The scars of poverty

CHRIS WOOD March 10 1986

The scars of poverty

CHRIS WOOD March 10 1986

The scars of poverty


To many Canadians, the Annapolis Valley is known for its annual Apple Blossom Festival held each June. The week-long event celebrates wholesome country living, the Valley’s spectacular beauty and the richness of its $120-million-a-year farm industry. Even in winter the Valley’s leafless orchards and solid farmhouses evoke an image of unruffled prosperity. But for many of the region’s 45,000 residents, that perception is cruelly deceiving. Two years ago a series of stunning sex charges exposed widespread poverty in the low mountains which gird the 135-km valley. Thousands of people live in inadequate shelter, and prejudice and deprivation are widespread. Many subsist on below-minimum wages as farm laborers or carry the scars of generations of isolation and inbreeding.

In February, 1984, prosecutors told a shocked provincial court in the valley town of Kentville that for more than a decade men and women of a Valley family, the Golers, living in the squalor of small, decrepit shacks, had habit-

ually forced children as young as six to join in sexual acts. Ultimately, 15 men and women—including seven members of the Goler family—were found guilty of a variety of sexual offenses. But what concerned local residents even more than the sensational charges against one family was that

Many families living in the hills surrounding the Annapolis Valley endure severe deprivation and inadequate shelter

the Golers were not alone. As many as 4,000 of the 45,000 people in Kings County, the Valley’s largest municipal unit, may live in conditions no better than those which contributed to the Goler family’s crimes. At first, many people in the region expressed outrage at the unflattering exposure. But recently that attitude has begun to

change. Municipal elections last fall brought a new mood of reform to Valley politics. And this month a Nova Scotia provincial cabinet committee will consider an innovative plan to provide new homes to many of the area’s neediest families.

By the time a 14-year-old girl complained to a teacher in January, 1984, that she had been sexually abused at home, incest had become a habit for the extended Goler clan of White Rock Mountain, a barren ridge on the Valley’s South Mountain. Police learned that as many as 20 people shared the cramped and decaying three-bedroom home at one time. After an investigation, the RCMP laid 170 sexually related charges against seven family members including three brothers, their two sisters and two teenage nephews, as well as eight other adults. The charges ranged from sexual assault to gross indecency, buggery, incest and having sexual intercourse with a minor. In October, 1984, Willie Goler, a 38-year-old father of three, including the girl who levelled the original complaint, was sentenced to seven years in prison for his part in the assaults, some against children as young as 5. The 14 others received sentences ranging from six months to six years. Three have since appealed their convictions.

But the Golers’ crimes appeared to

be the result of generations of poverty and ignorance and not just the product of violent intent and sexual deviance. Most of the accused Golers were functionally illiterate. According to testimony, as many as five people had huddled together in a single bed on occasion, trying to keep warm in the family’s drafty, overcrowded homestead. Declared Kentville legal aid lawyer Stephen Mattson, who defended several of the accused: “If you pack 20 people into a two-room house without heat, what do you end up with?” Halifax pediatrician Dr. John Anderson, who has treated incest in dozens of families since 1969, added: “When you’ve got Mom and Dad and two girls sleeping together because of overcrowding, sexual things will happen. In some cases you are talking about chronic relationships going on for generations.”

Still, some experts say that there is not a clear link between poverty and incest. “I have not seen it,” declared Coleen Shepherd, administrative supervisor of Family and Children’s Services of Kings County. But others point to high local rates of birth defects such as deafness as evidence that incest has been practised for generations among some extended families in the valley and its surrounding mountains. Noted James Sacouman, a

sociologist at Wolfville’s Acadia University: “Intellectual capacities can get worn down over generations.” And a psychologist who tested many of the accused Golers found several bordering on mental retardation.

Clearly, the miserable living conditions have not promoted incest or caused mental impairment among all Valley residents. But there is no disputing that many are living in wretched poverty and desperately inadequate shelter. Robert Butler, 24, his wife Debbie, 25, and their two children, Kelly, 8, and Bobby Jr., 3, are among them. Both parents dropped out of elementary school and work as seasonal farm laborers, earning less than $130 a week each.

