The story of a Canadian tycoon family

The family employs 1 in 12 New Brunswickers and commands massive influence in the province.

By , Correspondent

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    P7 Decorated: Michaëlle Jean, the governor general of Canada, after making John Irving a member of the Order of Canada on Friday.
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The Irving family is everywhere here in New Brunswick's largest city, Saint John.

The headquarters of their oil company and the massive J.D. Irving forestry enterprise building are separated by one of their 800 gas stations.

To the east, the metallic spires of their oil refinery, Canada's largest, stand out amid Irving Wallboard, Irving Lubricants, Irving Tissue, and the Irvings' new liquefied natural gas terminal.

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In an era of transnational corporations that are easily satirized as faceless and stateless, New Brunswick's most powerful entity is something from a bygone age: a home-grown, privately held industrial empire that has been family owned and operated for more than a century.

While the Irvings play an active role in community development, many residents also worry about their outsized influence on provincial affairs.

"You used to hear about there being company towns," says economist Rob Moir of the University of New Brunswick-Saint John. "We have a company province."

The family – which also owns four shipyards, 27 newspapers, three trucking companies, a chain of home improvement stores, a modular home manufacturer, three radio stations, a railroad, a paper mill, and 1.8 million acres of the province – are thought to employ 1 in 12 New Brunswickers and command outsized influence over what happens here.

"I am hard-pressed to think of any state or Canadian province where a single family would wield the kind of economic power that the Irvings do in New Brunswick," says veteran journalist John DeMont of Halifax, author of Citizens Irving, a biography of the family. "Not long ago they exercised a kind of feudal power."

In 1882, James Durgavel Irving, the son of Scottish immigrants, opened a sawmill and, later, a general store, in rural Bouctouche, New Brunswick. His son, Kenneth, built these into a multibillion dollar conglomerate by 1971. After his death in 1992, control passed to his three sons, now in their seventies, who divided operational control between themselves.

Although the three brothers – James (forestry, paper, newspapers), Arthur (oil, tankers), and Jack (construction, real estate) – share a fortune that Forbes Magazine has estimated at $6.7 billion, they've remained true to their roots. All three live in New Brunswick and vacation not in Monaco, but in remote forest lodges in Maine and the New Brunswick interior.

"They do their shopping in the same stores I do. You run into them at the malls, you see them at the movies, and their families breathe the same air as the rest of us," says Saint John Mayor Ivan Court, who says this helps explain their investments in reducing pollution at the local paper mill and refinery. Family members have donated to antipoverty initiatives and the rehabilitation of public parks in Saint John, and to universities across the province.

But the family's simultaneous dominance of New Brunswick's industry and media has been a subject of concern. During a 2005 Canadian Senate investigation, journalists and scholars told investigators that the situation stifled critical reporting on the Irvings' interests. The final Senate report described the family's holdings as an "industrial-media complex that dominates the province…. This situation is, as far as [we] could determine, unique in developed countries."

Jeannot Volpe, leader of the opposition in the provincial legislature, has asked the Canadian Senate to reinvestigate, arguing that the situation has since worsened. Noting that they've purchased even more media outlets and already own every English language daily in the province, he says the family has power to "sway people's minds in one direction or another."

Last year, when an employee of one of the Irvings' weekly newspapers resigned to start a competing periodical in rural Woodstock the Irvings' newspaper group, Brunswick News Inc., secured a court injunction prohibiting him from soliciting their papers' writers, readers, distributors, or advertisers. A judge overturned it, ruling that Brunswick News "cannot claim a monopoly over advertisers or its customers."

"You have this little paper with nine employees and the Irvings did everything possible to see that paper go out of business," says Kim Kierans, director of the journalism school at the University of King's College in Halifax. "That's the degree to which the company really doesn't want to have competition."

Brunswick News spokeswoman Edith Robb says her company welcomes competition and remains focused on providing quality journalism. With a new generation of Irvings about to assume control, change may soon be afoot. The conglomerate is reportedly in the process of being divided among the families of the three Irving brothers, although the family has released no details.

Mary Keith, spokeswoman for the J.D. Irving Company, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. "Succession planning is a normal and a necessary process in any family business," she told the Associated Press last November. "It's business as usual."

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