With a warm coffee in hand, Babalu Eye Anu Shabazz tells me the story of his father’s life. We had just returned from a nature walk hosted by Springhill Farms and led by Anthony Brooks, a community-oriented and self-taught mycologist hailing from Sitansik (St. Mary’s First Nation).
Baba Shabazz is both a bus driver and the owner of Black Rose Nation Holistic Sunshine Management, a company dedicated to fostering culture and ecological diversity in rural New Brunswick.
Not easily condensed into the space of an article, the stories of Baba Shabazz’ father tell the tale of a man who struggled against the demands of a rapidly expanding Irving corporation.
A poster of Malcolm X stares down at us approvingly. Malcolm is joined by a handful of Black historical figures from the city of Saint John, each gathered from Clyde A. Wray’s play, We Were Here.
Malcolm X—Muslim name el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz—lived his youth as a self-described hustler, “internally restrained by nothing.” As he aged, Malcolm X’s outlook on life, humanity, and politics underwent substantial change, and during the final year of his life, his political philosophy turned toward the radical. In May 1964, Malcolm X spoke to a crowd during a Militant Labor Forum: “You can’t have capitalism without racism,” he explained. Those that held anti-racist views, he suggested, “usually they’re socialists or their political philosophy is socialism.”
Baba Shabazz is less hostile to the structures of capitalist production. “I want the millions. I want to become a quadrillionaire, and I want it to come from this type of [community] culture to reinvest that money.” Looking around his barn, surrounded by an expanse of forests, Baba Shabazz pauses: “I can’t keep all of this for myself.”
Baba Shabbaz’ own philosophy is based on what he calls “self administered reparations,” a small-business strategy that uses capital reinvestment to foster community wellbeing and support ecological diversity. He inherited the strategy from his father, a private woodlot owner with a penchant for warding off bad deals offered by J.D. Irving-owned sawmills. “You learn how to take advantage of the culture of business,” he said. “We farm into the future, and we plant because our children are going to get the benefits, our grandchildren, our great grandchildren.”
Still, millions and quadrillions withholding, Baba Shabazz remains happy. “Right now, I like it at this size.”
During his lifetime, Baba Shabazz’ father shared similar aspirations. “[My father] worked for the government, helping woodlot owners,” Baba Shabazz explained. “He was telling private woodlot owners to keep the best logs for themselves, how to mill them and sell them for a greater premium than selling them to the Irving mill.”
For Baba Shabazz and his father, foraging and sustainable living played important roles in stewardship: “He was teaching people,” Baba Shabazz said. “There’s food in the woods. There’s food on the ground.”
Beginning in the 1970s, New Brunswick’s pulp and paper mill industries underwent significant structural changes. Neoliberalism overtook the market, and state support—consisting of direct aid, guaranteed loans, grants, and subsidies—buoyed an otherwise sickly industry. Wealth and ownership began to rapidly centralize, and corporations including JD Irving Ltd. clearcut tracts of land in search of cheap wood. Both Liberal and Conservative governments supported the venture, increasing J.D. Irving’s cutting rights and subsidizing their sawmills.
Historically, most of the province’s woodlots were privately-owned by families or small communities. Today, however, the age of the small-scale, community-oriented landowner is at a crossroads.
According to CBC, during the 1960-1980 period, private woodlot owners enjoyed a 28 per cent market share in New Brunswick. Today, that number has fallen to between 15-20 per cent.
Half of the province’s land is Crown land, licensed to four massive companies: J.D. Irving Ltd., Fornebu Lumber, Twin Rivers Paper Company and AV Group. Over the years, New Brunswick’s so-called Crown lands, the unceded territories of the Wolastoqiyik, Mi’kmaq and Peskotomuhkati, have become safe havens for the exorbitantly wealthy. Billionaires and timber barons, in search of fast cash, have left forests and natural habitats in ruins.
According to a report released by the Government of New Brunswick, between 2004 and 2009, harvest volume from privately-owned woodlots decreased from 2004 to 2009. Similarly, sawlog harvests from privately-owned woodlots declined by 87 per cent, while pulpwood harvests declined by a further 56 per cent.
Recently, in an effort to increase public revenues, New Brunswick’s provincial government finally raised stumpage fees on wood harvested from Crown land by an average of $10 per cubic metre. It remains unclear whether the move will benefit the province’s struggling woodlot owners.
“Before 2001, you could mill all your own wood and build your own house,” Baba Shabazz explained. “Now, all of a sudden, in New Brunswick, people can’t afford to stay on their own land – which is a continuation of the legacy of Canada. You see this theme being repeated. People try to steward their own land. They’re used to create resources, and later they’re pushed off so that someone else can eat off of that.”
Today, the province of New Brunswick is neither self-sufficient nor self-determining. According to RAVEN, only a fraction of our consumed food comes from crops harvested by farmers in the province. Over 92 per cent of our consumed food is imported from elsewhere. As cities expand and real estate companies cordon off larger and larger swaths of available land, fewer residents are able to grow their own food and enjoy the fruits of their own labour.
Due to rising food, gas, and housing costs, homelessness in New Brunswick has remained a prominent feature of the province’s very social fabric. According to reporting undertaken by CBC, in three of its largest city centres, New Brunswick’s homeless population tends to hover around 500 people.
Across the country, over a million homes sit vacant and unused.
Baba Shabazz remains immensely critical of the province’s history of land dispossession and exploitation. For him, houselessness is a political decision, not a fact of life.
“My house was [built using] only 150 trees, and my house is way bigger than what you need. Homelessness around here…” he said. “We have the resources in New Brunswick and so few people, housing [should be abundant].”
Instead, wealthy elites, industry leaders, and politicians – New Brunswick’s very own landed gentry – enjoy lives of leisure while piggybacking off of labour sourced from the less fortunate.
“Where does Paul Martin and every other Prime Minister go when they retire?” Baba Shabazz asked me, his hand gripped around the handle of a now-empty coffee cup. “They all buy a farm because it’s a tax write off. They aren’t farmers! They get a tractor so they can pave the driveway for their million-dollar house.”
Today, New Brunswick’s population of small-scale farmers is shrinking. Many cannot afford a tractor, much less a million-dollar house.
Still, Babalu Shabazz, Anthony Brooks, and the owners of Spring Hill Farms soldier on, developing vast community networks, ecological diversity, and rural well-being in the process.
Harrison Dressler is a researcher and writer working out of the Human Environments Workshop (HEW) funded by RAVEN. He writes on New Brunswick and Canadian history, labour, politics, and environmental activism.