According to its website, the renowned French journal, Le Monde diplomatique (LMD), is “a truly international newspaper linking people who take a serious interest in world events across the globe,” read by more than two million people globally, with 37 different print and Internet editions, published in 20 languages. That is why it is worth reporting that our own little corner of the world is getting big attention in an article published in the April 2019 edition of LMD by Alain Deneault, a scholar based in New Brunswick.
“The Irvings, Canada’s robber barons” concisely relates the political and economic power that one family with many industrial businesses has over our region, and the challenges facing people who wish to promote an open society and functioning democracy. In our interview, Alain Deneault discusses the issues he raises in his LMD article.
You use the term “feudalism” to describe the political and economic conditions in New Brunswick. What is feudalism, and why is it the right word for the system we have in this province?
I note first of all that this metaphor is frequently used for describing the situation in New Brunswick among journalists from outside the province who are not particularly known for being fiercely radical critics, for example Diane Francis or Peter C. Newman. The Irving conglomerate is different from other contemporary industrial and financial corporations in the way that it super-exploits a relatively confined area, rather than spreading its structures across the world and its activities to a variety of jurisdictions.
In the northeast of North America, we see [the Irving conglomerate] in the field of oil, mining, timber, transportation, the food industry, restaurants, media, etc. Its 200 companies criss-cross the region while being administered in a very opaque way, especially from the tax haven of Bermuda. Its omnipresence makes it less a business than a sovereign power, frequently able to veto any important legislation in the region.
Among many even-handed books, for instance, we find the biography of Louis Robichaud written by Michel Cormier, who had recently been news editor at Radio-Canada, which contains a number of pages showing how a government could not be formed here without the approval of this powerful family.
There are moments when this relationship of domination takes on a legal dimension: Charles Thériault, the main critic of the Irvings in matters of forestry policy, has revealed that the framework through which the government surrenders forestry management to the private sector cannot be revised without the approval of one of the Irving businesses. These kinds of observations abound, and the fact that the current premier issues directly out of the Irving fold only reinforces this impression.
You call the Irving group a “second government” in New Brunswick and in the region. What do you mean by this exactly?
The family acts in the old manner of a colonial governor, for whom the legislative assembly was merely a chamber for recording his will, a kind of bailiff. But even more in the way they finance or support this or that community project, municipal infrastructure, cultural institution, university research centre, or candidate for office, they are able to substitute for departments of education, higher research, culture, youth and sports, municipal affairs, etc. To the point where is it almost impossible anywhere in Atlantic Canada to avoid running into the name “Irving” in a museum, a library, a university, a sports centre, and so forth.
It’s becoming embarrassing. You end up encountering the name more often than that of the government, such that a stranger who landed here without being told where he is could think himself in a conquered land. The Maritimes are Irving territory, a kind of “Saudi Arabia” as they say. Or Irvingland.
You emphasize in the article that there are important differences between some multinational corporations, such as Total, and the Irving group. What are these differences, and what are the resulting differences in the field of politics?
Contemporary multinationals are sprawling and globalized. They are also usually publicly traded, which forces them to disclose a certain amount of information. Their desire for expansion results from the quest for new markets on a planetary scale.
But the Irvings have developed their structures in a productive corner of the country, forgotten by the public authorities and big capital, in a bid to marginalize competition. Multinationals like Shell, Total and Exxon are led to act in a concerted manner, notwithstanding the competitive relationship they maintain among themselves, when they need to curry favour with one of the many states in which they operate. This opens up the game a little, while in the Maritimes, the family holds outrageous power. They managed to obtain from legislators both tax benefits and a readiness to oblige such as are rarely seen.
Don Bowser, a New Brunswicker and specialist in anticorruption policies, upon his return to the province after many years away, says that he is dismayed to see that public decisions here are more opaque than in countries like Sierra Leone, where he worked to promote transparency.
Journalists such as Jacques Poitras and Bruce Livesey have written on the Irvings, yet little seems to have changed. Why is this so? When do you think things will change, and the people will be ready to confront the Irvings’ power? What needs to change for this to happen, and what might lead to such a development?
Jacques Poitras is a journalist of the extreme centre who has mostly composed a family drama, in which he mechanically compares the Irving conglomerate’s propaganda with the critical discourse about it, for the sake of a supposedly balanced position that is weak and without scope.
As for Bruce Livesey’s reporting for the National Observer, it is no less than formidable and welcome. It covers all sectors, from the environment to the thirst for expansion across the northeast of the continent, while bringing attention to media concentration and practices of intimidation.
It is impossible to know what type of initiative will bring about change. Every moment of audacity, every time people stand up to the abuse of power, every public response to the public statements of the family, every transgression of the unwritten laws that are in fact losing their effectiveness, every dead star we end up distinguishing as such – these are all part of a long-term historical movement. Today, for instance, Green Party members are raising the issue of the Irvings’ domination as never before in the Legislative Assembly. It is the image of a society in which tongues are coming untied. Each occasion opens the breach wider.
The publication of your article in Le Monde diplomatique indicates that an international audience can take an interest in what is happening in our part of the world. What effect might this have?
Other countries need to understand that Canada was and remains a colony, that we are not yet, nor have we ever been, citizens of a republic, or of any kind of democratic order, but that we remain subjects of Her Majesty, a euphemism for “colonials.” Thus, our common territory, our lands, our forests, our waters, our public institutions are not really our own. Formally, they belong to the “Crown,” which accords them a political status conceptually different from that of being publicly-owned. The Crown does not belong to the public, and it has sought historically to allow the ruling classes to profit from the wealth of our territory. The family feudalism of New Brunswick is merely the aggravated form of this system.
It must be shown how the situation here, in which we are born, that we deal with every day as our parents did, that we end up integrating ourselves into, is in reality anything but ordinary in the eyes of the stranger that visits this place.
In the West, practically no other population is still so subservient to their local family of lords. This remarkable context has been noted by others. It is obvious; it is New Brunswick that enriches the Irvings, and not the Irvings that enrich New Brunswick.
If we can collectively, by stepping back from ourselves and seeing ourselves from the eyes of outsiders, change our perceptions accordingly, and develop a critical sensibility instead of submitting to an ideology to which we are far too habituated, then we will progress.