The IJack Technologies Inc. plant — which makes equipment for the oil and gas industry — stands on a lonely highway in the big-sky prairies of southeastern Saskatchewan, just up the road from Moosomin, population 2,500.
This remote corner of the country gained a national profile last February when 250 people gathered at the factory for a pro-pipeline rally. The names of a couple of the headliner speakers — federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe — weren't surprising. The two, like Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, are united in the belief Ottawa is stiffing the West by failing to make pipelines materialize and by imposing a carbon tax.
But the identity of the final marquee speaker was, at first, a bit of a head-shaker: Blaine Higgs, the then-newly minted Progressive Conservative premier of New Brunswick.
When Higgs took his turn on stage — in front of a large, strategically placed Canadian flag — he was received with a rousing ovation from the blue-collar audience, some of whom wore T-shirts emblazoned with “I love Canadian oil & gas.”
Why had the 64-year-old Higgs travelled more than 3,000 kilometers from New Brunswick to this isolated hamlet — and on the taxpayers’ dime, no less?
The short answer is the media was there, and Higgs, like many conservative politicians, is deeply attached to the fossil fuel economy.
“When I see our resources not being utilized, and I see an eighty per cent reduction in commodity pricing for oil reserves we have right here in Canada,” Higgs said at one point, “it’s a national issue.”
(Higgs' office did not respond to a long list of emailed questions, including about the government business that was achieved by traveling to Saskatchewan.)
New Brunswick has a big stake in that economy, and specifically in the raging debate over the Alberta oilsands: the shelved Energy East pipeline would have brought oilsands' product to the Irving Oil refinery, the country's largest, in Saint John.
When Blaine Higgs worked for Irving Oil, he was a loyal company man. Now, he leads New Brunswick. In the first of a three-part series, @livesey416 delves into the close relationships between the premier's office and the Irvings.
Higgs' other qualification, as he readily conceded to his Moosomin audience, is personal: “I did spend some time in the oil and gas industry — 33 years, to be exact.” True: Higgs spent his entire pre-political career at Irving Oil, which is the dominant energy company on the east coast.
A couple of months after his trip out west, Higgs was dealing with a crisis back in New Brunswick's capital city: for the second time in two years, the Saint John River had burst its banks and flooded downtown Fredericton and other communities along the river. More than 5,500 homes were swamped or at risk, with these floods costing the province an estimated $160 million over the past two years to repair damage.
It’s not clear if Higgs saw the irony of climate change lapping at the doors of New Brunswick’s legislature while the master of the house plumps for Big Oil’s interests. But it's hard not to see his ascension as a final consummation of the Irving-New Brunswick mind meld, a subject explored in a National Observer series by this writer that won a National Newspaper Award in 2017.
Higgs offered no response when asked to counter the perception that he is too closely aligned with the oil and gas industry.
With the Man from Irving leading New Brunswick, what comes next? It's not just a local question. Higgs is not cut from the same cloth as blustery fossil fuel fans like Kenney. This smooth, personable veteran manager could turn out to be the oil industry’s secret weapon.
Higgs was a loyal 'Irvingite' while spending 33 years working for Irving Oil
Higgs was born in Woodstock, N.B., and grew up in a small community on the New Brunswick-Maine border where his father was a customs officer, his mother a teacher. He studied mechanical engineering at the University of New Brunswick (UNB), graduating in 1977, and joined Irving Oil soon afterward. He married his wife, Marcia, in the late '70s and together they had four daughters.
Higgs is the quintessential “Irvingite” — loyal, hardworking, clean-living and uncomplaining. “It was like a family culture built on trust,” he told me in 2016 about working at Irving Oil.
Mike Ashar, president of Irving Oil from 2008 to 2013, recalls Higgs as being “extremely above board, very honest, very ethical, very hard-working, very good in his heart, very pro-New Brunswick and always willing to do the right thing. I found him very pragmatic, and he had the ability to see things from a variety of perspectives.”
By the time he retired in 2010, Higgs was Irving Oil’s director of logistics and distribution and business development.
