CANADALAND live in Fredericton: biting the hand that feeds in Irvingland

Written by CANADALAND & NB Media Co-op on March 31, 2015

The Irving family of New Brunswick own more land than anyone in the world except for royalty and the Pope, declared Jesse Brown at opening of the live recording of his show, Canadaland, at St. Thomas University in Fredericton on Feb. 19. “How do they use their media monopoly to further their interests? What happens to those who try to compete with them?” Brown queried. Author Jacques Poitras, media activist Tracy Glynn, web videographer Charles Theriault and Green Party MLA David Coon were on hand to discuss the Irving’s and the influence they have on New Brunswick politics and policies.

Brown: Tell us about the current controversy around forestry in New Brunswick?

Poitras: Last year [in 2014] the provincial government announced a plan to allow private industry which has leases on public land, called Crown land, to increase their harvesting. David (Coon) and others have asserted that level of cutting is too high for the forest to be sustainable. This is a level of cutting that Irving and others have lobbied for more than a decade using a variety of public and private pressures.

Brown: How has forestry been doing in this part of the country founded on forestry?

Poitras: New Brunswick essentially began as what one author called it, a timber colony. It was built around cutting wood, sawing wood and using wood to build ships and other things. In recent years, many mills have closed. There were ten leaseholders [on Crown land] at one time and now there are four. What has happened is that Irving has taken over more of the leases that were abandoned by some of the other companies that closed their mills and left. I think it is fair to say that Irving now occupies a bigger piece of the pie than they ever did before and consequently governments feel a certain pressure to accommodate them because their mills are scattered around the province so there are lot of communities that depend on those jobs. The new government that was elected in September during the election campaign promised to review the new forestry plan because there was a lot of criticism from it but they never came out and said they would reverse it. David and others have views of how the forest industry that can be done differently, of how it can still create jobs but not rely on industry so much. The forest industry has taken a hit. That has made the companies that remain, including Irving, even more important relative to the economy.

Brown: To what extent has J.D. Irving Ltd., the government of New Brunswick and Brunswick News worked together in concert to achieve the goals of the Irving family?

Coon: Brunswick News has changed over time depending on who the publisher was. Jim Irving Sr. was never really involved with the paper. What has changed recently is that Jamie Irving is now directly involved in newspapers.

It’s not a secret that J.D. Irving is regularly at the Department of Natural Resources. Also they have a constant presence when there is a story in the media that they take issue with. They’re on the phone or writing letters. Deans of universities get a call when there is an academic speaking out about something related to their businesses. Media outlet managers get calls. Just the other day, I got a letter from Irving complaining about comments I made on CBC in an interview with Terry Seguin. That kind of constant calling and letter writing can have the effect of imposing a chill on the way that people speak about Irving-related businesses or forestry activities that they are engaged in. I’m sure there are many people in this room that have had that experience.

It’s also not just the way that Brunswick News is covering the stories but also what they’re not covering or how they’re placing stories. I was pleased that the news of my forest bill was covered in the Telegraph-Journal but on page 5 and it left things out. In the gallery at the Legislature (for the introduction of the Forest Bill), there were representatives of independent mills and woodlot owners. It mentions that there were environmental and Aboriginal representatives there and that’s it. That was interesting that was left out.

Brown: Tell us more about your recent forest bill

Coon: The bill would annul the contracts that were established to guarantee for the next 25 years a significant increase in softwood cutting allowed to J.D. Irving and other companies that hold Crown licenses.

Like in B.C., the land has never been ceded by the First Nations in New Brunswick but you would never know that was the case or that there were even First Nations in New Brunswick by reading Brunswick News.

Brown: The (proposed) legislation is directly contrary to the interests of the Irving’s and they did cover it in their paper. Your complaint is that it’s on page five, it’s marginally covered and the way it’s covered characterizes it as something of interest to fringe voices and nothing to be taken too seriously. Is that accurate?

Coon: Media tends to talk to the powers-that-be and tends to reflect the conventional wisdom. If you are not connected to the powers-that-be or if you are not speaking in the narrative or the voice of conventional wisdom then you don’t tend to have much of a place in the media.

If you read the business pages of Brunswick News, you don’t get a robust sense of business enterprise in New Brunswick. You certainly don’t get much of a sense of their businesses with respect to forestry. It would be hard to know that there are independent mills in the province and what their struggles are. It would be hard to know anything about the economic role of private woodlot owners and the contracting businesses they run.

Brown: Let’s talk about private woodlot owners. I read on the CBC that the prior government said that private woodlot owners would be positively impacted by the deal the Alward government struck to give more Crown wood to the Irving’s. Is that true?

Theriault: Not at all. I discovered that our mill in Kedgwick, the Irving mill, had been turning wood away. The mill workers were supposed to work two shifts, 12 months a year. They were only working one shift and seven months a year. We were lacking wood and the Irving company was saying it was because the government wasn’t giving the mill enough wood. The Deputy Minister at the time said that we should have more than enough wood: 83,000 cubic metres of wood was supposed to be going to Kedgwick but the Mayor and the people from the mill said, no, we’re not getting it. For three years, they were taking that wood, which was coming from the Miramichi area, and sending it elsewhere, instead of Kedgwick. That robbed our people of $3 million over three years. That hurts our economy.

The mill was cutting 400,000 cubic metres a year and employing 60 people but they were not buying any wood from the private woodlot owners. In 1982, the Crown Lands and Forest Act stated that the industry was supposed to buy from private woodlot owners before having access to Crown forest. The price paid to the woodlot owners had to be the same price they paid the province. It was kind of fair. In 1992, Frank McKenna came along and changed that law. Industry no longer had to buy from private woodlot owners. Overnight, the price of wood dropped 40%. The private woodlot owners were paid 40% less and the province was paid 40% less. Those with private woodlots now can’t make enough money to pay for the gas to cut the wood.

Brown: One has to wonder what is not getting said because of the lack of other media outlets. What happened to the Carleton Free Press?

Glynn: A few years ago, the Carleton Free Press was started by Ken Langdon who used to work for a Brunswick News newspaper, the Bugle-Observer, in Carleton County. He was met with numerous roadblocks put up by Irving. First, a court injunction was used to try and stop him. It argued that his newspaper would cut into theBugle’s advertising rates. That injunction did not go forward. In the end, the paper ended up shutting down because the Irving paper, the Bugle Observer, had cut their advertising rates, making it very difficult for the paper to make a go of it.

The above transcript of the CANADALAND show in Fredericton has been truncated and edited for clarity. To listen to the entire show, go to CANADALAND, episode 71.