Murder and a maritime dynasty

The death of Dick Oland has a province worried and wondering

Murder and a maritime dynasty

Canadian Yachting Association

They say that when Richard Henry Oland’s secretary noticed something was amiss on the morning of July 7, a Thursday, she ran downstairs to the printing business operated by the building’s landlord, an apparently squeamish man who in turn sent up one of his employees to look into the matter. What was discovered, at 52 Canterbury Street, between the major thoroughfares of Princess and King streets—a fairy-tale block of 19th-century brick buildings in the gentrifying core of historic Saint John, N.B.—has likely changed the city forever.

Oland, the 69-year-old president of the Far End Corp. investment firm, had been messily dispatched at his desk—bludgeoned with the blunt end of an axe, according to local rumour and a Toronto Star report that the Saint John police force refuses to confirm. A man who in photographs is seldom without a face-cracking grin, Oland had last been seen at six o’clock the previous evening.

This week, a professional cleaner specializing in mopping up after suicides, homicides and unattended deaths spent days vigorously scouring the premises, the hose of a high-powered air-cleaning device designed to clear the stench of death hovering out from the covered window.

Known around town as Dick, Oland was a bright, energetic but difficult son of the Moosehead beer Olands, one of a handful of wealthy New Brunswick families that have divided the province into lucrative fiefdoms of endeavour and that, over the years, have come to settle in the old-money bedroom community of Rothesay, 20 minutes up a pockmarked highway northeast of Saint John.

Little known outside the Maritimes, Rothesay once laid claim to some of the country’s highest incomes per capita until the town was forced to amalgamate with less affluent neighbours in 1998. “What is Rothesay?” the novelist Mordecai Richler once asked a Saint John cabbie in a droll Maritime travel piece written at about that time. “It is a very good neighbourhood,” the cabbie told him. “The Irvings live there.” “Welcome to the feudal Maritimes,” Richler wrote. “Whatever isn’t owned by the Irvings in the Maritimes belongs to the McCains, or has no redeeming value.”

Well, don’t forget the Olands. Indeed, by the standards of Rothesay, the Irvings are newcomers. “The Irvings are new money,” one Rothesay resident told Maclean’s. “They are old.” The brewing family has for generations lived here alongside the rest of Saint John’s upper class, some of them, such as the Crosby molasses dynasty, lesser known west of New Brunswick, perhaps, but still big fish. Together the families hold enormous influence over the region, as Dick Oland himself recognized. “New Brunswick’s free enterprise system has become a 20th-century version of the Family Compact,” he once told a reporter, a reference to the Tory clans who through sheer cronyism once controlled Upper Canada.

Dick’s unsettling death, in a tight-knit Saint John that still grinds to a standstill on Sundays and is dominated the rest of the week by ancient steeples, church bells and the cry of seabirds in from the Bay of Fundy, is a Gothic reality unfolding with all the apparent inevitability of a dark novel.

A day after his funeral at Our Lady of Perpetual Health, the Catholic church Oland’s own fundraising efforts helped build down the street from his sprawling house, police descended on the nearby home of Oland’s son, Dennis James Oland, spending some nine hours executing a search warrant on the expansive grounds.

Police have not said whether that search, or a second hunt for evidence in thick woodlands nearby, along the picturesque Kennebecasis River, is connected to the Oland investigation. Early on, investigators said that they suspect Oland likely knew his attacker, but as of press time there had been no arrests and very little further comment from police, circumstances that generated a dizzying mixture of silence and gossip.

The obituaries that followed his murder dwelt, rightfully so, on Oland’s many contributions to the community, from his role in bringing the Canada Games to Saint John in 1985 to his presidency of the New Brunswick Museum, which he helped install in nifty new digs in 1996. “Wherever we walk in life in the city of Saint John, we’re walking on contributions made by that family,” as John Rocca, a local developer, puts it. So too did the obituaries mention Oland’s sporting pursuits, most crucially his yacht racing in international waters, including his victory last year in the US-IRC National Championship aboard the New Zealand-made, state-of-the-art carbon-fibre Vela Veloce, which Oland recently listed for sale at $850,000. As one acquaintance says: “He liked to be upfront, he liked to be recognized.”

