One of the normally invisible elephants in New Brunswick politics ambled out from behind the curtains Thursday night at Mount Allison University where the four provincial candidates in the Memramcook-Tantramar riding were debating a wide range of issues including access to abortion and support for post-secondary students.
The all-candidates’ debate, sponsored by the Mt. A students’ union, was nearing its end when Jonathan Wood, who is studying philosophy, politics and economics, asked this question from the floor:
“Just wondering, what do the candidates think about the role of the Irvings’ group of companies in both the New Brunswick economy as well as in politics?” Wood asked.
“I don’t know what would happen if we didn’t have the Irvings,” Liberal candidate Bernard LeBlanc, who has represented the riding for the last four years, replied.
He went on to describe the Irvings as “very, very, precious to New Brunswick,” pointing out that their companies employ “over 30 to 35-thousand people.”
“They give good salaries and they’re a company that keeps New Brunswick going,” LeBlanc added. “They’re located across the province and also, they have many stores such as the Big Stop that you see here in Aulac…and it creates a lot of work for people in those areas.”
As for their role in politics, LeBlanc said that the Irvings “decide for themselves what they want to do and how they apply their politics themselves.”
He suggested that as far as government grants go, the Irvings, like other big employers, apply for grants that usually enable them to get work done and that it makes sense for governments to help them “so that they can push further and do some type of work or initiative that they’re required to do.”
Green Party candidate Megan Mitton, who was the next to speak, paused for thought before giving an answer that generated applause.
“The Irvings, yes they’re a big employer, but I think they shouldn’t get such special treatment and that they do have too much power,” Mitton said.
“We also need to stop paying them to spray glyphosate on our province,” Mitton said. “It’s really damaging our habitats and as I’ve been going door to door, especially in more rural areas, folks are talking about how the habitats have (been) wrecked, they don’t even hear songbirds.”
The Green candidate also said the province needs to stop clearcutting and look out for the interests of private woodlot owners.
Mitton was greeted with more applause when she mentioned the Green Party platform plank that calls for legislating a 40 per cent cap on the concentration of print media ownership.
“We need to make sure there’s not a monopoly on our media because this is a really major threat to our democracy,” Mitton said adding, “and while we’re at it, let’s increase the royalties on our natural resources like our forestry products.”
“I’ll echo some of the comments Bernard (LeBlanc) made about the Irving group of companies and the people behind them, the Irving family,” said PC candidate Etienne Gaudet.
“They are a success story here in New Brunswick, admired throughout the world for what they have been able to accomplish,” he added.
“Again, as Bernard stated, they employ many, many thousands of people,” Gaudet said.
“These people pay taxes, it keeps our communities and our economy going, so they (the Irvings) need to be applauded for what they, over the last 70, 80 years, what they’ve accomplished,” Gaudet said, adding, however, that a PC government would review and update the Crown Lands and Forestry Act of 1982.
“That will address many of the concerns that have been raised here and other places about how our forests are managed,” the PC candidate said. “We’re very proud that we will have the courage to open that Act after 35 years,” he concluded.
‘Monopoly on everything’
“Of course New Brunswickers appreciate that they (the Irvings) have created jobs,” said NDP candidate Hélène Boudreau. “I don’t think [New Brunswickers] appreciate that they have a monopoly on everything,” she added.
Boudreau pointed out that K.C. Irving started out in oil, then diversified his holdings to create a business empire.
She suggested that governments in western Canada were willing to step in when Asians were buying up too much property, but doubted whether Liberal or Conservative governments here would have the audacity to rein in the Irving monopolies which, she said, are not good for New Brunswickers.
“It limits us in our innovation; it limits us (in) creation of new jobs and to diversify,” Boudreau added. “The only thing we’ve done in the past 10 years, that we can kind of say, is that we’ve been the hub of call centres.”
She promised that if she’s elected to the legislature, she would speak up to get a discussion going about the economic clout of the Irvings.
Dependence on big corporations
After the debate, politics student Jonathan Woods said he wasn’t surprised by how the candidates answered his question about Irving economic and political influence.
“I kind of predicted it would happen that both the Conservatives and the Liberals would take a very similar line on ‘oh, you know, Irvings are great, it’s OK that they have a monopoly on everything.'”
He added it was interesting that both parties downplayed the Irvings’ political influence.
He also said it was good to see that the other parties, and especially the Greens, were willing to stand up to the Irvings.
Wood said big corporations have a lot of influence with governments which beg for corporate investments to make the economy run and to keep voters happy and in return, they give the corporations government subsidies and low taxes.
“That’s just the status quo for so many political situations in Canada and the United States, in Europe and a lot of countries right now, and we should be thinking of ways to get out of that rather than be dependent on a single, rich family for running the economy,” Wood added.
Note: In 2017, Bruce Livesay made history by becoming the first online-only journalist to win a National Newspaper Award. Livesay, who writes for the online National Observer, won in the business category for his 2016 series on Irving influence in New Brunswick.