Bruce Livesey deconstructs The House of Irvings

Written by Sophie M. Lavoie on September 25, 2017

Bruce Livesey, The National Observer reporter, speaking at St. Thomas University in Fredericton on Sept. 21, 2017. Photo by Sophie M. Lavoie.

Time is ticking on the Irving Empire as its generational succession throws up new problems both for the company and the people of New Brunswick, the population it has dominated for eight decades, according to Bruce Livesey, an award winning reporter for The National Observer, who delivered the NB Media Co-op’s annual keynote in Fredericton on Sept. 21, 2017.

Livesey has published his award-winning investigative news stories in a variety of print, Internet and broadcast media. He was fired from Global TV when he spoke to Jesse Brown from CanadaLand about his investigative story on the Koch brothers’ ties to Canada being axed.

Livesey grew up in Fredericton and spent summers working for The Daily Gleaner during his university studies in the 1980s. He also volunteered at the NB Film Co-op and wrote an article about co-ops for the first edition of the NB Film Co-op’s newsletter, “Focal Point.”

A Globe and Mail’s Report on Business magazine story spawned the now eight-part series of stories on “the House of Irving,” and will probably continue to grow in number, according to Livesey.

The series won the 2017 National Journalism Award for business reporting, the first time that an online publication won the award. “The National Observer is changing the media landscape in Canada, showing that business can be reported on in a way that has the public interest at heart, which is the task of journalism,” according to NB Media Co-op editor, Tracy Glynn.

Livesey vs. Irving Round 1

After Livesey’s first Report on Business magazine story, Brian Manning from the Saint John Board of Trade wrote a rebuttal piece, entitled: ‘Let’s Celebrate the Irving Family, Not Criticize Them.’ Livesey had asked to talk to the Saint John Board of Trade for his piece in Report on Business but had never heard from them. Manning attacked Livesey’s article, highlighting the economic windfall that the Irving company had brought to NB and to Canada.

Livesey deemed Manning’s attitude in the article as “demented” because the Irvings are enjoying tax rebates and other privileges that go beyond what is normally afforded to companies. According to Livesey: “they have become one of the richest families in Canada, at the expense of New Brunswick.”

Livesey vs. Irving Round 2

Livesey decided to research the company further. The Irving empire includes between 174 and 210 companies, accounts for 1 out of every 12 jobs in the province, and one half of the province’s exports. The three Irving brothers divided the company empire up about 10 years ago. None of the Irving companies are publicly traded so there is no financial transparency. Irving money is in Bermuda, considered “the North Korea of tax havens” by one of Livesey’s friends.

When doing his series, Livesey found it incredibly difficult to find someone to talk to about the Irvings, as had happened when he was calling previously on behalf of The Globe and Mail. For Livesey, only organized crime was more difficult to deal with. No former Premier would talk to Livesey, going back as far as Frank McKenna who was Premier from 1987-97. Livesey caught now Conservative Party Leader Blaine Higgs by surprise while in St. John and looking for interviewees to speak about the Irvings. Higgs, who had worked for Irving Oil for about 25 years, had nothing negative to say.

When he was able to interview people, Livesey stated: “you could tell they were extremely guarded. There was a fear in their voice.”

Andy Carson, one of the spokespeople for Irving, would get reports about Livesey’s calls to other people and enquire about his story in a hostile way, but refused to speak to Livesey in person. Only university professors, who had tenure for the most part, were willing to speak, but some also refused out of fear.

Livesey resorted to comparing New Brunswick’s demographics to those of other places in order to see if New Brunswickers were really doing better than other places. “It was the opposite,” concluded Livesey; the province had the lowest median income, the highest average suicide rate, high unemployment rates, the highest out-migration, high illiteracy, high poverty, high taxation, etc. Even the provincial power company is hiking its prices every year by two per cent while it subsidizes power for Irving-owned businesses.

