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In Saint John, a few powerful families hold sway

Saint John is a city with tremendous history, but a kind of stunted growth; its greater narrative rests on a small, consistent cast of characters.

Over time, the characters change, but the surnames stay the same. It's a blue-collar town, and the top of its power circles has long belonged to the industry barons that bring work to the people. These barons created dynasties: The Irvings, the Olands, and in a greater New Brunswick sense, the McCains, have run the local industry for generations — in the Olands' case, six.

But Saint John is not used to murder. And while Richard (Dick) Oland, who was killed this month, was largely estranged from the Moosehead family dynasty and beer-baron brother Derek, the city is yet to pick its jaw up off the floor.

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Dick Oland was killed on July 7 in his uptown office in what police have called a homicide. On Friday police with a search warrant spent nine hours examining the home of his son, Dennis. Police have not commented on the cause of the death or the progress of their investigation.

"We're in a big city, but with a small-town attitude," lifelong resident Bill Farren says. He's a two-term city councillor and former union man who's worked at Moosehead Breweries for 37 years.

When you establish yourself here, you get to know everybody. "If you can give somebody business that's in the city, rather than outside, that's what you do," Mr. Farren says.

That isn't to say the city isn't open to fresh blood, but new faces need to adapt. Nathalie Godbout, a local lawyer and past chair of the Saint John Board of Trade, told The Globe that the business community is more open and welcoming than ever. But when she arrived from small-town New Brunswick in 1994 looking to help, it didn't look that way.

"When I first got here, I wasn't sure how I was going to be of service," she says. "There seemed to be such a strong, key group of leaders – but there's always room for more of that kind of leadership." However, she notes, "I think there's a lot of the same players."

In any city, one's ambitions can only go as far as one's influence – and here, that circle of influence is small and close-knit. The relationships one develops in Saint John, in particularly with the Irving and Oland families, are precious – with business power concentrated in such small circles, to lose those relationships is to lose much of one's own clout.

"Nobody wants to pay any disrespect to them," a source familiar with the city's business dynamics told The Globe. This rings even more true this month as Saint John cringes over Mr. Oland's killing.

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Without the influence of families like the Olands, there would be little reason for many to stay in Saint John, or even New Brunswick. It is a small province, left behind as immigrants and locals moved west – from Canada's earliest days until today.

In running local industry, these families created community, and a reason to belong. They have provided work for generations. And each family is noted, as well, for its philanthropy – for giving back to the community and giving reason, beyond work, for people to remain. They are crucial to the city's existence.

That is the circle of influence in broad terms. But in Saint John, a city of 70,000 (130,000 including its bedroom communities) it is not hard to narrow this down to specifics.

Many leaders of the Saint John business community live northeast of the city in the bedroom community of Rothesay. As you head into the town, there is a fork in the road: on one side is Hampton Road, which takes you to the town's business district; and on the other, Gondola Point Road, a scenic route closer to the Kennebecasis River.

Police searched Dennis Oland's property on Gondola Point Road last Thursday, just a week after his father was found dead. Behind that property, on Hampton Road, is Dick Oland's former home. Next to Dick Oland lives James D. Irving, president of the massive J.D. Irving, Ltd. forestry manufacturing company, one of the largest components of the Irving Group of Companies.

More Irving family members live within a few blocks, including one a few doors down from Dennis Oland. Andrew Oland, son of Dick Oland's brother Derek and current president of Moosehead Breweries, lives close by as well.

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Family means a lot here. Jason Stephen, president of the Saint John Real Estate Board, says there exists a "traditional mindset in terms of families." His father, Ralph Stephen, established the family name as a lawyer.

"It's an easy city" to do business in, he said, "if you get out and work in the community. People respect those people."

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