Letter to the Editor published in The Brunswickan (Fredericton), 20 January 2004
From their tax shelter in the Caribbean, the Irvings have stamped out free speech on Fredericton’s North Side. While this is not surprising, it should raise alarm bells about the danger of concentrated economic power in New Brunswick.
Many of us are prone to accept, even respect, the Irving economic empire. From heating and forestry to petroleum and building supplies, thousands of New Brunswickers earn their livelihoods from Irving. We tacitly accept the company’s control of the political system, as well as its monopoly control of the English-language press. We are not supposed to discuss the fact that the Irving family resides in Bermuda to avoid paying Canadian taxes. It is just part of “the way things are” in New Brunswick.
Recently, Irving purchased the North Side News. A forum for community discussion, the newspaper developed a wide readership among North Side residents, and provided an important voice for beleaguered Main Street businesses. It was a community newspaper, by no means perfect, but valued by citizens.
Now Irving has closed the North Side offices of the paper, and collapsed operations into the Daily Gleaner. The North Side News, as well as the Oromocto paper, will now be distributed as inserts in the Gleaner. They have ceased to function as newspapers in any meaningful sense.
Along with the loss of the News as an economic institution on the North Side (with its own employees, offices, and related economic benefits for surrounding businesses), the elimination of the North Side News poses a significant threat to the free exchange of ideas, information and viewpoints in Fredericton. Other than the two campus newspapers, with their student focus, and the alternative monthly paper Fred, Irving controls all print media in the Fredericton area.
We should not be surprised that Irving destroyed the North Side News. Corporations are guided by the profit motive and by self-preservation. Empowered and informed communities can undermine both of these objectives. For decades, Irving has exercised cultural power (through the media) to control the political system, in order to protect its vast economic power. The News existed as an independent voice outside Irving’s orbit, so it was crushed. Irving would do the same thing to the Brunswickan if it were given the opportunity.
But I will not end on a tone of defeat. Several years ago, I had the great privilege to talk to Noam Chomsky. He told me: “Corporations are not like mountains. They are human creations. They are given the power they have by governments, but that power can be taken away.”
Early in January, a crack emerged in the Irving universe. Loggers in the state of Maine went on strike against Irving logging operations. Realizing that individually they were powerless, these workers clubbed together to challenge Irving’s economic power.
I come from British Columbia, where another economic dynasty was built around a man named Robert Dunsmuir. A Scottish coal miner, Dunsmuir was granted one-quarter of Vancouver Island in the 1800s and soon became the wealthiest man in British Columbia. His son James served as premier and lieutenant governor. However by the First World War, weakened by labour unrest and economic crisis, the Dunsmuir empire collapsed. All that remains today is the odd street name and a museum.
To paraphrase Chomsky, Irving is not a mountain. It is a human creation. When New Brunswickers awake from their deep slumber, the power of Irving and other corporate giants can be taken away.
And then maybe the North Side will get its newspaper back.
Ben Isitt is a doctoral student in Canadian labour history and a member of the Fredericton NDP Club.