And completely disgusting.One of the biggest industrial family dynasties anywhere.
How one family creates and curates a culture of fear throughout an entire provinceThere are very few names that stir up as much debate and controversy in New Brunswick as “Irving” does. As Canada’s eighth wealthiest family, formerly the third wealthiest family in 2014, the Irvings are ranked 13th in terms of most extensive landownership globally, the largest private landowner in Maine, and the fifth largest private landowner in America—the Irving family have disproportionately impacted the historical and contemporary development of my home province. Strong opinions on the Irving family and its corporation are limited to residents of the province, and Canada’s most unknown and corrupt family has gone out of their way to ensure that it has remained this way for decades.
With their current net worth of $7.38 billion, the Irving family had humble beginnings. The dynastic company got its start back in the 1920s when K.C. Irving started a small service station in his hometown of Bouctouche, New Brunswick. With persistence, he would eventually turn this service station into Irving Oil, a 3,000-franchise distributor across the east coast that controls more than 250 enterprises scattered across North America. None of the various companies that the Irvings own are up for public trade, allowing for no financial transparency. The Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick is the largest oil refinery in all of Canada. The lung cancer rates in Saint John also just so happen to be 50 percent higher than in Fredericton and Moncton, the province’s other major cities, and are likely linked to environmental factors instead of smoking. Their empire spans from energy, forestry, trucking, construction, shipyards, and hardware stores, to owning every single newspaper in the province (no, I’m not exaggerating), and even a junior league hockey team. Together, the various companies, which are all privately owned by the family, are estimated to be worth $10 billion.
To feed an oil refinery that produces up to 320,000 barrels a day, Irving imports 100 million barrels of oil each year, most of which comes from Saudi Arabia. The family owns more than 900 gas stations, railway lines, shipping companies, and paper & pulp mills. Supplying 60% of the gasoline in Boston, the Irvings are responsible for nearly one-fifth of American gasoline imports. They employ roughly one in every eight New Brunswickers and account for more than half of the province’s exports.
K.C. believed heavily in vertical integration and instilled the values of loyalty, hard work, and attention to detail into his empire. He was one of the first Canadians to utilize offshore tax havens, placing his companies in a trust in Bermuda. This move to Bermuda would eventually prompt a Canada Revenue Agency investigation that would reveal that the Irvings’ move allowed them to lower their tax bill by $142 million. Now, roughly a dozen Irving companies are based in Bermuda. Escaping taxes is something that the Irvings are professionals at now. Oil refineries in Alberta that produce the same daily quantity as the one that the Irvings own would pay roughly between $15-16 million a year in taxes while the Irving’s refinery gets away with paying only $5 million.
The Irvings continue to exploit the province, the natural resources of which have allowed for their wealth and power to flourish, without giving as much as a dime back to the province, allowing for our provincial infrastructure and education systems to suffer. New Brunswick is the second poorest province in Canada—our median income is the lowest amongst the provinces, we have the highest unemployment rates, our provincial government is facing a $453 million deficit, and is paying $685 million a year towards debt-servicing costs. This family doesn’t stop at exploiting the environment; they continue to exploit New Brunswickers, without whom their fortune would not exist. In 2013, it was revealed that Moncton taxpayers paid $88,000 per year to the Moncton Wildcats hockey team to compensate for the loss of income in their corporate seats. Robert Irving owns this hockey team, and the citizens of Moncton were never told that their tax dollars would be distributed to the team. City council made this decision under the condition that another Irving business would establish operations in the city.
The clout and power that the Irvings have is deeply seated within the province. The family gets what they want, when they want it and refuse to let anyone, or anything, interfere with their ability to make a profit. In December 2015, the province’s respected chief medical officer of health, Dr. Eilish Cleary, was fired suddenly without cause. Cleary had been studying the impacts that glyphosate, a herbicide used within the forestry industry and notably used by the Irving company, has on health. Cleary was preparing to release a report on the herbicide just before being fired. Numerous New Brunswickers attributed her dismissal to the influence of the Irvings. This may seem like some kind of wild conspiracy story, but it is highly likely, as this is not the first time the Irving family has used their influence to manipulate the province.
In 2004, Irving Oil began talking with Repsol, a Spanish energy company, to build a $1.2 billion liquefied natural gas terminal. Repsol was searching for a new space to offload gas so that it could get its foot in the door in the North American market. Irving agreed to lease a piece of land to the company for the terminal while they took a 25 percent position in the deal. The then-CEO of Irving Oil, Kenneth Irving, soon informed Saint John’s mayor at the time that the terminal would not be built unless the company received a large tax concession, which is a complete or partial exemptions from taxes. This concession would require the city council to give up a potential $200 million in revenue. Instead of paying $8 million a year in taxes for the next 25 years, which would drastically benefit the province, Kenneth was able to persuade the mayor to accept a measly $500, 000. City council, of course, quickly agreed to this deal and the province would pass a bill with the sole intent of green-lighting this deal and transaction.
Roughly ten years later, Repsol would launch a court case against the Canada Revenue Agency. It would be revealed that Irving Oil signed a contract finalizing the business venture weeks before the New Brunswick legislature even passed the tax concession. Within this contract, it was guaranteed that Irving Oil would get at least $20 million a year in profits from Repsol’s terminal, proving that a tax concession is the last thing the Irvings needed.
This is not the first time New Brunswick politicians and public figures have cozied up to the Irvings. In 2016 the federal ethics commissioner asked Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc of the New Brunswick riding to “avoid participating in any decisions involving the powerful Irving family,” as his friendship with James D. Irving posed a potential conflict of interest. Even our current premier, Blaine Higgs, was employed by the Irvings for 25 years.
