Irving Potemkins: Sleight of hand in Halifax and Saint John

By TONY SEED

‘Irving are the tree people. Like the budworm is the spruce budworm.’ –Lorne Elliott

Potemkin villages [1] are an Irving specialty. The urban areas of the Maritimes are no exception to the marvellous illusions wrought by this one family which has appropriated the modern science of ecology and all the Madison Avenue arts of greenwashing [2] to add lustre to the crown of its dynasty. Suffice to mention the K.C.Irving Memorial Forest, a vast, chemically-controlled monoculture alongside the Trans Canada Highway in New Brunswick; augmented by the Irving Eco-Centre at La Dune de Bouctouche; the K.C. Irving Environmental Centre and the Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens at Acadia University – open every day of the year and free to the public, the 8th wonder of the world.

Across the street from the offices of Shunpiking magazine in the Walker’s Electric building in Halifax, at the southwest corner of North and Windsor streets, sits a relatively new, four-story apartment building, built several years ago on the site of an old, abandoned Irving gas station.

The Irvings had demanded $650,000 for the small lot, and the 20+plus legal pages detailing the terms of sale forbade the development of any business that would compete with any one of the Irving’s empire of 300+ enterprises, effectively ruling out the plans of one Navid Saberi, then Halifax’s top-selling realtor and a sometime client, to build yet another Tim Hortons.

Norm Pickrem by Maggie Lucas

Until Irving sold the land, Norm’s Garage had occupied the iconic old gas station for a number of years. Tragically, Norm Pickrem recently suffered a massive heart attack while shoveling the driveway to his new garage, a Quonset hut located on Creighton Street, following a heavy snowstorm.

Norm had a good eye for duplicity and the interests of the working man. He s not indifferent to humanity either. When I sold him a copy of our Dossier on Palestine (2002), I asked his opinion. He replied simply that he sees photos of children throwing stones at Israeli tanks. “I cannot stand bullies.” On Cuba, he asked, “why can’t the Americans just leave the Cubans alone?” He talked about and to engines as if to and with a living human being.

One day I commented on how fast the Irvings had taken down his garage prior to excavating the foundations for the apartment building. It disappeared in a matter of a 3 or 4 days.

Norm nodded sagely. According to him, when the Irvings initially closed the grungy old station, they had to excavate and remove the underground gas tanks.

Just as inspectors arrived at the site from the Nova Scotia environment department to supervise the operation, as required by provincial regulations, they received an emergency message about an oil spill.

Conscientious fellows all, they leapt in their vehicle and sped off to the scene of the crime.

They returned later in the day to complete the inspection. That hole in the ground had been completely filled and covered, and the gas tanks levelled.

The location of the reported spill? A gleaming new gas station at the corner of Windsor and Almon streets, just three blocks away – the new Irving station.

“And what’s under the ground there now?,” Norm asked me rhetorically.

Such sleight of hand is legendary if not apocryphal.

Years ago, while traveling by train on Via Rail’s Atlantic Line to Montreal, I went for dinner and was seated at a table with an accountant. Like travelers do on trains and in airports, we got to exchange stories about our lives and livelihoods. No more so than in the dining car of the Atlantic or the Ocean where the chefs were superb, the food first class, the price modest and where one never know with whom one was going to be seated with. Who are you working for? I asked. The Irvings, he replied, but he had left their employ.

“Why?” I asked.

As the miles clicked by and the beautiful vistas of the Tantramar marshes unfolded through the windows, he took up the story which I am reconstructing from memory. Well-spoken and modest, the accountant was a man of detail characteristic of his profession. He proceeded to tell me of the time the NB environment department was finally forced to take Irving to court over sulphur emissions from its poisonous pulp and paper mill in Saint John.

IrvingPulpPaperMillIt’s located just above the famous Reversing Falls where the mighty Saint John River flows into the Bay of Fundy with its powerful tides, causing the phenomena. In the late 1970s I had once stayed with friends, who lived in a vibrant working class neighbourhood just across the inner bay from the mill.

I began to suffer from a serious headache within a matter of a day or two. My friends said that it was not uncommon. The city of 100,000 migraines. No one then imagined that anything could be really done. I implored them that if the progressive forces of the Loyalist City could accomplish nothing else but restricting monopoly right of the Irvings, it would be a positive contribution – not only politically but also to people’s health and well-being. According to a Canadian Geographic survey, the Irvings rank 45th overall among the top fifty pollutant-producing industrial facilities in North America.

The impunity of the Irvings from the rule of law is well known in that province. They do not consider themselves above the law: they consider themselves the law, something called monopoly right.

My new friend recounted that, without leveling any other penalty, the magistrate bowed from his bench to the wonders of Irving technology and ordered its management to install scrubbers on top of the sulphurous smoke stacks.

Some five years later, Irving was back in court. Emissions were higher than ever.

As luck would have it, the same judge was presiding.

“What happened?,” the judge asked the scrubbers.

“They were promptly installed as you ordered, your Honour,” Irving’s lawyer replied faithfully.

“But they were supposed to forestall this problem!”

“Well, they probably would have,” Irving’s lawyer nodded in agreement.

“Then why didn’t they?,” the judge, becoming exasperated as the facade of his earlier decision began to evaporate in sulphur, asked.

“Well, you never said anything about turning them on.”

I then asked him about their accounting practices. He winced. As is well known, the normal business practice is to issue invoices for services or goods payable in 30 days. Irving, however, he explained, demands 90 days as a price of doing business with them yet, on the other hand, demands payment for its own invoices in 30 days. Many small and medium-sized businesses, he explained, who do choose to do business with the Irvings or who have no alternative, become so dependent that they become ripe for takeover by this predatory monopoly, or fail.

My fellow traveller quietly concluded his tale. A younger man of conscience, he resigned his position with the Irvings.

In February 2005 a report was released that showed sulphur dioxide levels were above acceptable levels in east Saint John, site of the Irving Oil refinery – built in 1960 it is the largest in Canada and source of nearly one in three tanks of gasoline imported to the East Coast of the United States – 47 times higher than in 2003.

Irving Oil was fined a mere $3,000. Jennifer Parker, who speaks for the monopoly, said a pollution-control device called a tail gas unit is still causing trouble.

“We are determined to fix this problem,” Parker said.

This article was originally published in Shunpiking Online (www.shunpiking.com) on September 9, 2006 and revised for this publication. In 2007 the Irving Pulp & Paper Ltd. mill at Reversing Falls released 680,000 litres of green liquor into the Saint John River; pleading guilty, the company received a fine of $50,000. In November 2008 Environment Canada investigators exercised a search warrant at Irving Pulp & Paper’s head office to seek more information on this accidental spill.

Endnotes

1.According to Wikipedia, “Potemkin villages were, purportedly, fake settlements erected at the direction of Russian minister Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787. According to this story, Potemkin, who led the Crimean military campaign, had hollow facades of villages constructed along the desolate banks of the Dnieper River in order to impress the monarch and her travel party with the value of her new conquests, thus enhancing his standing in the empress’s eyes.“

2. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (10th edition) defines Green*wash (n) as follows: “1. Disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image. (y) Derivatives: greenwashing (n). Origin from green on the pattern of whitewash.”

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