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Before the riot, before the gunfight, before the neighbourhood women unite to prevent the fire department from extinguishing the second, more serious arson, the night begins with fisticuffs.

The setting is a country lane on the isolated island of Grand Manan, a triangular hunk of rock in the Bay of Fundy, where the tides can reach 8.5 metres and inclement weather often cancels the only link to the outside world, a 90-minute ferry ride to New Brunswick.

Grand Manan has 3,000 full-time residents, but only about a dozen live on this part of Cedar Street, a lane that runs inland from the Castalia convenience store on the island's east coast. Thanks to the trees that isolate the curves in the winding lane, it's quiet along this stretch. Passing cars are rare enough that the neighbours look up to see if they need to wave to the driver. Most of the time they do.

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On this night last July, the lane's most dilapidated home, 61 Cedar, a two-storey, one-bedroom building with a shaggy lawn and a dissolving gravel driveway, is occupied by Ronnie Ross. Around midnight, as a court later heard, the wiry 42-year-old fisherman with grey, receding hair and heavy-lidded eyes emerges from his home with about eight people and marches up his driveway. One of his confreres carries a crowbar. Another has a chain wrapped around his forearm. The most lethal weapon appears to be a jury-rigged spear someone has made by duct-taping a butcher's knife to a broom handle.

Once Mr. Ross and his group reach the road, their progress is stopped by an opposing mob of about 40 people, many of whom also are armed with makeshift berserker-style tools, albeit less lethal somehow. One man clutches a snow shovel. The whole confrontation has a momentary air that's a cross between Trailer Park Boys and Rambo - absurd but clearly volatile.

First comes the shouting. From the opponents, the most common refrain is directed at Mr. Ross. It's this: "Get off the island!"

Deployed like a mantra, Mr. Ross's rejoinder compensates with passion what it lacks in eloquence: "Fuck you!"

Several more Ross epithets follow and the absurdity quotient rises. The two groups become a single brawling organism. Mr. Ross's opponent in hand-to-hand combat is Carter Foster, who lives across the street. Mr. Foster is only 24, and although about Mr. Ross's height, he outweighs the older many by maybe 50 pounds. In short order, Mr. Foster has one hand wrapped up in Mr. Ross's T-shirt and the other swinging at his forehead. Mr. Ross falls. Mr. Foster keeps swinging and soon Mr. Ross turns turtle, crouched on his hands and knees with his head down to protect his face. At this point in a hockey fight, the ref would step in - but there is no ref.

Instead, a tall man sprints back into Mr. Ross's house. Seconds later, he emerges with a .32-calibre Winchester hunting rifle. He aims into the mob and fires. There's a flash, and a sound like a tree limb breaking.

Which is when things get really crazy.

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'They've been watching me'

About a year before the fight, in June, 2005, Carter Foster and his live-in girlfriend, Sara Wormell, received their first indication that the man who had moved in across the street the previous winter was a little … off. It went beyond the fact that Grand Mananers tend to catalogue people depending on whether they're from the island or not.

Mr. Ross grew up in Digby, N.S., where he had many problems with the law, including a litany of assault charges that landed him a two-year stint in a penitentiary.

By contrast, Mr. Foster was about as Grand Manan as a person could be. His parents were both native to the island, and he was literally raised on the sea. At 13, he was piloting his father's 42-foot fishing boat solo out into the Bay of Fundy; by high school, he was pulling in $15,000 in a two-month fishing season. After graduation, a modification he suggested for the Fosters' weirs increased their catch so much the family was awarded the "high-liner" title given annually to Grand Manan's most productive herring operation.

At 20, Mr. Foster was bringing in $100,000 a year before expenses, enough that he could buy the house on Cedar Street, and fill its sheds with the sort of toys coveted by rural males - a snowmobile, an all-terrain vehicle and about a dozen hunting rifles.

At first, he didn't take much notice of his new neighbour. But then in June, as he and Ms. Wormell were burning vegetation off part of their property, Mr. Ross came over to ask them a question.

