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The story of a Canadian tycoon family

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

By Colin WoodardCorrespondent / October 15, 2008

P7 Decorated: Michaëlle Jean, the governor general of Canada, after making John Irving a member of the Order of Canada on Friday.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press/AP


Saint John, New Brunswick

The Irving family is everywhere here in New Brunswick's largest city, Saint John.

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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.

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.