Only hinted at was Oland’s reputation around Rothesay and Saint John as a hard man to get along with; it was not for nothing that attendees left Dick’s packed funeral last week to the strains of My Way. “A very capable guy,” as one acquaintance has it, “but there would be a few people, after he got through with them, with footmarks on their backs.”

His hard-driving ways extended even to his dealings with family members. It was that often uncompromising nature that caused his departure, in 1981, from Moosehead Breweries Ltd., now the last nationally distributed independent Canadian brewery in Canada (Molson and Labatt have long been subsumed by multinationals), and where Dick had sought to become president. Instead, his father, Philip Oland—P.W., he was called—chose Dick’s brother Derek, two years his senior, to succeed him. It was a family dust-up with echoes in distant Oland history.

As for the Oland present, all of New Brunswick, if not all of Canada, is wondering at it. Says Clark Sancton, a Saint John businessman who knew Oland as a regular lunch companion at the old-fashioned, English-style Union Club: “The dangling question is, what happened to Dick? Most of us that knew Dick say, well, who did he annoy that much that they would kill him? I think we’re going to be very surprised.”

Dick Oland’s manoeuvrings to become president of Moosehead had become so difficult for his older brother by 1980 that Derek felt he had no choice but to give P.W. Oland both written and oral notice that he would quit the business and leave Canada entirely.

According to Last Canadian Beer: The Moosehead Story, a history of the company by Harvey Sawler written with Moosehead’s full co-operation, Derek’s resignation left P.W. “fretful” because he “believed that Dick would not be able to take the company forward.” Dick was “an argumentative type” Sawler writes, paraphrasing Derek. “Dick would argue with anybody,” Derek is quoted as saying. “It didn’t matter who it was.”

For P.W., the rivalry between his two sons was familiar territory; succession has posed a problem for the Olands since the beginning. So has a wilful nature.

Blame that stubbornness on Susannah Oland, often described as Moosehead’s founder. In a photograph, she can be seen stern and sheathed in Victorian-style black crepe holding an enormous leather-bound tome—either a particularly weighty edition of the Bible or her recipe for the brown October ale that formed the foundation of the Oland fortune. Susannah’s travails as a single mother of six operating a business in 19th-century Maritime Canada speaks to the grit she passed on to her descendants. Oland sailed from Bristol, England, to Nova Scotia on the barque Spirit of the Ocean in 1865, founded the family brewery in her backyard in Dartmouth in 1867—just 90 days after Confederation—and proceeded to lose and reopen her brewery, due to hard times or fire, several times before her death in 1886.

Susannah’s decision to will the controlling interest in Moosehead to her fourth son, George W. C. Oland, bypassing two older brothers involved in the business, scuttled primogeniture as a controlling principle in the family and put hope in the hearts of all younger Olands to come.

In the 1930s, P.W.’s father George B. Oland suffered a rupture with his flamboyant younger brother, Col. Sidney Oland, whose marriage to a Cuban Catholic—Herlinda—and flirtation with a Hollywood acting career had earlier scandalized Halifax. The Olands had established brewing operations in Saint John after the 1917 Halifax Explosion, and George B.’s rift with Sid cemented the family’s division into the Halifax and Saint John Olands (the Halifax side of the family later sold its brewery to Labatt).

In the case of Dick and Derek, the family pattern proved durable and lugubrious.

Though Dick had acquitted himself well at Moosehead, where he’d risen to vice-president and spearheaded the adoption of a slick new bottling line at the Saint John brewery, his father P.W. did not find in him the royal jelly. “The younger one wanted to be president and he hadn’t the experience,” P.W. once told the Financial Post Magazine cooly.