If you’re not from the Atlantic provinces, all of this is likely new information. Part of this is because people simply don’t care about the financially deprived provinces that they believe don’t offer any sort of cultural capital for them to consume. The other part is that people outside of the Maritimes are unaware of the Irvings and the complexities surrounding them due to the monopoly that the Irvings have held over the province’s media for decades.
When investigating media monopolization in Canada, a Senate Commission called New Brunswick a “journalistic disaster area”. This reputation is all thanks to the Irving family. They own all five of the English language daily newspapers in the province, alongside 29 other publications, including 21 French and English weekly newspapers. These newspapers, while publicly registered, are limited in liability and privately held; the public knows little about their operations. The family also happen to own three radio stations, one of which is in Newfoundland.
In 1944, the Irvings bought New Brunswick Publishing Co., now Brunswick News Inc (BNI). Throughout the next two decades, K.C. Irving, who was the head of the family dynasty at the time, would buy out the remaining English language newspaper publishers in the province. The production and consumption of news is fundamental to a liberal democracy, and a monopoly ownership reduces competition and journalistic quality. The Irving family is no stranger to controversy and their branch of media ownership has undergone several investigations. In 1971 the federal government would charge K.C. for running a de facto monopoly, but the ruling would ultimately be appealed. A very similar investigation would be carried out by the Senate in 1980 which suggested that the Irving family should be prohibited from owning two or more newspapers having 75 percent or more of the circulate in a single language in a defined geographical region. By 1998 they would have all of the daily newspapers under their roof and soon acquire the majority of the weekly newspapers in the province. Their monopoly would become more apparent when Jamie Irving, the great-grandson of K.C. Irving, would become publisher of the Telegraph-Journal, a daily newspaper published in Saint John, in 2005.
In 2016, the Saint John City Council would try to renegotiate the agreement they made with the Irvings in 2004 that allowed them a tax break for their business with Repsol. The Telegraph-Journal’s editor-in-chief would criticize the councillors who voted to end the tax deal at a council meeting. While the editor acknowledges that the deal has its flaws, they argue that the city benefited largely from the tax break because the company donates thousands of dollars to the hospital and local charitable organizations. Such donations are only made possible because the Irvings save millions of dollars each year by exploiting and manipulating the people of New Brunswick.
To write for any newspaper in the province is to sign a tyrannical contract; everything that is published and everything that staffed journalists write belongs to the Irvings. Within the fine lines of their contracts it states that the owners can sell their works in media “now in existence, or which may hereafter be developed”.
I’m not saying that the papers that BNI publishes are propaganda machines or that these papers are inherently bad and lack any type of good journalistic skills—the criticism that BNI receives is much more nuanced. Notable journalist with CBC New Brunswick, Jacques Poitras, argues in his 2014 book Irving vs. Irving: Canada’s Feuding Billionaires and the Stories They Won’t Tell that the Irvings’ papers will cover problems that are so public that they are nearly impossible to avoid, such as a malfunction occurring at the oil refinery, but that they avoid doing any type of investigative work which could draw attention to a new issue. Soon after the release of this book, the Irvings would bring a formal complaint to the CBC against some of Poitras’ tweets regarding the family and its business. If you try to speak out against the Irvings or even provide an ounce of competition in the media, they will do everything in their power to stop you before you even have the chance to form a sentence criticizing them.
Woodstock, New Brunswick is a small town with a population of barely 5,000. Nestled between the Meduxnekeag River and Saint John River, farm fields can be seen behind the Wal-Mart; it’s the epitome of rural Canada and small-town charm. It’s the last place you would expect to find the frontline of a media war. The Carleton County Free Press, an independent newspaper, was created by Ken Langdon after he quit his job as publisher at the Bugle-Observer, which is owned by the Irvings through BNI. The Free Press’s first issue would hit the stands at the end of October 2007, but only after a rocky beginning. BNI went to court before Langdon was even able to put out the first issue, and they alleged that he had taken important documents after quitting, such as budgets, rate information, and carrier lists.
As the legal battle heated up, a court-appointed forensic accounting firm would carry out a search on Langdon’s properties and even take some of his computers. Ultimately, the Irvings would win an injunction that would prevent them from contacting BNI employees or customers and would prevent him from using any information that belongs to BNI. The vice president of BNI claimed that they simply stopped Langdon from using material that he “illegally” removed and that they “don’t mind” competing. Six Bugle-Observer employees would come to work for the Free Press before its first issue hit the stands. Unfortunately, a year later the Free Press would be forced to close down due to the market crash’s effects on the local economy and the ad-rate cuts that the Bugle-Observer made, making it nearly impossible to get any revenue to keep them afloat. The Irvings would issue a statement only a few days after the Free Press’s final issue hit the stands accusing them of providing misleading information when Langdon wrote in the final editorial about the hardships he faced at the hands of BNI.
“Freedom of the press”, a hallmark of democracies around the world, often refers to inhibiting overbearing governments from interfering with the media. However, in our current, and ever increasingly neoliberal society, government regulation continues to drop, and it is corporations that are at the source of censorship. The media monopoly that exists in New Brunswick has ultimately brought us full circle, back to a system in which the freedom of the press only applies to those who own the press.
New Brunswick truly is unlike any other province in Canada. While it has a reputation for being quiet and boring but filled with picturesque views of the coastline, the reality is that it’s a company province. The Irvings know that they have done and continue to do some incredibly disgusting things, they know that they are corrupt and exploitative, they know that their morals are skewed but will refuse to act differently because that would entail a loss of profit and a loss of power. Power and the ability to exert it without question can sometimes be worth more than a net worth.
On the family that owns New Brunswick - The Strand
How one family creates and curates a culture of fear throughout an entire province