Their home for the past four years has been a narrow plywood box about eight feet wide and 18 feet long set on the crest of Gaspereau Mountain, a few kilometres east of White Rock. A cement block holds down the roof beneath a rotted stovepipe. Inside, the floor sags visibly. A length of orange cotton hides a tiny bedroom containing the couple’s double bed, and on the floor beside it there is a single mattress where both children sleep. The only plumbing is a bucket. “Sometimes I can’t complain. It’s not all that cold,” Debbie Butler said. “But when the wind’s blowing it comes right through

the walls.” In winter, temperatures outside sometimes drop to -25°C.

Across the Valley on North Mountain, Clarence Meyer, 28, and his 18year-old wife, Cindy, share a similar dwelling with their 18-month-old daughter. They expect another child later this year. Like the Butlers, Clarence is a farm laborer. His last job, digging potatoes, ended with the harvest last November and he is now receiving $150 in unemployment insurance payments every two weeks. The couple paid $100 three years ago for what they describe as “a home-built trailer.” The trailer has neither plumbing nor electricity. Kerosene provides light, and for a toilet, Clarence acknowledged with obvious embarrassment, “There is the woods.”

According to Cameron Jess, manager of the nonprofit Kings County Housing Repair Society, an estimated 1,000 households in the county live in shingle or plywood firetraps, devoid of comfort, sanitation or much hope. “I know two senior citizens living in a set of boxes,” said Jess. “This housing is worse, given our climate, than what you see in almost any developing country. There, housing may be more rudimentary, but it is more adequate in terms of what is required to support life.”

Until recently, however, few people

in the otherwise prosperous Annapolis Valley expressed much sympathy for their impoverished neighbors. The mountain enclaves of poverty were nicknamed derisively “Dogpatch.” Speaking generally, Aurele Bickerton, a retired storekeeper, warden of Kings County from 1976 to 1981 and a county councillor for 24 years until he was defeated last October, said that the county’s poor have only their own “laziness” to blame. “There are a lot of farmers who can’t find laborers,” Bickerton said. As for the shacks and makeshift shelters, Bickerton said, “They’re happy to live in that condition.” But the Valley’s farmers pay laborers low wages, often more than 50 cents an hour below Nova Scotia’s industrial minimum wage of $4 an hour. “Farmers who are trying to stay alive themselves,” said sociologist Sacou. man, “are using this highly exploitable labor force.” Indeed, for some, farm labor approaches slavery. In one instance recalled by Jess, a Kings County farmer demanded that his hired man work seven days a week from six in the morning until 6:30 each night. The married father of four was paid $100 a week and provided with a threadbare shack insulated with paper.

Still, the publicity surrounding the Goler case is changing some local attitudes. In December four local governments agreed to study housing standards in the region. And support is growing for a plan fostered by Cameron Jess that could result in many of the area’s poorest families obtaining new homes within a year. A private charity donated $21,000 to build the first model, a two-bedroom, 565square-foot house called the Hearth Home. In the wake of the Goler trial, Nova Scotia’s government last year guaranteed financing for 20 Hearth Homes. Charles Fraser moved into one of the new homes last spring with his wife and three teenagers. Said Fraser: “It’s nice to walk in someplace warm.”

Jess has already assured the Butlers that they will not spend another winter in their cramped shanty. But for others, even Jess’s ambitious construction plans hold little hope. The Meyers, for one, could not afford the $250-amonth mortgage payment for a Hearth Home. “Life is a promise nobody keeps in Kings County,” said Jess.

As for the Goler family and other impoverished Kings County residents convicted 24 months ago, nine of those sentenced in 1984 remain in prison, eight of them in Kingston, Ont., penitentiaries. Four have completed their sentences and two are awaiting appeals on their convictions. “The Golers,” said Jess, “paid a terrible price.”

— CHRIS WOOD in Kings County