The examples of Irving profiting from various governments are endless. In 2013, it came out that the City of Moncton taxpayers paid $88,000 per year to the Moncton Wildcats hockey team to compensate for loss of income in its corporate boxes. Robert Irving owns the Moncton Wildcats. Irving also received a $200 million grant to refurbish its Halifax shipyard a few years ago, but went abroad to look for workers for the shipbuilding operation.

Irving is currently financing “dog and pony shows” to promote the use of glyphosate in forestry operations as safe, according to Livesey, who deems this most recent issue as “the key” to understanding Irving’s influence on the province. Despite repeated warnings about health and environmental effects, Livesey said glyphosate continues to be sprayed only because of forestry interests.

Brotherly love?

Besides the way the Irvings treat New Brunswick, inside the family, Livsey said “they don’t necessarily treat each other very well.” Brothers Arthur and JK Irving are apparently not friendly any more.

Kenneth Irving, the son of Arthur, abruptly left the position of CEO after a mental health break. Two years later, there was a bizarre lawsuit that ended up in the Bermuda courts between Kenneth Irving and Arthur Irving about the trusts that had been set up and would be divided up in Arthur’s will. What this really was about was “to re-establish his relationship to his father,” stated Livesey. After the release of Jacques Poitras’ book, Irving vs Irving, the Irvings brought a formal complaint to the CBC against the CBC reporter for some of his tweets, showing that the “company does not forgive easily,” said Livesey.

When asked about how long we can expect the Irving empire to exist by an audience member, Livesey responded, “most corporations are in rough shape by the third generation.” Livesey thinks that in 10-15 years, parts of the Irving empire will be sold off.

Irving vs Other Media

Livesey’s Report on Business story received two letters of complaint when his original story came out. Livesey was a freelance reporter at the time and managed to come to an agreement with the newspaper. However, Livesey had to confront the Irvings once again when he published The National Observer series.

Irving Oil never responded to his letters previous to the stories coming out, but suddenly an extensive feature appeared in The Financial Post. According to Livesey, this was “a puff piece” interview with Arthur Irving with no mention of the internal troubles of the Irving family. For its part, JD Irving Ltd. would respond to the letters, through their corporate lawyer and through Mary Keith, their Vice President Communications. Each of their letters would start off in a “nasty” and “over-the-top” way, according to Livesey, denouncing his nosy investigative work.

Livesey came to the conclusion that it’s often media outside the province that ends up writing about New Brunswick. Livesey is of the opinion that, “This is where the NB Media-Co-op, in its effort to create a non-Irving media outlet, is very important.”

Livesey also recognized Miles Howe’s work with the now-defunct Halifax Media Co-op. Howe submitted several Right to Information Requests and uncovered intense pressure by the Irvings on the provincial government. Howe’s work “was an exercise in poverty,” said Livesey, since he was making well under $20,000/year. According to Livesey, the New Brunswick CBC, for its part, “must not appear to be subjective” so, despite having done some good reporting in Saint John, its reporting is limited in its scope.

New Brunswick is “an extremely challenging environment,” for reporters, said Livesey, but there is hope that Irving will no longer be able to “control the message” as much as they were in the past, mostly because of social media.

In a final reference to the forestry sector and the glyphosate controversy, Livesey assured the audience that the Irvings are not heeding the best interests of New Brunswickers, as the recent Dr. Eilish Cleary affair proves. New Brunswick’s former Chief Medical Officer of Health was preparing to release a report on the effects of glyphosate when she was abruptly fired. Livesey concluded by saying: “the Irvings are the cause of much of the problem and not the solution.”

This event was put on by the NB Media Co-op with the support of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, Stop Spraying NB, the Council of Canadians’ Fredericton Chapter, and the Departments of Sociology of both the University of New Brunswick and St. Thomas University.

The video archive of Bruce’s Livesey’s presentation is here.

Sophie M. Lavoie is an editorial board member of the NB Media Co-op.

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