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"The people in the woods there," he said, clearly agitated. "Can you see them?"

The couple said no, they couldn't see anyone.

Mr. Ross came a little closer and pointed. "There," he said. "They're wearing camouflage. They've been watching me."

"We can't see anybody," Mr. Foster told him. "There's nobody there."

Seeming unconvinced, Mr. Ross walked back across the street and disappeared into his house.

Even this bit of oddness might have passed without much notice had Mr. Foster not started hearing the rumours. Suddenly everyone was saying the island had a new crack house and, as a court later heard, many figured they knew where it was.

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Counterintuitive as it may seem, given that crack cocaine is so associated with inner-city slums, Grand Manan was - and but for certain intervening circumstances, still might be - a drug dealer's dream. Unemployment, always bad, became even worse after the 2004 closing of a canning factory, which put about 160 people out of work. Sea lice and other problems plagued the island's salmon-farming operations, making aquaculture employment unreliable. Much of the remaining work was open-sea fishing, which paid fishermen as much as $5,000 a week in the non-stop toil of the spring and autumn seasons but left them idle for weeks at a time the rest of the year.

As a result, a lot of islanders had a lot of time on their hands. And for some, drugs helped to fill the vacuum. Along with Maritime brews such as Alpine and Moosehead, high-quality homegrown marijuana was one of the stalwart intoxicants at any island party. And every so often someone came back from Saint John, the nearest big city, with a baggie of OxyContins, ecstasy or cocaine. One or two islanders even had reputations as crack dealers, although their supply was unreliable.

The news in the summer of 2005 of a new and reliable source of crack was especially ominous for Grand Manan's young people. Living in a place that is impossible to escape when the weather is inclement, as it often is, they have no easy access to things city kids take for granted, such as record shops, movie theatres or clothing boutiques. Their isolation leaves them craving urban culture - even its dark side, epitomized by crack.

"You have one grocery store, one pharmacy, maybe three or four restaurants," says Andrew Jones, a teacher at Grand Manan's only school, which houses both elementary and secondary classes. "And you have high-school kids, Grade 9 kids, going to parties and suddenly there's cocaine there, it's like taking cookies off a plate. … How do your kids survive that without getting addicted?"

Ronnie Ross might have been able to live in peace - at least, as far as Carter Foster was concerned. After all, Mr. Foster wasn't exactly a saint himself, having been convicted of drunk driving at 19 and not known to turn down a passing joint.

But Mr. Ross was unlucky on two counts. First, his arrival on Cedar Street coincided with an island-wide crime wave. Corporal Ron Smith, the ranking officer in the island's four-member RCMP detachment, believed that the new drug supply was just one reason for the wave of break-ins, but in the minds of many others, it was the only reason. Each time another TV or chainsaw went missing, the anger level went up.

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The second count against Mr. Ross was his own personality. Had he been considerate and polite, things might have turned out better. But that wasn't Ronnie Ross. Every weekend, a handful of disreputable-looking mainlanders in a GMC Jimmy came over on the ferry to drink and carouse at 61 Cedar from sun-up to long past sundown. Rock music blared from the yard atop a steady drunken din, and the island's two taxicabs came and went at all hours.

But what really bothered Mr. Foster was the way his new neighbour treated kids. One boy he quite liked, an 11-year-old who lived two doors down from the Ross place, came over quite often and sometimes got to drive the ATV, under close supervision. Lately, though, the boy's visits had become less frequent. His mother, Erin Gaskill, worked just down the street at the Castalia convenience store, and one day Mr. Foster dropped in and asked about her son. Ms. Gaskill said she was worried about him. The boy said Mr. Ross had snarled at him as he passed on the street and threatened to set his dogs on him. Now, he didn't want to go outside at all and was even reluctant to sleep at home, preferring to stay at his grandmother's.