Higgs was in management during a long and bitter 1994-96 strike by Irving Oil’s refinery workers. The company went after the union aggressively, demanding concessions and employing union-busting methods, including refusing to participate in arbitration. In the end, the union lost the fight, with 37 of the roughly 50 workers left on strike fired, including the entire leadership.
That may sound unusual, but in New Brunswick, the Irvings have a way of getting their way.
The clan's extraordinary influence stems from their grip on New Brunswick’s economy and media. The Irvings control as many as 250 companies, altogether worth more than $10 billion, by one estimate. These firms are in a huge range of businesses, mostly connected to oil, forestry and transportation. The Irvings also own all three of the English-language daily newspapers in New Brunswick, among other media properties.
But while Higgs’s employers became billionaires — the Irvings are among the 10 richest families in Canada — New Brunswick remains a have-not province, with its 772,000 citizens facing underdevelopment, overdependency on natural resources, underemployment, poverty and the loss of the best and brightest to outward migration.
New Brunswick has the lowest median income in Canada, the highest per capita suicide rate (while neighbouring P.E.I. has the lowest), the second-highest personal income tax rate and more than $14 billion in provincial debt — a sum that’s nearly doubled over the past 10 years. At the moment, about 36 per cent of the province’s budget is paid for by the federal government via transfer payments.
New Brunswick’s population has 53 per cent functional illiteracy (compared to 48 per cent countrywide), while the birth rate has fallen below its mortality rate — in 2018, it hit an all-time low. Given an aging population (the second-oldest in Canada), forecasts say the population may fall as much as 40,000 in little over a decade.
The Conference Board of Canada gave the province a “D” for economic performance in 2017. This year, according to TD Bank, GDP is expected to grow by only 0.5 per cent — tied for last place nationally.
The Irvings, meanwhile, are adroit at keeping their taxes low — indeed, they pioneered the use of tax havens among Canada's corporate class. They are believed to be among the lowest-taxed corporate groups in Canada, while also being frequent recipients of subsidies for many of their businesses. As Rob Moir, an economist at UNB in Saint John, once told me: “You’ve got one of the richest corporations in Canada, in one of the poorest provinces, and we are basically transferring them wealth — paying our taxes so they can get our subsidies.”
But economic inequity and entrenched fossil fuel interests don't get much of an airing thanks to the Irvings' dominance in New Brunswick's media. In June, cartoonist Michael de Adder was fired from the Irving papers after a cartoon he drew of U.S. President Donald Trump went viral. And when instructor Rod Cumberland, who's challenged the Irvings over their support for the herbicide glyphosate, was fired from his college job in June by a board that included an Irving rep, the Irving-owned New Brunswick newspapers ignored the story.
National Observer did not receive a response from Wendy Metcalfe, Brunswick News Inc.'s editor-in-chief, to questions about criticism that the newspaper does not engage critically and report strenuously on the Irving group of companies.
Higgs going to bat for Big Oil and against Trudeau's climate agenda
Tall, bespectacled, with old-world manners and a friendly disposition, Higgs is renowned for his social skills. One person told me he was the sort of politician who stayed late at a campaign event to meet everyone who came out. “He comes out of the legislature nearly every day to answer any question reporters have,” one CBC reporter says. “The Liberals ran attack ads against him in the election and he talked later about how hurtful he found it. He’s not typical.”
(I interviewed Higgs for a 2016 Globe and Mail article about the Irvings. For this article, his office agreed to an interview and then canceled it almost immediately afterward.)
Still, Higgs has to watch that he is not seen as being the Man from Irving. And, in affairs of state in New Brunswick, Irving comes up an awful lot. A vivid illustration came in June, when the government blocked one Irving company, newspaper publisher Brunswick News Inc., from revealing “proprietary commercial information” of another Irving company, Irving Oil, among others in the polluting sector. The information, contained in a leaked cabinet document — and obtained by the newspaper chain — included financial details about the province’s biggest CO2 emitters and the Higgs government’s proposed carbon tax. Brunswick News consented to the publication-ban request.
Neither Brunswick News nor Irving Oil responded to questions about the leaked document or the publication ban.
Higgs has also turned to some Irving people for help: John Logan, who worked with Higgs at Irving Oil as a senior project manager, is employed at the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, while Bob Youden, a former J.D. Irving executive, is providing strategic advice in Higgs' office. “(Higgs) is an Irving guy who has brought Irving guys into the government as advisers,” Green party Leader David Coon says. “This is probably the most Irving-friendly government we've had.”