Derek, described as personable and more relaxed than his brother, shared that assessment. “To put it bluntly,” Sawler writes, “Derek did not respect his brother when it came to corporate leadership.” Quoted directly in the book, Derek drives home the point: “I couldn’t work for Dick because of the nature of the guy. I mean, I can work for a lot of people.” Elsewhere in the book, Derek muses that his difficulties with Dick arose because the two brothers were too much alike. “We both wanted to be president,” he says. “That’s natural in any company.”

In 1981, P.W. named Derek executive vice-president—on the way to becoming president. Dick left the company to concentrate on Brookville Transport, a trucking business he’d already established in Saint John, and to continue in his work to bring the Canada Games to the city.

The succession fight left a lasting mark on the relationship between the two brothers, those who know the family say. At the Union Club, an old-fashioned gentleman’s club established in 1884 and housed in a Victorian building around the corner from the office where Dick died, habitués say Derek and Dick met by accident when they met at all; their interaction around a communal lunching table was frosty. “It was gentlemanly, maybe, but it was certainly not a close relationship anymore,” says one man who witnessed these encounters. Other members were also wary of Dick’s presence during those lunches: at least one member told a friend he did not enjoy meals with Dick because of Dick’s habit of “stirring things up.”

Yet for some, it was this tendency to “stir” that gave Dick his best quality—a “progressive” attitude that led him to demand “out-of-the-box” thinking from himself and others. Intense, exacting and tough, Dick was, in fact, frequently right, people who knew him say. Pat Darrah, an old friend who worked with him on the Canada Games, remembers Dick dragging a decision-maker to the University of New Brunswick campus, which offers stunning views of the Saint John and Kennebecasis rivers, and asking, “You see what the television cameras are going to see?” The site of the games, long planned for elsewhere, were as a result changed to the more photogenic locale, the vista of rivers cleverly showcased on national television behind the athletes. “He did his homework—you knew you better go into that meeting prepared,” says Rocca, the Saint John developer. “He always did it in a very polished manner and had a great smile and grin—you knew when the cat had eaten the mouse, and usually you were the mouse.”

Such dedication helped Dick make his trucking business a success beyond the Moosehead contracts his father P.W. promised him after the succession squabble. Other profitable businesses followed. Still, his brother’s ascendency at Moosehead rankled Dick, who was known to sniff at Derek’s personal acquisitions and ask: “I wonder what dividend paid for that?” P.W.’s death in 1996 apparently permitted that rancour to flow more freely. With shares of Moosehead split between Dick, Derek and their sister Jane Toward commensurate to P.W.’s reckoning of their contributions to the company—53 per cent for Derek, 33 per cent for Dick and 14 per cent for Jane, writes Sawler—Dick developed into a particularly vocal minority shareholder.

In 1998, Dick sued Derek and the Moosehead holding company. The pretext was a drop in business that had put a halt to the payment of dividends and that Derek blamed on challenges associated with growing into the U.S. market. Dick and his sister Jane, apparently operating together, sought to wrestle more control of the company from Derek. The case was settled, but Dick sued again—prompting a second settlement—and continued causing trouble at the company’s annual general meetings, when according to Sawler, Dick would hand Jane several pages of queries to ask. “It was like Law and Order,” Derek said. Derek bought Dick and Jane out in 2007.

Today, Derek (who does not live in Rothesay) is executive chairman of Moosehead, with the presidency falling to his son Andrew. Though Dick and Derek’s relationship may have been strained, their two sons are said not to share that discomfort. Andrew and Dennis Oland live a minute’s walk from each other on Gondola Point Road, the Roxborough Drive of Rothesay skirting the Kennebecasis River. They are, by all accounts, close friends.

On Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2008, Dennis James Oland’s most tangible connection to his father Dick burned to the waterline due to an electrical fire while docked at a marina in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Aloma II, an 18-m motorboat with a distinctive canoe stern built in Sydney, N.S., in 1910, had been part of the Oland family since 1947, when George B. Oland bought it as a beat-up military vessel.

