For Shayne Howe, the burning cross on his yard was a devastatingly clear warning: Get out of our town.
The only black man in the tiny Nova Scotia community of Poplar Grove, he said the racist symbolism of the act was so strong that it can only be a hate crime. On Friday Provincial Court judge Claudine MacDonald agreed, convicting a local man of inciting racial hatred.
"I think this is a very significant decision for our country," Crown Attorney Darrell Carmichael said. "There has never been an official court decision which states that cross-burning, in this context, is a hate crime."
He noted that "for over 100 years" a burning cross has been associated with the Ku Klux Klan. And Mr. Howe said there was never any question in his mind that the incident was a racial threat.
"A burning cross is racist, it only means one thing," Mr. Howe said. "It means we hate you, get out of here, next step is worse."
Michelle Lyon, Mr. Howe's fiancée, called the ruling a "relief" that could lead to "a better world" for the couple's five children. But the family continues to fear for its safety.
"We're afraid of retaliation, of course," she said. "We're nervous again. I think anyone would be."
The couple sprang to international media attention in February after they reported waking to shouts of "die, nigger, die." Outside, a two-metre cross was burning on their lawn, a noose dangling from it.
Mr. Howe said he ran out with a baseball bat but the perpetrators were gone. Justin and Nathan Rehberg, brothers distantly related to Ms. Lyon, who is white, were later arrested.
The couple were ready to leave the community before being convinced to stay by hundreds of locals who turned out to march in their support. But the couple's problems continued. Only months later their car was burned and again they considered moving.
"The people we had with us [in support]made us feel safe," Mr. Howe said Friday. "But it's a big [area] A lot of people didn't support us."
The men are being tried separately. Justin Rehberg admitted criminal harassment and was convicted Friday of inciting racial hatred. He will be sentenced next month. His lawyer did not return a message left at his office.
Mr. Carmichael, the crown attorney, would not say what penalty he will seek. He noted that the incitement conviction carries a maximum penalty of two years and the harassment conviction up to 10 years. He said he would "definitely" argue for prison time.
Nathan Rehberg goes on trial next week.
A man who identified himself as Darrell Boutilier, the uncle of the Rehberg brothers, sought Friday to minimize what had happened.
"I'm not saying it should have been done because it shouldn't have been, but everyone makes mistakes when they're young," he said about Justin Rehberg. "I've done foolish things that I'm not crazy about, but that's life."
Leslie Oliver, president of the Black Cultural Society of Nova Scotia, said he had been surprised to find any debate on whether cross burning was unacceptable.
"It was clear to me that was a racist act," he said. "It was with some amazement that I realized not everybody shared that opinion."
In light of that, he praised Friday's decision as an unequivocal denunciation from the state.
"For the courts actually to speak upgives us the opportunity to say 'yes, there are [still racist]incidents but the legal system is opposed to it'," Mr. Oliver said.
In a statement, Canadian Jewish Congress CEO Bernie Farber called the decision "a strong message" that hate crimes won't be tolerated.
"We would have hoped that we, as a society, had moved well beyond such despicable acts. Unfortunately, that isn't always the case, but today's judgment moves us in the right direction," Mr. Farber said.