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Chapter One: The Island



First-time visitors to New Brunswick unfamiliar with the province’s corporate geography must often wonder: Who is this “Irving” and what doesn’t he own?

No matter from which compass point you approach the port city of Saint John, you can’t help but notice the Irving signature etched across the landscape, the sea coast, and the skyline. Many of the outlying second- and third-growth jack pine and spruce forests have been signposted as territory for the huge lumber operations of J.D. Irving Ltd., twenty-five thousand square kilometers of stumpage throughout the Canadian Maritimes and Maine. Along the highway, driving south from the provincial capital of Fredericton or east from the American border, your car will zip past the diamond-shaped signs advertising yet another gas station operated by Irving Oil Ltd. As you cross Saint John on either of its two bridges, your senses will be overtaken by the tangy effluent aroma of the Irving pulp and paper mill, nestled into an otherwise scenic crook of the Saint John River. If you drive west from the airport, you will see, tucked into the valley between Loch Lomond Road and the slate gray sea, the lighted spires and domes of a petrochemical Taj Mahal, the largest oil refinery in Canada. Six enormous white cylinders hunker along the service road, a black letter painted on each drum, spelling out a huge graffito: I R V I N G. Should you cross the Bay of Fundy by sailboat or on the three-hour ferry ride from Digby, Nova Scotia, an equally gargantuan six-cylinder billboard welcomes you to the working harbor that the Irvings dominate. However you arrive in the city, it’s clear in whose pocket Saint John sits.

In 1881, James Dergavel Irving, a third-generation Maritimer of Scottish descent, bought a sawmill in Bouctouche, New Brunswick, and grew his business from this one operation. His hyper-ambitious son K.C. took over and became the corporate patriarch who leveraged the family’s small holdings into an industrial juggernaut worth more than four billion dollars, a private conglomerate that (since K.C.’s death in 1992) is still run by his three sons and their children and grandchildren. In an era of instant internet wealth, the Irvings are a throwback to the gilded age of New World industrial barons and family fortunes, like the Carnegies or the Rockefellers. They are either resourceful or rapacious, depending on your point of view, but undeniably powerful. Their forests produce the paper, pulped in their mills, that feeds their printing presses, which ink the dozen or so newspapers the Irvings own. Their tankers sit in their shipyards (or once did, for Saint John recently concluded a long history of shipbuilding that had earned it a reputation as “the Liverpool of North America”) and in the deep-water harbor dredged by Irving money. They own sawmills and diaper plants, building supply stores and a french fry manufacturer, trucking firms and a rail line, an executive airplane service, a communications firm, countless real estate holdings, and a hockey team. The Irvings are everywhere in New Brunswick. Like the Fundy tides, the family’s reach is long and their power—often quiet, sometimes not—nearly unfathomable.

As in any company town, especially one locked in the rusting doldrums of a long economic slide, the seventy-four thousand citizens of Saint John retain a crusty ambivalence to the come-from-nothing clan of billionaires who lords over their lives. The Irving conglomerate keeps on its payrolls five thousand people in the city alone; its bosses have likely laid off that many over the years, too. “The Irvings are bastards,” locals will tell you, “but they’re our bastards.” Better to serve a master you know than a faceless corporate board in Toronto or New York.

If there is one Irving product that the residents of Saint John rally around, it’s the two and a half square kilometers of peninsular parkland on the western edge of the city. Set aside by the company in 1992, the area once known as Taylors Island is still called that by citizens uncharmed by its rechristening as Irving Nature Park. (Not everything, they figure, needs the family trademark.) This puzzle piece of forest, beachfront, and cliff-edge juts into low-tide mudflats, thick with avian life, and splits the brackish tidal estuary of Saints Rest Marsh and Manawagonish Cove from the deeper waters of the Bay of Fundy. The Irvings fund the upkeep, hire naturalists, and let the public wander around eight animal-themed trails. The red spruce and balsam fir of the Acadian forest shade these walking routes, while breakers perform a steady drum roll on the polished rocks of Saints Rest Beach. Here, you can escape the industrial thrum of the city and absorb the more natural rhythms of this confluence of rare, even endangered ecosystems.

On a Saturday morning in early June, you could expect to encounter a handful of visitors already heading into the park: a jogger or two, a few dog walkers, maybe a retired couple whose passions have turned to bird watching, even the flash of a cyclist poaching an illicit ride on the pedestrian-only trails. Had you been there on June 1, 2002, driving southwest along Sand Cove Road a little before nine in the morning, you would have spotted an unseasonably large gathering beside the Sheldon Point car lot and the service barn at the entrance to the park. That day, nearly a hundred people moved with more purpose than is typical for such an hour on a weekend. They seemed underdressed for a wedding party, and the gear they unloaded from truck beds and car trunks suggested the group had gathered for more action than an ordinary picnic. Mountain bikes were removed from roof racks, assembled, and tested. Several kayaks lay across the dewy turf. Listeners formed a semicircle around one boat and attended to a brief safety demonstration. Men and a few women stood alone or in pairs, wearing polyester shorts or wind pants and light jackets. They pretzeled limbs and torsos in rituals of physical and mental preparation. Some participants seemed young and lean and hungry to display their gym-fought fitness. Others appeared less certain of success. They were older or heavier, more anxious and less revved up. They wore cheap shoes and T-shirts that no serious runner would show off at a start line. They seemed casual athletes at best, not hard to keep pace with in whatever competition was to come.
“Five minutes ’til the start!” somebody called. A murmuring swept across the crowd.

Beyond the bluff edge of Sheldon Point, an early fog still hung like gauze across the horizon. Already, a stiff breeze off the hills and the heat of the sun had begun to dissipate the haze and expose the dark expanse of the bay. The spring wind’s breath felt cool against the cheek. Sunshine sparkled across car windshields. The scene held the promise that summer was near, if not quite here, and that the cold, gray days of winter were finally done. It was a perfect morning for a walk in the park, you had to agree. And a damn fine day for a race.

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