The sight of ARSON in a historic town

Black History Supplement No. 7,
Shunpiking magazine, May 2006, Volume 11, Number One

Updated 6 June 2006

(HALIFAX) 24 May 2006 -- One OF THE TWO WOODEN BUILDINGS housing the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre in Birchtown, NS has been destroyed by a late-night arson attack.

Two weeks later, a Catholic church hall in Pictou, NS was sprayed with the letters KKK on April 16, Easter Sunday.

A month earlier, six Molotov cocktails caused an early-morning fire which damaged the roof of the Black Cultural Centre in Dartmouth, near Preston, NS. It was successfully put out by the fire department. (1)

Two months later, very few of us know what took place and why. It seems that certain forces want to keep it that way. Many of us don't even know what we don't know. The events are clouded in mystery and racism. We set out to discover what we could discover for ourselves.

For example, Shunpiking has learned from the RCMP itself that they have known for several weeks exactly who the culprit is behind the firebombing. Yet no criminal charges have been laid, nothing has been reported, and the culprit is still at large.

The significance of these cowardly attacks is that they constitute a direct assault on the history, memory and right to be as human beings of African Nova Scotians and of all Nova Scotians, as well as the spread of a psychosis of fear, tension and mistrust. The Black Cultural Centre and the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre are centres crucial for the preservation and conservation of people's history, memory, traditions and experience.

Irreparable damage

In Birchtown, just outside of the port town of Shelburne on Nova Scotia's South Shore, volunteers from the Shelburne and Gunning Cove fire departments were able on March 31 to save some computers containing the names and genealogical records of the original descendants compiled through nearly two decades of meticulous research. However, metal cabinets were scorched and some computers melted from the heat. The administrative centre was damaged beyond repair, along with many priceless artifacts, costumes and archival records and photos, including original photos from settlers' descendants. The centre served as the hub of the society's research projects, archives and meetings.

The nearby Black Loyalist Museum Centre, a former schoolhouse built in 1835 which features exhibits pertaining to the Black Loyalists and their descendants including archeological artifacts, and the adjacent St. Paul's Anglican Church, built in 1888, owned and restored by the society and used to perform plays, both escaped major damage.

The fire was discovered at 9:50 p.m. on the wooden verandah or deck, built of wolmanized lumber, in the front of the building. Photographs taken by Mark Daye and Delaney Images for Shunpiking show the burnt front wall of the building.

"When I got there, the railing was burning off and falling off, and it was just getting up under the eaves," said Everett Cromwell of the society.

The fire spread up the exterior wall to the eaves, collapsing part of the roof into the building's interior. The structure "is a write off", said Sgt Barry McClelland of the ten-man RCMP Shelburne detachment.

"The fire is suspicious in nature and, on the basis of evidence, it would appear to have been deliberately set," he said.

The distinction is precious. "Suspicious fires" is actual police terminology. Suspicious fires are considered distinct from arson. It is only the latter which are processed into national police databases, which facilitates the exchange of information and methodology between police forces, as well as insurers. Arson, the act of deliberately setting a fire to property for fraudulent or malicious purposes, is a crime. Whatever the motive, arson is a reckless and malicious endangerment of life and property.

Although Canadian data is fragmentary, the number of civilians in the United States killed in arson fires in buildings in 2004 totaled 320. Only 17 per cent of cases ended in arrests in 2004. There are no categories for black heritage, cultural and community centres but church fires (which includes temples, mosques, religious education buildings and funeral and related properties), a growing phenomena in the US, is analagous. The leading cause of church fires is arson, which accounts for about one out of every four reported church fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association and the United States Fire Administration (USFA).

A fact sheet of the Insurance Information Institute highlights the targeting of Afro-American institutions by arson in the United States. It also confirms that they are often a cover-up for other types of crimes. "Fire officials and insurers say that arson fires are relatively common at all types of houses of worship and that they are motivated by vandalism and revenge, along with efforts to conceal other crimes, such as burglaries. However, racial bias has long been known as a factor. A 1997 study by the USFA found that of the 230 church arsons investigated, 41 per cent targeted black churches."

It is hard to believe such structural wooden beams of the Black Loyalist centre's verandah would ignite without the use of a fire accelerant, which would confirm conscious and premeditated planning and preparation. But whether or not the criminal used one is still, eight weeks later, a matter of investigation by the provincial Fire Marshal's office. Sgt McClelland said that their report is not expected "for another few weeks." He also confirmed that the lead investigator, Cst Darrin Johnson, is on family leave for several weeks but insisted that the firebombing is still "being actively investigated."

Neighbours gave police a description of a suspicious "Pontiac Sunfire-type car" speeding away at the time.

