Fourth in a six-part series on one of Canada's richest families: The House of Irving.
Rod Cumberland knows what it feels like to be the target of one of Canada’s most powerful corporations and richest families – to have, in effect, a bull’s eye on your back.
For 15 years, Cumberland worked for New Brunswick’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as the province’s chief deer biologist, monitoring its deer population.
But by 2009, Cumberland was seeing evidence that the white-tailed deer population was collapsing – down to 75,000 animals from as high as 270,000 in the mid-‘80s, a decline of 70 per cent. “I noticed a huge change as we were surveying deer every year in the province,” explains Cumberland. “There were less and less deer on Crown land. We were told it was coyotes or it was because of the winters – people blamed it on everything under the sun.”
Cumberland, on the other hand, concluded a major contributor was glyphosates, the herbicide most commonly used in the forestry industry. Made primarily by Monsanto, with the commercial name of Round Up, glyphosates hinder the growth of hardwood trees, making it easier for forest companies to grow softwood trees that can be turned into pulp.
But hardwood trees are also a major source of food for white-tailed deer. Moreover, Cumberland discovered that more of the province’s forests were being sprayed with glyphosates than originally believed – more than 32,000 acres per year on Crown land alone. He calculates that between 35 and 40 per cent of harvested areas are being sprayed with herbicides in the province.
Consequently, in 2009, he published a paper linking glyphosates to the dropping deer population, circulating it within the DNR. In total, Cumberland estimates that half a billion tonnes of food have been taken away from deer on Crown forest over the last 20 years due to herbicides. “For an animal like... a deer that feeds on hardwood, removing 32,000 tons of deer food across the landscape every year has got to have an impact on (them),” he argues.
But the DNR didn’t seem to care. So Cumberland went public with his conclusions after he left the department in 2012. And that’s when his troubles began.
The company believed to use glyphosates the most in New Brunswick’s forests is J.D. Irving Ltd., the forestry, shipping, retail, media and transportation conglomerate owned by James (JK) Irving, Canada’s fourth richest billionaire (other companies that use the herbicide include AV Group, Forneblu Lumber Co., Twin Rivers Paper Co. Inc. and NB Power). J.D. Irving is managed by JK’s sons, Jim and Robert, and leases more than 30 per cent of the province’s Crown lands – a total of 2.5 million acres.
Hence, it was no surprise the company’s PR apparatus sprung into action after Cumberland raised his concerns. In 2014, J.D. Irving issued a strongly-worded letter from the company’s chief wildlife biologist, John Gilbert, targeting Cumberland and his research. “The most recent attacks on forest management in New Brunswick by Rod Cumberland are irresponsible and are not supported by current data and scientific research,” wrote Gilbert in a letter posted on J.D. Irving Ltd.’s website. Gilbert said it was bad winters responsible for the deer’s decline – and the deer population was now on the rebound.
The company also began collaborating with the New Brunswick government to co-ordinate their response to Cumberland. According to internal DNR documents uncovered by the Halifax Media Co-op, J.D. Irving was one of the forestry companies that were included in email chains where DNR personnel discussed how to respond to Cumberland. At one point, J.D. Irving wished to know from DNR personnel their position about the biologist: in 2014, Gilbert wrote to the DNR, saying “I need to be aware of the department's reply to craft our own response.”
J.D. Irving does not deny they communicate with DNR and said in this case they "simply requested a copy of the DNR response to understand the Crown’s position as the owner of the land."
Meanwhile, Cumberland was lobbying the provincial government to respond to his research. When Brian Gallant’s Liberals came to power in 2014, Cumberland asked for a meeting with the new natural resources minister Denis Landry – but was ignored. He said he even wrote letters to every MLA in the legislature but got nowhere.
Cumberland says in 2014 he wrote a letter to the Telegraph-Journal, the local newspaper in Saint John owned by JK Irving, explaining his position on herbicides and deer. “They edited my letter terribly,” he remarks. “They pulled out all of the stuff that gave stats, figures and numbers that would have given teeth to the letter… To say I was discouraged would be putting it mildly.” (The Telegraph-Journal has published at least two stories about Cumberland's concerns surrounding herbicides and the declining deer population.)
Then, last year, J.D. Irving – in conjunction with the provincial and federal government (and another company involved in pesticide spraying) – created a website called “forestinfo.ca” that defends the use of glyphosates, claiming the herbicide is not impacting the deer population. Cumberland believes the website is directed at him and his critique, even if his name does not appear on it.