The Higgs government did not respond to questions about the type of advice Youden is providing, or why either of the men were hired.
Higgs has aligned himself with the fossil fuel industry on multiple fronts. Perhaps most notably, he vaulted onto the national scene by publicly challenging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s climate change agenda, allying himself with Scheer and fellow conservative premiers Kenney, Moe and Ontario's Doug Ford in opposing the federal carbon tax. Higgs has taken this message on the road, traveling to Ontario as well as Saskatchewan, while joining Ford, Moe and Kenney in fighting the tax in court. In July, he flew out to Calgary to join the other conservative premiers for a pancake breakfast in a show of unity.
Higgs is also trying to revive the Energy East pipeline, dear to the Irvings' aspirations, which was killed off in 2017 by its proponent, TransCanada Corp., largely because the company’s off-on Keystone XL pipeline was back on again, after the election of Trump.
Higgs argues that Canadians should be refining and buying Alberta oil instead of imports.
“I am not surprised to see he wants to reopen the Energy East, solidifying his connection to fossil fuels and the Irving family,” remarks Ron Tremblay, grand chief of Wolastoq Grand Council, which represents a number of the First Nations in New Brunswick and opposes the pipeline.
TransCanada says it has no interest in resuscitating the pipeline. Still, Higgs has continued this quixotic quest, beseeching Quebec Premier François Legault to come on board (Legault told Higgs he couldn’t count on his support).
Higgs is also opposed to Bill C-69, a Trudeau government bill that requires pipeline projects to consider sustainability and Indigenous rights.
As for the touchy issue of fracking, which contributed to the 2014 election defeat of David Alward's Progressive Conservative government, Higgs has lifted a subsequent Liberal-imposed moratorium on the practice in the area around the town of Sussex in southern New Brunswick.
Irving Oil is supportive of fracking, hoping the fuel produced this way could supply its Saint John refinery. Higgs has met with the CEO of Corridor Resources Inc., which wants to spend $70 million to drill exploration holes in the province.
As a result, anti-fracking activists are considering reviving a lawsuit against the government. Jim Emberger, a spokesman for the New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance, says: “If they try to go through with it, there’s certainly going to be a lot of opposition.”
Finally, a provincial climate change action plan that included efforts to mitigate flooding was introduced in 2016 — yet Coon says it has not been acted on.
The floods that soaked Fredericton this year are supposed to occur once every generation. Now they've come twice in two years, thanks to climate change and clear-cutting, environmentalists say.
“With respect to climate change and climate action, (Higgs) doesn't see the urgency,” Coon says. “In the House the other day, he speculated on how much of the global heating we're seeing is related to human activity versus natural. So he keeps muddying the waters... He’s a climate procrastinator. His campaign against the carbon tax has consumed the public service, which otherwise would be working to implement the current climate action plan.”
Lois Corbett, executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, says Higgs has “hitched his horse to the wrong wagon.” She continues: “In this decade of serious action reducing carbon pollution, Higgs should be aligning himself with New York state's governor, and Maine's governor and California's governor — people who had some real experience in reducing pollution and creating jobs in energy efficiency and helping folks get solar panels on the roof.” Corbett points out that even Irving Oil has said putting a price on carbon is not a bad idea, while J.D. Irving Ltd. has said it favours a cap-and-trade system.
Moreover, the federal government is arguing that New Brunswickers will receive more money in rebates than they’ll pay in carbon taxes.
New Brunswick’s carbon emissions have, in fact, been falling — but less because of government action than because of the closure of pulp and paper mills.
Higgs backing Irving interests on multiple fronts
That trend speaks to another Irving-related file — the health of the province’s forests.
An infamous 2014 forest strategy agreement, authored by the Alward government, locked the province into spraying Crown lands with glyphosate — a herbicide deemed a probable carcinogen and linked to the decimation of much of the province’s deer population. Tremblay believes glyphosate is also poisoning the moose meat that First Nations people often eat. “This is a huge concern,” he says.
