother “didn’t go looking for trouble, but if these individuals confronted him he would stand up to them. Donnie didn’t back down from nobody, and he never ever showed any fear.”
Mr. Findlay worked on his excavating and trucking business seven days a week, was a volunteer firefighter in the village and was involved in local charities and service clubs. He was known for his generosity to anyone who needed help, and for his willingness to overlook late payments from people strapped for cash.
His life ended 90 minutes after he entered the Halifax Correctional Centre on Oct. 1 to serve a sentence of 14 days, his punishment for a conviction of dangerous driving. Guards found the 37-year-old man, beaten, bleeding from the mouth. It wasn’t until two days later that Mrs. Findlay was told her husband had been murdered – kicked to death. Another prisoner incarcerated in the same cellblock was later charged in his murder. The 20-year-old Moser River resident, Wade Fleet, had arrived at the jail two weeks before Mr. Findlay to serve a 15-month sentence for assaulting a fisheries officer, illegally catching salmon, causing property damage and breaching probation several times.
Mr. Findlay’s conviction, his first run-in with the law serious enough to put him behind bars, resulted from an incident in July of 1992. The Findlays’ youngest son, Charlie, was walking his horse near their house when several people in a car drove up and told him to “get the fuck off the road or they were going to kill him,” Mrs. Findlay says. “They punched the horse in the stomach.” The horse jumped into the ditch, dragging the boy along.
Incensed when he heard what had happened, Mr. Findlay gathered up two of his children, drove into Moser River and searched out the louts who had harassed Charlie. When he espied the two men (with two women) in their car, he rammed them with his truck. Then he got out of the truck and walked away with his children. The people in the car jumped out and smashed the windshield of his truck.
Mr. Fleet, who was a bystander at the time of the crash, was one of two men charged with mischief in the windshield-smashing incident. The charge was withdrawn after the case was adjourned repeatedly and Crown witnesses failed to appear in court, says Sergeant Ian Drummond, head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment in Sheet Harbour. The courts are now unlikely to proceed with another pending charge against Mr. Fleet – uttering a death threat against Mr. Findlay after the car-ramming.
Any dealings Donald Findlay had with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police seemed to involve the hooligans. The bullet holes in the living room that his widow points out were put there by an unknown rifleman who shot into the house. In response, Mr. Findlay grabbed his own rifle, rushed outside and shot off some rounds. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police charged him with a firearms offence. The rifleman was never caught.
The Nova Scotia government, stung by the murder of Mr. Findlay in prison, ordered a public inquiry. Conducted by Hank O’Handley, a senior Alberta corrections official, the inquiry found no evidence of wrongdoing or errors by staff at the correctional centre, but did say the Findlay death was made possible by overcrowding and a physical design so inferior that the cellblock is “a nonfunctional living unit.”
Mr. O’Handley said racial problems between white and black inmates and staff have caused tension in the jail. (Members of Nova Scotia’s black community say they’ve complained for years about the jail but no action was taken until Mr. Findlay’s death.) He also noted that a guard failed to report to his superiors that Mr. Fleet knew of Mr. Findlay’s impending arrival three days before the killing, and that guards were unaware that Mr. Fleet had been charged with uttering death threats against Mr. Findlay.
Since the Findlay murder, the jail has installed trailers to house weekend inmates and keep them apart from the regular population.
Moser River was an isolated outport accessible only by boat when the province built a coastal road to it in the fifties. Most of its residents are descendants of German immigrants who settled in Lunenberg on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, then 200 years ago moved to Moser River to fish and exploit high-quality timber, both of which have disappeared.
Since the road was built, new families have moved in – including those of the so-called hooligans. That’s when rents first appeared in the area’s social fabric.
Says Rev. Gavin Dunbar, an Anglican priest who moved from Mississauga, Ont., to Moser River two years ago, “Some schools have left, the post office has closed, most businesses closed long ago. People go to Sheet Harbour to shop and bank. What’s left is the churches and the elderly. The best and brightest young people have left for jobs. This society is subject to predation.”
He believes the crimes committed in Moser River are the kind often overlooked in a city because people don’t know each other well. Here, he says, they’ve been dramatized by Donald Findlay’s murder.
Dr. Okihiro of Mount St. Vincent University has researched crime in Newfoundland outports and suspects unemployment and loss of the traditional resource-based economy is largely to blame in Moser River. “People have a lot of time on their hands. Ultimately, economic factors are going to come into play.”
The town is also getting more publicity than it wants. Mr. Dunbar says some residents are unhappy about the way they and their town are portrayed. “Yes, they’re rough people, but they’re not just anthropological curiosities.” Ms. Smiley says: “I’m sure every community has an element of low life, we just happen to have a little lower level.”
A few weeks ago, village residents met with provincial Justice Minister Bill Gillis in the fire hall. Throughout the two-hour meeting, only one resident of the 100 who attended the meeting said she didn’t consider Moser River’s problems unusual. Connie Lowe, a retired woman, angrily accosted one of about 30 reporters present to complain about the publicity Moser River is getting. “I’ve lived here 47 years and I’m not scared, and I’ve never had a problem,” she said. “I don’t believe we have a mafia gang here.”
But when she finished speaking, her friend Rebecca Cameron named several families whose homes have been broken into and, in one case, burned. Ms. Lowe conceded that crime did happen in her village.
Still, after years of asking for help, Moser River is finally receiving attention. Mr. Gills announced at the town meeting that the province would pay for an Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer to live in the village. This week, Constable Steve Alexander, from Amherst, spent his first shift working out of a temporary Royal Canadian Mounted Police office in the fire hall. He will be based in Sheet Harbour, but live in Moser River.
Mrs. Findlay, meanwhile, has launched a suit against the province for more than $1-million for compensation for her husband’s death. She has also laid a formal complaint against Michael Arsenault, an Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer based in Sheet Harbour who charged her husband with the firearms offence involving the unknown assailant and other offences. Royal Canadian Mounted Police Sgt. Bill Price says the complaint could take several months to deal with through Royal Canadian Mounted Police headquarters in Halifax.
Moser River has rallied around Dorothy Findlay. When the province refused her interim aid, citizens held fundraising events on her behalf. Private donations have come from across Canada.
But her faith in the ability of the justice system to protect people is almost gone. Citizens who try to defend themselves are treated more harshly than the perpetrators of crimes, she says. “It’s something I can’t understand, why a person can’t protect themselves.”
She says she had “asked an (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) officer why he hated my husband so bad, and he said because he has a quick temper.” She admits Donald would “fly off the handle easily. But the only time the police saw him was after (the hooligans) tortured us.”
Through tears she adds, “I am angry, very angry, with the justice system and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.”
Copyright © 1994 Deborah Jones
Originally published in the Globe and Mail newspaper, FOCUS page 1, January 8, 1994.