J.D. Irving, on the other hand, says the site is there to share "opinions of respected scientists with extensive credentials who are world leaders in their work. The site also references peer reviewed scientific research and related facts" and they support it to ensure "that accurate facts are provided to the public."
“The level of response (to criticism) is really what’s so telling," observes Cumberland. “Every time that something comes up with this – holy cow, the level of interaction and outcry is amazing.”
Climate of fear pervading province
J.D. Irving’s concerted efforts to discredit Cumberland and downplay his research is not anomalous. Critics or perceived critics of the Irving companies often run into the buzzsaw of the Irvings’ PR departments and their corporate lawyers. Even National Observer has received threatening letters from the companies’ Bay Street lawyers – written by partners from powerful law firms such as Blakes and Osler – in response to our series on the Irvings and their companies.
In fact, many people I spoke to believe the Irvings’ history of intimidating critics contributes to the climate of fear pervading the province when it comes matters pertaining to the family: many are simply unwilling to go on the record to discuss them. This past winter, when I contacted a tenured professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton to discuss the Irvings, she declined and replied in an email, “Thanks for your interest but I wouldn't want to be interviewed, quoted or referenced in regard to the Irvings. I would be too afraid.”
The fear extends into the highest reaches of the political system. No former premiers going back to Frank McKenna, who was premier from 1987 to 1997, would talk to us about the Irvings, including the current premier, Brian Gallant. Nearly all former cabinet ministers refused as well.
Back in January, when I was visiting Saint John, I managed to get the city’s mayor, Mel Norton, on the phone at his law firm to ask if we could meet me while I was in town to discuss the Irvings. Norton told me to contact the city’s media person, who refused to reply to multiple messages. (Last year, it was discovered Norton had accepted a free ride on J.D. Irving’s private jet, accompanying company executives to an event at the New Brunswick legislature in Fredericton – not the first time he’d traveled in the jet either).
Don Bowser, an international anti-corruption and transparency consultant who lives in Nova Scotia and currently advises Ukraine’s parliament, points to an incident that occurred this past February when Green Party MLA David Coon asked a question in the legislature about how much money J.D. Irving had invested as part of a forestry agreement signed with the province (see part 3 of our series). Coon’s questions elicited full-page ads in the Irving-owned newspapers from J.D. Irving criticizing the MLA, accusing Coon of making statements that “have no basis in fact”.
“For the Irvings to come out and say that a sitting member of the legislature is somehow slandering them is unbelievable,” says Bowser. “I mean for them to come out and publicly attack a member of the legislature is kind of unprecedented.”
But not so unprecedented in New Brunswick, as it turns out. For example, this past December, the CBC’s New Brunswick parliamentary reporter Jacques Poitras (who penned a well-regarded book about the Irvings in 2014, Irving vs. Irving) wrote a story about the mysterious firing of Dr. Eilish Cleary, the province’s chief medical officer of health. In the story, Poitras noted that at the time the Gallant government dismissed Cleary she was working on a study about the health impacts of glyphosates, and said the herbicide “is used in New Brunswick by forestry company J.D. Irving Ltd. and by NB Power.”
Despite this being the only reference to J.D. Irving in the entire story, the company’s vice-president of communications, Mary Keith, printed a statement on the company’s website calling the CBC item “a sensational story insinuating a connection between the sudden leave of absence of Dr. Eilish Cleary… a study of glyphosate, and two companies in New Brunswick. CBC presented an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory as fact. The story falsely implied that J.D. Irving… is or was involved in some sort of conspiracy against Dr. Cleary because JDI uses glyphosate. CBC perpetuated this conspiracy theory by only broadcasting the innuendo and allegation…CBC’s conduct is completely unprofessional and inappropriate.” Keith demanded the entire story be removed. (Poitras won’t comment on the matter, and the CBC stands by the story, which remains online).
This was not the only time the CBC came under attack. In January, the CBC ran an exposé that Irving-built patrol ships used by the Canadian Coast Guard were the cause of numerous complaints, including faulty wiring and pipes, premature corrosion and polluted water tanks.
Three days later, Irving Shipbuilding, a subsidiary of J.D.Irving, responded with full-page notices in both the Globe and Mail and The Chronicle Herald attacking the CBC, claiming the stories were “misleading”. (This was not the first media story on problems with these vessels - the Herald had also reported last December that officers from the Coast Guard's staff union felt the boats were unsafe).
Today, J.D. Irving says they ran the ads "to ensure the correct facts were available to the public. The CBC story was inaccurate and did not provide all of the relevant facts. We also note that CBC requested but then excluded a taped interview with Kevin McCoy, President of Irving Shipbuilding regarding this issue." CBC has not retracted or pulled down the story.