Higgs appointed Mike Holland, an avid hunter and outdoorsman, as energy and resource development minister. Anti-glyphosate activists say Holland is sympathetic to their cause, but so far there’s been little sign that the forestry agreement will be altered. This spring, the government again issued licenses for glyphosate spraying, albeit at a reduced level. “People are pissed about spraying in the forest,” Corbett says. “The (government) could amend the agreement... and ban pesticides with a stroke of the pen.”
Higgs did not respond to questions about the appointment of Holland or whether his government intends to alter the 2014 forestry agreement so that it no longer requires the spraying of glyphosate on Crown lands.
Moreover, New Brunswick loses money on its Crown lands. The revenue from leasing forests and selling timber to private companies like J.D. Irving is less than what the government spends on managing the resource. Another test for Higgs is a motion the Liberal opposition introduced last year, aimed at the Irvings, that would end municipal property tax exemptions for businesses that use heavy machinery and equipment. It’s a move welcomed in Saint John, as the extra money could reduce the tax burden on locals. The motion is under review, and has the backing of the three opposition parties. The Tories, on the other hand, refuse to endorse it. Higgs has been non-committal as to whether he'll support it.
There is also a burgeoning controversy about an open-pit gypsum mine proposed by J.D. Irving’s Hammond River Holdings near Upham, northeast of Saint John. Locals are concerned about noise from the mine, and that their water and wetlands will be affected.
Higgs did not respond to National Observer's questions about his positions on the municipal tax or the gypsum mine.
And then, in June, another scandal broke tying the Higgs government to the Irvings: the firing of two instructors from the Maritime College of Forest Technology (MCFT) in Fredericton. One of the dismissed instructors, Cumberland, has been an outspoken critic of glyphosate spraying. The other, Gerald Redmond, was fired shortly after showing his support for Cumberland. MCFT’s board, which approved the firings, includes representatives of J.D. Irving and other timber companies, as well as a powerful deputy minister in the Higgs government.
Neither Higgs nor Mary Keith, vice-president for communications at J.D. Irving, responded to specific questions about whether the government, the company or its representatives played any role in the firing of Cumberland or Redmond.
In yet another Irving file, Higgs also has to be mindful of how J.D. Irving's shipbuilding wing is viewed at the federal level. For years, controversy has dogged the massive navy shipbuilding contract the company is completing. Earlier this year, the company threatened both The Globe and Mail and National Post after the papers requested information from the federal government about the contract. Bizarrely, the government passed on the media requests to J.D. Irving, which in turn tasked its Bay Street lawyers to write angry letters to the newspapers.
And then there was the Mark Norman affair. Vice-Admiral Norman was relieved of his post in 2017 over allegations he’d leaked government information to the media. The resulting breach-of-trust charges were dropped this past May. The whole affair seems to have started when Norman complained about J.D. Irving’s efforts to scupper a navy supply ship contract that had been given to a competing company in Quebec.
All told, says Rob Moir, an economist at UNB, Higgs’ support for the oil industry and the Irvings’ interests is out of step with current trends.
“I think that the reality and economics of climate change are such that, while (Higgs’ election) might have been — to use your words — a ‘wet dream’ for the Irvings, it isn’t anymore,” he says. “The problem is that it's really hard to escape the fact that oil is on its way out. And not because of a whole bunch of hippy-dippy tree huggers — but because the rise of the electric car is coming faster and faster... And the economics of running a diluted bitumen pipeline out east don't make a huge amount of economic sense.
“The economic model is not there.”
National Observer provided written questions to J. D. Irving regarding allegations in this story. The company did not provide answers to National Observer’s questions, but company spokesperson Mary Keith provided a written comment: "Thank you for your email and the invitation to participate in what, based on your questions, appears to be a pre-determined narrative driven more by Mr. Livesey’s personal opinion of our company versus a full accounting of the facts. This unfortunately is consistent with our prior experience with Mr. Livesey. Past provision of detailed replies has repeatedly resulted in Mr. Livesey failing to report all of the facts in the interest of a balanced, comprehensive report to readers. History tells us Mr. Livesey’s editorials are focused more on personal bias than fair, responsible journalism."
Read Part Two of this series, "Political instability roils New Brunswick."