So when the police asked to use Mr. Foster's house to conduct surveillance on 61 Cedar, he said yes. Through the fall of 2005, Constable Terry Pomeroy peered across the street from a second-storey window. When a car visited, he would alert an associate to stop and search it. Small quantities of crack cocaine were seized, and then, on the morning of Dec. 6, 2005, the RCMP executed a search warrant. Mr. Ross wasn't home, but the Mounties found an unemployed Saint John man, Paul Irvine, in the house with $1,610 in small bills. They also found a large quantity of baking soda, baggies and a razor blade. To the disappointment of many islanders, they did not find any crack.

The raid, and its timing, frustrated islanders. It was conducted on a Tuesday, when many felt Friday would have had a better shot at intercepting a shipment, and the lack of success suggested the RCMP couldn't deal with "the Ronnie Ross problem."

Meanwhile, the taxis came and went. The burglaries continued. And over the pool tables at Galloways Restaurant and Bar, after church services and in the aisles of the local supermarket, residents discussed what could be done. After a theft at a hotel, one of the Mounties was asked what he would do if he heard the Ross place was on fire. "The first thing I'd do?" he asked. "Take a drive to Seal Cove" - a town at the other end of the island.

'There's a truck on fire'

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Seven months later, on the Saturday night of Canada Day weekend, 2006, Erin Gaskill's son walked into her bedroom.

"Mom," he said. "There's a truck on fire out there."

"You're dreaming," she said. "Go to sleep."

Two minutes later, he was back.

"It's really on fire, Mom," he said.

"Where?"

"At Ronnie Ross's house."

This time, Ms. Gaskill went to look. She saw the otherworldly orange glow even before she reached the window. It looked as though someone had detonated a bomb, but the fire was come from the interior of the GMC Jimmy, owned by Paul Irvine's brother, Terry.

Ms. Gaskill wasn't completely surprised. In the spring, someone had thrown the propane tank from Mr. Ross's barbecue through his living-room window (he wasn't home at the time), and teens had taken to cruising past his house and yelling, "Burn, baby burn!"

She, like many islanders, considered the SUV fire as a warning, but Mr. Ross didn't take the hint. Instead of leaving, or at least lowering his profile, he took to flinging bottles at passing cars and hurling epithets at the police. The night after the Jimmy burned, Mr. Ross and Terry Irvine lit a fire at the edge of his yard and topped it with the propane tank that had gone through the window. As a court heard later, they told everyone within range their intention was to "burn down the neighbourhood."

It took several hours and a half-dozen calls to have the Mounties come, put out the fire and seize the tank. By that point, Mr. Foster and his neighbours had decided that they couldn't count on the RCMP for protection; they would have to rely on themselves.

Despite all the grief, there may not have been a riot if a woman in Saint John had not been redecorating her kitchen.

The woman was Margaret Byers, and she sold crack. So did her mother, her brothers and her boyfriend. That spring, thanks to the work on Ms. Byers's kitchen, cans of paint and turpentine were in her front hall when she received a visit from a long-time addict named Harold McCarty. He wanted drugs but didn't have any money. Eyeing the turpentine, he had an idea. The police were well into the construction of a new station just a block and a half from the Byers' "crack shack." What if he did something to delay the construction?

Ms. Byers was game. McCarty toted the turpentine to the cop shop, did some splashing, lit a match and achieved his goal. For his trouble, he received $100, half in cash and half in crack. However, the police arrested him for the arson and on July 20, 2006, he pleaded guilty and was jailed for 10 years.

The next day, a Friday, news of the guilty plea reached Larry Marshall, who had lived on Grand Manan for 10 years and made his living harvesting the dulse for which the island is famous. Although a peace-loving man, Mr. Marshall had a brother, Harold, who had an extensive criminal record and had recently moved to the island to get off crack.

But shortly after Mr. Ross arrived, Harold Marshall began to spent a lot of time on Cedar Street. He told his brother that Mr. Ross said he had drawn up a list of about 10 people he wanted his friends from the mainland to deal with. They supposedly included Mr. Foster, his father, Jeff, and Michael Brown, the leader of a local prayer group Mr. Ross suspected of having burned the Jimmy.