When specifically asked about a unity of the attacks, Sgt McClelland insisted that "there is no common thread between the two incidents except that both are black cultural centres." When specifically asked if there was any overlapping investigation by the RCMP in the three locales, he said there was none. The fire-bombings are being investigated separately, by separate local detachments and, in fact, as completely separate and localized incidents. As no information was or is being exchanged between the local detachments, they cannot even be called parallel investigations.

After repeated questions, Sgt McClelland admitted that the source of his assertion was the RCMP's Major Crime Unit.

RCMP has arsonist on its leash

Shunpiking learned that the Major Crime Unit was activated in mid-April by the RCMP's Halifax HQ "to review both incidents" - in the words of Sgt Mark Landry of its New Minas office - "as to whether (a) there was a common motive or MO (modus operandi]' and (b) if they were race-related."

The internal review was initiated only after a protest letter to the editor by a director of the heritage society, Dr Sharon Oliver, and only "in mid-April," Sgt Landry said. His unit did not carry out a criminal investigation, but solely a "review" of two separate local investigations, including an interview with Dr. Oliver.

On May 19 Sgt Landry told Shunpiking in a telephone interview: "Based on our investigation, the answer to both questions was no.

"We know that from the motive of the individual involved (in Birchtown). It was not race-related. Race was not (his) motive"
"We know that from the motive of the individual involved (in Birchtown). It was not race-related. Race was not (his) motive.

"Dartmouth was a different set of circumstance. And it was not race-related."

Bizarrely, he said he could not jeopardize the criminal investigation by revealing details that would assist the suspect, but in the same breath could openly and explicitly tell this journalist for publication that they knew precisely who the culprit (s) was.

The "review" itself cannot even be considered thorough because Sgt Landry admitted that he was not aware of the vandalism of the Catholic church in Pictou, nor was it part of the "review." Such is the fact-checking of the RCMP.

According to the sophistry of this preposterous hypothesis, the RCMP has reduced arson to a question of motive, and the motive to incinerate black heritage sites can be other than racist. The RCMP is the judge and jury of the motive. The question is being framed according to arbitrary criteria based on race, lifestyle, class, age, national origin, and so forth - that is, racial profiling.

In violation of the rule of law and acting above the civil authority, for as many as six weeks or more the RCMP has allowed an arsonist(s) who firebombed an Afro Nova Scotian heritage centre(s) to roam free amongst the community unpunished, while in the same breath openly telling the community they know who he is, while reducing the issue to one of motive.

Shunpiking magazine spoke with several residents of Birchtown. They were likewise being told by the RCMP that the motive of the criminal suspect was 'personal', as a matter of 'retaliation' and 'getting back' against an individual Black, which one person dismissed as the 'Black man took the White man's woman' police theory of the origin of crime, racism and justice.

"If the motive was indeed 'personal', even according to this irrational logic, then why the arson of an unrelated, black heritage centre - indicating premeditation and preparation?," a resident incredulously told Shunpiking.

Further, some people are questioning if the RCMP is interested in defending the rights of the people and their cultural institutions, or is it operating as a political police. The RCMP, an agency of the federal government, contracts out policing services to many Nova Scotia towns and counties.

"Why is the RCMP showing sympathy and compassion for the criminal - rather than apprehending the culprit?," reported Mr Daye from Birchtown. "Are they not spreading fear, and a culture of impunity."

A mysterious wall of silence

Indeed, a mysterious wall of silence has been erected by the government, the RCMP and the media around all three incidents as if all are minor 'law and order' and 'vandalism' questions.

In Dartmouth, the firebombing of the Black Cultural Centre occurred on February 27 at 4 am. Molotov cocktails were cowardly thrown from Hwy 7, starting a fire which caused some $1,500 damage to the roof.

This attack has been made even murkier.

On May 10 Shunpiking contacted Constable Joe Taplin, media relations at RCMP HQ in Halifax, to ask why the RCMP had not issued any media advisory about the firebombing in February as is its normal practice. (2) The RCMP also has a community office in the Centre. We asked by e-mail: "We receive your e-mail advisories and have no record of any press release by your office."

Cst Taplin told Shunpiking by return e-mail: "Yes, we were on scene that morning regarding the fire and it was reported to us. I will have to check and see when the investigation is on this file." He did not answer our question as to why the RCMP did not issue its normal media advisory.

On May 12 Shunpiking sent a follow-up inquiry to Cst Taplin: "Thank you for our prompt reply. Please advise us of the status of your investigation ... Several questions: 1. Is the description of 'six Molotov cocktails' correct? If not, what would be correct? 2. What was the time and what was the extent of damage? We have been told it was to the roof. 3. Is it possible to interview one of the officers on the scene that morning, from the standpoint of getting a verbal description from an eyewitness. 4. Why was no media advisory issued?"

As of press time twelve days later, Shunpiking had heard nothing more from Cst Taplin.

