Nova Scotia burning - Part I
THEY ARE A SYMBOL OF HATE from the Deep South’s troubled past.
Burning crosses conjure up images of lynchings, beatings and Klansmen in white sheets during the struggle for black civil rights in America.
But many white Nova Scotians probably didn’t see a connection between their province and that painful chapter in U.S. history.
Until Feb. 21 of last year.
Shortly after midnight, a burning cross was found outside the family home of Shayne Howe and Michelle Lyon, a biracial couple in Poplar Grove, Hants County.
As the flames on the cross glowed, one of the five children inside heard someone in the darkness yell “Die, nigger, die.”
It didn’t take long for a Central Canadian newspaper to connect the dots of history. Nova Scotia, a province where racial tensions had often boiled over, was labelled the Mississippi of the North. For many black Nova Scotians, it was no surprise.
“I see my house getting burned down,” Howe said, recalling his fears that night. “I see my family getting hurt. I see me getting killed. That’s what I see when I see a burning cross.”
Howe, Lyon and their five children had enjoyed the peaceful quiet of country life on Avondale Road for six years. Lyon, born and raised in Hants County, had lived in the home for seven years prior to that and the couple was looking forward to raising their children there.
“Being a biracial couple, it was good,” said Howe, who is black. “We never had no problems with it until now.”
On Feb. 24, when the RCMP charged Nathan and Justin Rehberg, two brothers from the area and distant relatives of Lyon, strangers from around the world were unforgiving.
Nathan Rehberg, 21, said he saw about 150 Facebook messages that said things such as " 'You guys are racist', or 'I’m going to kill you the next time I see you on the streets' or 'I hope you get raped in jail'.”
Those who knew the brothers insisted they weren’t filled with racial hatred. Nathan Rehberg has a biracial daughter and both have black friends. The brothers themselves were adamant they were not racist.
But even Nathan Rehberg admitted that burning a cross on a black man’s lawn was something a racist would do.
For Howe and Lyon, the cross-burning meant that they and their children, ages two to 17, were the targets of hate. And someone wanted them out of their community.
This small-town tragedy started with rumours that the brothers had herpes. By the Rehberg brothers’ own admission, what followed was an act of drunken, drug-induced stupidity.
On the night leading to the cross-burning, the brothers were partying with friends at their family’s mobile home in Avondale, just minutes down Avondale Road by car from the Howe-Lyon home.
Someone brought a case of beer and another person brought a 40-ouncer of rum and some shooters.
“All I know is that fridge was full of liquor,” Nathan Rehberg said.
At the party, a young couple repeated the herpes rumours to the Rehberg brothers.
Justin, 20, and his brother had always said the rumours, which they believed Howe and Lyon had started, were untrue. But the gossip had taken on a life of its own and somehow had been twisted to include Nathan’s fiancee, Maria Mason, and the couple’s baby.
“It was getting my brother really mad,” said Justin Rehberg.
A couple of days before the party, his brother, already seething about the months-old rumours, had built the cross they eventually would burn on Howe’s lawn.
Nathan Rehberg gathered some floorboards from the backyard, nailed them together and showed it to some friends, who all laughed. His mother told him to get rid of it. Instead, he tucked it under the deck and went inside.
The two-metre cross was still there when the conversation at the party took a seriously ugly turn and he decided to put a stop to the rumours.
“I had enough. I knew Shayne was African-American and I wanted to scare him. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted him to feel as much hate, as much pain and anger, as I was.”
Fuelled by liquor and drugs, he talked about burning the cross all night, pressuring his brother to help him drag it to the Howe-Lyon home. Their stepfather, Daniel Macumber, urged them not to do it.
Justin Rehberg and his girlfriend, Alisha Caldwell, went to bed shortly before 11 p.m. But Nathan Rehberg kept at his brother, who agreed to help.
Nathan Rehberg got the cross and one of them siphoned enough gasoline out of Justin’s dune buggy to fill a perfume bottle. They dragged the cross about 2½ kilometres to the Howe-Lyon house.
When vehicles went by, Justin Rehberg threw the cross in the ditch. The brothers even had competitions to see who could carry it the longest.
They stopped to catch their breath as they came up the hill before the house. Then, they drank the last of their beer and ran toward the home.
“Lights were on in the house, so I said keep down, stay quiet,” Nathan Rehberg said. “He did (and) he passed me the cross.”
It wouldn’t go into the frozen ground, but he saw a ring on the well on the front lawn and stuck it there. His brother poured the gas and they lit it.
“I knew that instant, I was, like, what the hell are we doing?” Nathan Rehberg said.
He heard a door open and the brothers ran. He fell on the pavement several times.
No one inside the Howe-Lyon home knew anything was wrong until the oldest child, Ashley Rehberg, a distant cousin of the brothers, spotted the flames.
“When I first seen the fire, it scared me so bad,” she wrote in her victim impact statement to the court. “I didn’t know what was going on. And hearing people screaming racial slurs scared me even more.”
A seemingly shy girl, Ashley Rehberg used to take the bus with Justin to Avon View High School in Windsor. She declined to be interviewed but expressed her fears in her victim impact statement.
“When I ran up to my mom, I was shaking so bad and became hysterical,” she wrote.
Hearing Ashley’s alarm, Howe looked through the window and ran outside.
“There was a big ball of fire. I walked up to it, close to it, and I had a bat in my hands. And when I got close, that’s when I realized it was a burning cross and I got Michelle to call 911.”
While his terrorized family spent the night awake wondering who wanted to hurt them, the brothers were back home drinking.
Justin Rehberg said he saw the cross-burning “more as vandalism than ..... a direct response to” Howe’s skin colour.
“I just didn’t want to do damage to anything. We could (have) just thrown a rock through the window and then I would (have) had to pay money. ..... But burning something, I used my own gas, so that would be it.”
It wasn’t until the next day when the cross-burning hit the news that he started to realize how big a mistake he and his brother had made.
“I started panicking, kind of, wondering what’s going to happen. (I had) never really been in a situation like this before where I’m on the news in a bad way. So it’s just kind of terrifying.”
As it turned out, it was just the beginning for the Rehberg brothers.
On Thursday, Part 2 of Nova Scotia Burning. The Chronicle Herald looks at the story behind the cross-burning in Hants County, Nova Scotia.