Moreover, the willingness of the Irvings to use their newspapers and financial clout to combat criticisms is also playing out in Saint John over a controversy surrounding a tax concession the city (and province) awarded Irving Oil over the construction of a liquefied natural gas terminal in 2005 (see part 1 of our series).
The concession amounted to the city forsaking $200-million in tax monies over 25 years. When Saint John city council last year discovered how much Irving Oil was profiting from the terminal – earning $20-million annually – the council demanded the tax concession be rescinded, believing the company snookered them by suggesting a binding concession was necessary or the terminal would not be built.
In response, last summer, Irving Oil ran a full-page ad in the Telegraph-Journal defending their position, saying “On an overall basis we believe that the returns generated by this project for our company are appropriate given the scale and risk associated with the undertaking, of which the property tax arrangements are but one element.” And in editorials published over a number of months, the Journal argued against scrapping the tax concession, opining in one this past May that the city council “has yet to articulate any sound rationale for breaking the 2005 agreement.”
All of New Brunswick’s English daily papers are controlled by a company called Brunswick News Inc. (BNI), which is owned by JK Irving and whose vice-president and publisher is his grandson, Jamie Irving.
Going after New Brunswick academics
Yet one of the most troubling realms where the Irvings are seen as intimidating critics is within academia.
Tom Beckley is a professor of Forestry and Environmental Management at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) in Fredericton. In 2014, New Brunswick was gripped by a political controversy over the Conservative David Alward government’s decision to sign a controversial forestry agreement with J.D. Irving and other forestry companies. The agreement was seen by many as a capitulation to J.D. Irving’s demands to have more access to Crown forests at the expense of wildlife habitat.
With a small university grant, Beckley and some of his colleagues decided to do a survey on public attitudes towards the forestry sector. But when J.D. Irving got wind of the survey, Mary Keith sent Beckley’s boss a long list of pointed questions such as “Who designed the survey questions?” and “Who paid for the survey?” and “Can we have a copy of the complete survey including the instructions for interviewers?” Beckley responded to all her questions.
When the results were tallied, the survey showed that 61 per cent of New Brunswickers opposed the government’s forest strategy and only 20 per cent supported it.
Beckley says he’s received these sorts of letters from J.D. Irving a few times in the past. “It’s definitely a chill on speaking out,” he says. “People are very careful about what they say.”
But this was not the end of the matter. J.D. Irving then produced their own survey, saying that most New Brunswickers leaned towards supporting the agreement.
Today, J.D. Irving says they contacted Beckley "to ensure that the methodology behind the survey was sound and would ensure that the survey produced accurate results. Scientists who are familiar with, and committed to work that abides by NSERC guidelines are not and should not be offended by a request for details of their methodology or of a peer review."
Back in 2008, Beckley and some colleagues planned to do a seven-city tour to hold forums to discuss the results of a public survey they had done – a survey showing the public placed preserving the environment above forest company needs. This tour was to be financed by the DNR. But Beckley alleges the Shawn Graham government held a cabinet meeting and immediately afterwards Beckley’s superiors were informed the government would no longer be funding the tour. “Someone at DNR called my dean and…all of our bosses and put them on notice. They were asking us to stand down.” The academics went ahead and held the forums anyway, covering the costs themselves.
Rob Moir is another academic who’s run up against the Irvings over his investigations. In 2014, the UNB economist embarked on a study to find out how many jobs the New Brunswick’s forestry industry generated as compared to other regions (the study found the province generated the lowest level of employment for the amount of timber harvested).
When J.D. Irving heard Moir was working on the study, Mary Keith wrote to Moir and his dean to voice her concerns about some of the data they were considering. Moir says even after explaining that any data he used on would be up to date and verified, “they kept writing to say, 'We don't think you're using the right data'... and it took 25 to 30 pages of emails to respond to them.”
Stephen Wyatt, a forestry professor of at the Université de Moncton, helped Moir with this study and also discussed some of its conclusions during a CBC radio interview. Wyatt says he received two letters from J.D. Irving, expressing concern about the accuracy of the data and methodologies they used. “The first request I had from them is ‘Give me your source’,” he recalls. “And ‘What are your sources for this?’… I am prepared to talk about this all but I want to know why you are asking and who wants to know what the information was. I replied on those terms.”
The first letter from J.D. Irving was copied to the rector of the university. A second letter was copied to the rector again and the vice-rector of the campus where Wyatt works. In one of Wyatt’s responses to J.D. Irving, he says he asked if they could provide him with any independent study concerning the economic benefits of New Brunswick’s forest sector. “I did not receive any response to this request,” he says.