Another RCMP source, Sgt Mark Landry of the Major Crimes Unit, told Shunpiking that the investigation in Dartmouth had actually been closed.

What emerges is information control, and disinformation, from the RCMP.

Far from enlightening the population, the mass media, with all its resources, has trivialized, downplayed or ignored the arson attacks and those speaking out against them, almost as if they were obeying a gag order.

A tiny, postage-stamp size report on the Black Cultural Centre fire appeared in the back pages of the Chronicle Herald. The Herald did not publish a report on the Birchtown attack for two days, and a protest letter to the editor for another four days. Zero reporting and coverage from the CBC, Halifax Daily News, The Coast, etc. As a result, many people in the nearby Prestons and Dartmouth neighbourhoods were not even made aware of the arson attack. (3)

Finally, the Toronto Globe & Mail also made the firebombing in Birchtown into an object of mystery and debate as to whether or not it was 'arson' or really 'race-related'. Its report, published on May 6th, or seven weeks after the BLHS firebombing, was only commissioned after a Nova Scotian academic spoke out against the firebombings at a national conference on racism the previous week in Saskatchewan. In a front page article on May 6, without any investigation whatsoever, its correspondent declared the entire issue in Nova Scotia a 'law and order' question, of vandalism 'with racial undertones.' It declared without substantiation, "Sgt MacLelland said there was nothing to indicate that the fire is race related." (4)

Is this the reality? Either a society is based on criteria which do not discriminate on the basis of race, creed, age, national origin, conscience and wealth, or it is not. Canada claims it is not. But if this the case, how come in practice everything is being determined on the basis of racist criteria? Do we take the word or the deed? We should act to find out for ourselves.

*Tony Seed is editor of Shunpiking magazine.

Endnotes

1 We have since learned that an Islamic Centre on the Bedford Highway was also defaced with a swastika. On 5 June 2006 the RCMP Halifax District Detachment arrested one youth in Cole Harbour in relation to new graffiti at the Black Cultural Centre and the Watershed Association Development Enterprise (WADE) office on the morning of June 4th. The youth, a 15 year-old male, is facing five counts of mischief and was released to appear in Provincial Youth Court on 13 June 2006. The graffiti included a swastika, which the RCMP stated was not race-related.

2 The RCMP media advisory of the day-in-question, 28 February, reported the following two items: firstly, "RCMP investigating possible shooting in Eastern Passage"; and secondly, it solicited contributions to 'the Crime Stoppers Awareness Guide' which "helps us increase public awareness regarding our Crime Stoppers Program and highlights 'Unsolved Crimes' here in Nova Scotia."

3 The comparison with the massive coverage to the firebombing of the United Talmud Torah elementary school in Montreal on 6 April 2004 demonstrates the racist criteria of the monopoly media. Referring to the Globe & Mail's coverage, Prof Michael Neumann of Trent University writes: "The two stories and accompanying photograph about this event occupied the entire front page above the fold, and about a quarter of the page below the fold. The headline is a large banner across the whole top, something the Globe and Mail doesn't do very often. It has the Prime Minister proclaiming: 'This is not our Canada'. (If he proclaimed anything about the Pickering arson [of an Islamic centre-editor], we never heard about it.) The stories continue on page 8, occupying the entire print area, about 7/8 of the page above the fold." ("A happy compromise: hate crime reporting in the Globe & Mail", 14 April 2004, Shunpiking Online, http://shunpiking.org/ol0108/neumann.htm)

In a search of three years (2001-04) of Globe stories under the keyword 'hate crimes', Prof Neumann found only one "newsworthy" incident reported against African Canadians, a 246-word item about how a teenager in Moncton, NB had "soaked a cross in gasoline, pounded it into a black family's lawn then set it ablaze." It mentioned that "The RCMP initially treated the crime as property mischief, due to a number of acts of vandalism in the area. But as the details of the cross burning surfaced, residents and multicultural groups responded with outrage. The Mounties quickly apologized for not treating the crime more seriously, then assigned a full-time senior investigator to the case."

4 "N.S. fire conjures racist images for blacks," Jane Armstrong, 6 May 2006, Globe & Mail, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20060505.wxrace06/BNStory/Front/

RELATED READING

An injury to one is an injury to all
(Spring, 2006) The arson attacks on the Black cultural centres are an affront to people and their desire for democracy, fraternity and equality. They should be condemned from one end of the province to the other. TONY SEED and ISAAC SANEY

Birchtown: Putting flesh on the bones
(Feb-Mar 2000, Revised Spring 2006) There is little to mark the settlement of the first Black Loyalists in 1783 except a few houses dotted along the back road and a small plaque marking their landing site. No Burger Kings or souvenir shops disturb the ghosts of the past here. JANICE ACTON




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