Larry Marshall liked Carter Foster, and when he read a newspaper story about Harold McCarty burning a police station in the grip of crack, he was suddenly spooked about what his own brother might do. When Mr. Foster happened to drop by later that day, he told him about the list. "My brother's a bag of trouble with a capital T," he said. "And he doesn't just talk through his nose."

That afternoon, Ronnie Ross saw Mr. Brown's brother, Bruce, at the convenience store. "You tell your brother," he said, "I'm pretty sure he burnt the truck in my driveway. He's going to be next - and sooner than he thinks."

In the evening, a car the islanders had never seen before, a 2001 model GMC Yukon, arrived at 61 Cedar St. It belonged to Terry Irvine, who had arranged to buy the $30,000 vehicle to replace his lost Jimmy even though he was unemployed. The Yukon's arrival was taken as a sign that trouble might be brewing. People began to gather at the Foster place around 9 p.m., and by 11, a crowd of 40 was on hand. After 18 months of aggravation, it seemed something was finally going to happen.

'Return fire!'

No one knows for sure who fired Ronnie Ross's Winchester into the crowd that night. Whoever it was fired a total of seven times, enough to stun the combatants at first - and then send them into overdrive.

Mr. Foster stopped beating on Mr. Ross and flung him toward a roadside ditch, then sprinted to his house. From behind him came the sound of rifle reports. People dove for cover, and he recalls one of his father's friends shouting: "Return fire!"

Once he reached his house, Mr. Foster retrieved his own gun and scaled a ladder to his roof, throwing himself down at the peak. Below him, gunfire was coming from both sides now; his friends had found his open gun case. One of them promptly put a bullet through Mr. Ross's living-room window.

Mr. Foster's high-powered hunting rifle had a scope and a muzzle support, for extra stability; he could pick off targets at 400 yards. But he just wanted to cover his friends' retreat. Rather than the dark figures still scurrying for cover in the Ross yard, he aimed at a symbol of drug-revenue excess: the Yukon in the driveway. He shot first at the gas tank, producing nothing except a couple of tings, and then tried the front tires. Suddenly a figure scurried from behind the SUV directly into his line of fire. At that point, he realized with horror that he had almost hit a human being.

The gunfire stopped. Mr. Foster climbed down the ladder and joined his allies behind the house to figure out what had happened. Mr. Ross and his crew had demonstrated their readiness to use weapons, they reasoned. If he were allowed to stay now, there was no telling what he might do. The only choice was to get him off the island, and the surest way of doing that was to deprive him of a place to live. Mr. Foster's friends gathered the bottles he used to make his own wine, filled them with whatever flammable liquid was at hand, and stuffed the tops with rags.

Someone fired flares toward the Ross place. The first went into the porch and ignited some boxes piled by the far corner. The second hit somebody in the leg - Mr. Ross, they would discover later. While the Ross camp was busy with the porch fire, Michael Small, a buddy of Mr. Foster, and his brother-in-law, Lloyd Bainbridge, crossed the street and snuck through the woods with a can of gas. Once behind the Ross house, Mr. Bainbridge splashed gasoline over the junk piled up against the back wall. Mr. Small threw a match. There was a whoomp, and Mr. Ross's home was burning.

The Foster side wasn't particularly happy to see the fire department arrive. They had been hoping the authorities might take their time. While some chanted, "Let it burn! Let it burn!" others attempted to keep the water from reaching the fire by stomping on the hose. Mr. Foster slipped past the firefighters to the rear of the tanker truck, which held the water supply. He had heard that the truck had a "dump valve" he could use to drain the tank. His hand was on the valve when he heard Russell Ingalls, a firefighter friend of the family, say: "You don't want to do that, Carter. Just walk away."

"You don't know what we've been dealing with here," Mr. Foster protested.

Then another firefighter appeared, a man who had taught Mr. Foster in high school. "Just take your hand off the valve," he said.

Realizing that what he wanted to do would make him no better than his target, he stepped off the tanker truck's bumper - and directly into the path of Ronnie Ross.

"Even if you burn down the house," Mr. Ross sputtered, "we're going to come back here, we're going to set up tents, and we're not going to sell drugs to the kids - we're going to give it to them!"