Boating has been part of the Oland family since at least the time when George B. learned to ply the harbour waters from Dartmouth to Halifax on the Gambrinous, a barge they used to transport beer kegs. Perhaps that’s why Dick felt so comfortable on the boat. “Dad was completely at peace on the Aloma,” Dennis records in a written history of the vessel that was lovingly, almost obsessively, compiled post-fire. “As a child growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, it was truly the good old days, the best of times were with that boat,” Oland told the Telegraph-Journal, Saint John’s daily newspaper, in a story immediately after the Aloma’s destruction. “I didn’t get to see him a lot and when we got on the boat that all changed,” he added of his father, describing Dick then as “relaxed, a huge smile on his face.”

At the time of the fire, the Aloma belonged to William Cory and Betty Sattler, Americans who purchased it from the Olands in 2002 and who were trained at the helm by Dennis. He was “a delightful young man,” Sattler wrote in an email to Maclean’s, describing how she watched him manoeuvre the Aloma through difficult waters expertly, “with two fingers on the wheel.”

Neither Dennis nor his two sisters, Lisa Bustin and Jacqueline Walsh, play any role in the Moosehead brewery. Some in the Saint John area say Dennis would have liked to have entered into the family business, but that his father had persuaded him against the move because of his rift with Derek. Educated at the University of New Brunswick, Dennis worked in the investment industry in Toronto for a time but returned home in 1994 and now works as an investment adviser with CIBC Wood Gundy. He lives in the Rothesay house where his grandparents P.W. and Mary Oland lived and raised Dick, Jane and Derek. Dennis married his second wife, Lisa, at a United Church two years ago; together they are raising three children.

Involved in provincial Tory politics on the riding association level, at least for a time, Dennis has otherwise kept a low profile. Online posts suggest he is a hobbyist who fills his off-hours sailing, tracing the Oland family’s genealogical roots into the past, and tinkering with old cars. “I have just about completed my restoration and I have been driving it to work every day,” he once wrote of a 1953 Chevrolet truck. According to his Facebook account, which is now restricted to friends, he is a fan of The World According to Garp and its author, the novelist John Irving—a sort of literary patron saint of sons with absent fathers. “He’s a hell of a fine young man” says one prominent Saint Johner.

Always comfortable, Dick had been living more lavishly in the years since his brother bought him out. He had his racing yacht, the Southern Cross 52 Vela Veloce, built in New Zealand, in and around 2008, hiring a professional crew to compete behind him as skipper in numerous international competitions. At the time of his death, he had put the Vela Veloce up for sale and was in the thick of overseeing the completion of a second custom racing yacht, in Spain.

Only recently, too, he had put the finishing touches on renovations to his home on Almon Lane, an exclusive, tree-lined road, little more than a path really, that bisects old Rothesay. Dick had unearthed the original plans of the house and, with he and his wife, Connie, moved temporarily into the carriage house, spent enormous amounts refurbishing the building to its past glory, right down to moving it back onto its old foundations, those who knew him say.

Connie, married to Dick for 46 years, had little say in all this, those people also say. It is in large part because of Connie, a modest, unassuming woman who was 16 when she began her relationship with Dick, that those in Rothesay are even more protective of the Olands now than they might be otherwise. Who knows what the investigation and a trial may push to the surface of placid Rothesay? “She’s a lovely, lovely person,” says a friend. “There’s a lot of concern and respect for his wife and family. I have the same attitude. He’s gone, they’re there.”

Like the police, the family has said almost nothing publicly about the murder. In a statement, Derek and Jane recalled their brother’s many contributions to Saint John and New Brunswick, and in a recent interview, Derek noted he and Dick would in recent years sometimes meet for lunch. Dennis, meanwhile, read from Scripture during his father’s funeral. From time to time, locals in Rothesay relate, he is spotted walking through the grounds of the yacht club where he did so much of his growing up, engaged in the pursuit—boating—that of all things had brought him closest to his father.