“At one level I can’t criticize Irving for asking questions,” adds Wyatt. “That’s a completely legitimate part of the scientific endeavor. You put your analysis out there and people ask questions about that…. But when I and others have made the same request to Irving we don’t get a response.”
Today, J.D. Irving, says "to its knowledge the forest industry in NB, received no request for data prior to the public release of the (Moir) studies (and related conclusions) you have identified" and that they were concerned about data which may have been misleading if the academics relied on it. The company says they did this "to ensure the public was not misled." They say they have no record of any requests from Wyatt for information or studies from the company. "Scientists who are familiar with, and committed to work that abides by NSERC guidelines have no reason to be intimidated by requests for information, nor was that J.D. Irving’s intention. Rather, it wished to better understand their data and conclusions."
Another UNB professor, historian Bill Parenteau, says in 2010 he went on CBC radio and made some remarks about the pulp and paper industry. “(I said it was) a sunset industry, and wasn’t competitive the way it was fifty years ago and we should follow the lead of other provinces and start thinking of alternatives," recalls Parenteau, "and using the forest again to promote community development rather than strictly corporate interests.”
Parenteau soon received a five-page letter from a vice-president at J.D. Irving, Robert Pinette, most of which discussed an article in an academic journal he’d published. The letter was cordial, and defended the company's track record and economic benefits of the forestry industry. But it also said "It would be unfortunate if the future of the sector were determined by incomplete and inaccurate research. I would appreciate an opportunity to understand the peer reviews given your paper." (The company defends these kinds of communications as not acts of intimidation but as ways to understand the professors' data and conclusions.)
“They were kind of questioning my academic integrity,” says Parenteau. “(My) union lawyer considered it an intimidation letter that I should be brief and careful about what I write back… (The Irvings) keep a very close eye on what is being said about them.”
Irving security company under fire in fracking stand off
The Irvings also own a security company called Industrial Security Ltd. (ISL), based in Saint John — a subsidiary of J.D. Irving.
In 2013, ISL found itself under fire. By then, a huge controversy was brewing in New Brunswick over the Alward government’s decision to encourage the development of shale gas in the province, using the controversial method of hydraulic fracking. An oil exploration company, SWN Resources Canada Inc., the Canadian subsidiary of a Houston, Texas-based exploration company called Southwestern Energy Co., was hired to explore as much as 2.5 million acres in search of shale gas.
Irving Oil has an interest in seeing shale gas deposits developed, because it’s an energy source that could supply their refinery in Saint John. The Irving-owned newspapers also champion the development.
But a growing number of New Brunswickers did not. Soon environmental, citizen and aboriginal groups mobilized to stop or slow down shale gas exploration.
In the fall of 2013 events came to a head in the small village of Rexton, on the east coast of New Brunswick, when a group of anti-shale gas protesters set up a camp blocking the entrance to a compound where SWN’s vehicles and equipment were being stored – a compound on land owned by the Irvings. SWN was conducting shale gas exploration work in the region. Among the protesters were members of the Elsipogtog First Nation and Mi'kmaq Warriors Society, some of whom were armed.
SWN hired ISL to guard this equipment and patrol the compound. Which was when problems arose.
According to media accounts, the ISL guards were accused of trying to taunt and bait protesters – possibly in the hopes of provoking an altercation so they might be arrested by the RCMP. “They were doing everything against our treaty and most of all they were not keeping the peace when they were supposed to be keeping the peace," claims Jason Augustine, a district war chief and member of the Elsipogtog First Nation (who was arrested and charged by the RCMP for his actions during the protest). "When they disrespect our treaty, that means you want to go to war with us – so we went to war with them.”
J.D. Irving, however, says it "believes those media accounts to be incorrect, and that ISL staff did not provoke anyone."
In October of 2013, the RCMP raided the encampment and arrested 40 of the protesters. But the shale gas issue continued to percolate, and was a major cause for the defeat of the Alward government during the 2014 general election. (Currently, there is a moratorium on fracking and shale gas development.)
When asked to respond to the allegation that J.D. Irving employs methods to intimidate critics or perceived critics, the company did not respond to this question.
Today, UNB economist Rob Moir says New Brunswickers are increasingly viewing their relationship with the Irvings in a different light. “I think there is a real struggle in the province right now and it’s a gut-wrenching one,” he says. “We kind of maybe, broadly as a province perhaps get that we are in an abusive relationship and maybe it’s not ever going to get fixed, but that doesn’t mean the breaking up is an easy thing to do.”
Next in the series: The Irvings' media monopoly and its consequences