At that, Mr. Foster started to punch him yet again, this time viciously, stopping only when RCMP Constable Gerald Bigger pulled him off. Mr. Ross crumpled, blood welling from his face. A Mountie took him off to safety, and he left the island on the morning ferry.

It was almost 2 a.m. when the fire department was done mopping up. But an hour later, the fire chief called his men back to Cedar Street. Someone had ignited the Ross place a second time. As the volunteers made their way down the lane, they found themselves blocked by a green truck belonging to Erin Gaskill's boyfriend. He had locked his doors and was refusing to move. Constable Ron Smith broke a window and got the truck to the side of the road. But then a half-dozen neighbourhood women linked arms and again halted the firefighters' progress. As the police tried to figure out what to do, a roar signalled that it was too late. The house was engulfed in flames and soon collapsed. For the moment, so far as the islanders were concerned, the good guys had won.

But had they? About 40 shots were fired during the riot of Grand Manan, and no one was wounded, but in the aftermath, the island quickly grew to resemble an armed camp. After months of inaction, the RCMP called in reinforcements, swelling the four-member contingent to about 70. It was a welcome show of force, but the island's sense of relief turned to frustration when it was learned the Mounties intended to press charges against Carter Foster and his accomplices.

The force spared no expense in investigating men many people regarded as heroes. Witnesses were grilled relentlessly in interrogation sessions that lasted for hours; Sara Wormell vomited after hers. Hardened fishermen left the station in tears. During his interview, Mr. Foster tried to exercise his right to silence, then broke down and confessed to firing his hunting rifle toward Mr. Ross's side of the road. Soon after, police charged him with dangerous use and improper storage of a firearm.

In the end, Mr. Foster's friends Matthew Lambert and Greg Guthrie also confessed to firing weapons. Mr. Lambert was charged with two counts of dangerous use of a firearm, Mr. Guthrie with one. Lloyd Bainbridge, a diver who frequently worked for the Fosters repairing herring weirs, confessed to pouring gasoline along the rear of the Ross place before the first fire; his brother-in-law, Michael Small, confessed to tossing the lighted match. Both men were charged with arson. (Who committed the second, successful arson remains a mystery.)

The aftermath

The defendants came to be known as the Grand Manan Five, and islanders took up a collection to hire David Lutz, a well-known New Brunswick lawyer, to represent them.

After a two-and-a-half week trial in November, Mr. Small and Mr. Bainbridge were convicted of arson; each received a year of house arrest. They also were required to pay $5,000 each to compensate Mr. Ross for the damage to his home.

Mr. Lambert was convicted on one count of dangerous use of a firearm and sentenced to six months of house arrest. Mr. Foster was given six months of probation for his lesser charge, improper storage of a firearm. On all other charges, the men were found not guilty. After the sentencing hearing, Mr. Foster said that he regretted the fallout from the night of violence, but not the decision to go after Ronnie Ross.

And what about Mr. Ross himself? Apparently he had no insurance on his home, and now claims the fire has ruined him. He currently lives with his father outside Digby. Of those who sided with him, he alone was charged - with dangerous use of a firearm, plus three counts of uttering threats (in connection with the propane-tank bonfire).

But the last laugh may well be his. Last month he was acquitted of the weapons offence, and then 10 days ago he was convicted of making the threats. The judge sentenced him to four-and-a-half months - but released him, saying he had already spent that much time in jail.

He also intends to launch a civil suit against Mr. Foster or the Mounties, or both. With a savvy lawyer, he could win a hefty award - but stands much less chance of success in another of his ventures. Rather than agree to be interviewed for this article, he said he hopes to sell his story for "around $150,000" to a U.S. media outlet. Oprah perhaps.

One last note: Among all the legal remedies arising from the riot, there was one thing nobody was charged with.

Selling drugs.

Christopher Shulgan is a Toronto writer currently writing a book about Alexander Yakovlev, the former Soviet ambassador to Canada who became a member of Mikhail Gorbachev's inner circle.

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