Life is Belief & Struggle - Ahmed Shawqi

Monday, March 14, 2016

New Brunswickstan

Maclean’s published an article on New Brunswick days ago which asked the age old question; can anything save New Brunswick? The article has been up for days and last time I checked, there are no comments. This could be because no one reads Maclean’s anymore. As a rule, I know I don’t. Or it could be that no one cares. Of course, I would be remiss if I discounted the possibility it could be a combination with a large dose of both.   
It wasn’t a bad article – as far as it goes, but there is one glaring omission.  If you want to discuss New Brunswick and omit any mention of the Irving family and their generational strangleholds on the province, well, that’s a large part of the how and why modern New Brunswick is the way it is. If you want to begin the process of meaningful change it is hard to overlook how the Irving family has been playing politics and treating the province as their personal fiefdom for four generations. I’d put it this way; the Irvings are New Brunswick, and the rest of us, are just tourists.
Take Saint John, the largest city in the province. It’s an old international port city with some of the most interesting examples of Loyalist Empire and Victorian architecture. The first and only time I encountered Soviet sailors in Canada was in a Shoppers Drug Mart in uptown Saint John. They were trying to buy perfume. The sailors were quite relieved to see me and assumed mistakenly, because of my looks, I had to be able to speak Russian. Alas, a few simple words were all I could muster. Nyet Soviet.

I have never seen a city which goes begging for the process of gentrification as badly as Saint John. It has the potential for being a crown jewel of Canadian cities, if only; it could attract young families willing to invest in living in Saint John. Real estate prices are 1/6th of Toronto’s, and for less than a $200,000 investment you could buy and restore, with top of the line upgrades, a home which would sell for close to $2 million in Toronto, but those families won’t come . There is very little work even though it is the kind of place your children are safe enough to walk to school at age 6.  Let me not mince words, a great deal of why that is, is because of the Irving investments. 

The smell of Saint John is all-pervasive and overwhelming. Enter Saint John and you enter the smell of Dante’s Inferno. When I first arrived in Saint John in 1980, I was could not believe how any modern government would allow a company to get away with creating such noxious odors in an urban environment. It’s not just the Irving Pulp and Paper mill, there is the Irving Oil Refinery as well, and periodically, the smell of oil and gas gets added to the all-pervasive sulfur mix.  I haven’t been back to Saint John since the 80’s, but apparently, nothing much has changed.

I can say all this because, I don’t live there and I am not dependent on the Irving's for my livelihood. One out of twelve of New Brunswickers are directly employed by the Irving.  It doesn’t sound like a great number, or a number which would be an impediment, but when you start to understand how interconnected the Irving’s business interests are,  and how many non-Irving businesses are either entirely or indirectly dependent with Irving largess, that 1/12th starts to grow exponentially.  Want to raise taxes on Irving interests or make them clean up their environmental act? They’ll threaten to leave the province and take away the jobs, send you a bill for paving a road or building a needed causeway. Take your pick.

Take the Fourth estate. It is almost entirely and utterly owed by the Irving family. There is no other media monopoly exists in the country exists like the Irving’s media interests. This is one place in the country where people think, ‘Thank G-d for the CBC'.  What happens when a non-Irving media tries to establish a presence in the province? Take a look at this CBC report from  2007.

The federal government needs to take a serious look at media concentration in New Brunswick, according to Senator Joan Fraser, co-author of a June 2006 report that raised questions about Irving media holdings. Her comments come as Irving-owned Brunswick News Inc. takes a former publisher to court in the midst of his efforts to start a new newspaper.

"We didn't find anywhere else in the developed world a situation like the situation in New Brunswick," Fraser told CBC News on Friday. The senate report examined the state of all of Canada's news media. All of the English daily newspapers in New Brunswick are owned by Irving and its other entities, as are all of the weekly publications, with the exception of the Sackville Tribune and the St. Croix Courier, and some radio stations.

Irving is also one of the largest employers in the province, with interests in the forestry, retail, construction, transportation and food sectors. "The Irving interests are bigger in New Brunswick than the whole federal government is in the whole of Canada, if you see what I mean, proportionately," Fraser said.
 Read about the saga of the demise of the Carlton Free Press and how the Irving’ used the courts and their wealth to drive the little paper that didn’t grow out of business. Competition is for suckers, much like environmental and pollution controls. 

In fact, this wasn’t the first time the Senate looked into the Irving Media interests. Senator Keith Davy’s warned about it in the seventies. Nothing has change, and the Irving Media Empire has grown only larger and more entrenched.  

New Brunswick got on the bilingual band wagon early.  Probably the potential for graft and handouts from the federal government was seen as too lucrative an opportunity to be denied to the political class. The act of becoming a fully bilingual province was considered to be ‘forward-thinking’  and the prevailing political wisdom of the time was that an entirely ‘bilingual’ province would give a provincial economic leg up against the rest of the Canada with a thoroughly bilingual population. Just like theories of a flat earth, this promised economic reward never got off the ‘dreaming the impossible dream’ stage.   If anything, the reality of provincial bilingualism saddled New Brunswick with unnecessary debt which continues to bleed provincial coffers dry. The province can barely afford one public school system, let alone two. The province of Quebec has nothing  on the signage bullies in Dieppe.

It’s geographically a large province and the population is spread out. Public transportation linking rural communities with the cities is practically nonexistent. The car is king here but you were never know it from the state of the roads.  There was a time when New Brunswick was thriving, then it entered Confederation, and well, it’s been downhill ever since. 

And yet, it is undoubtedly, one of the most beautiful provinces in the country.  While parts of the province are definitely snowy, the climate is much milder than what can be found in other parts of the country.  Growing up, one of the treats of my mother’s annual track home was eating at any of the fish shacks or roadside diners that use to dot the roads and by-ways of the province. It was probably one of the few places in the continent where (in season) freshly caught salmon or lobster could be considered fast food.  The bread was divinely ‘home-made’ fresh, much like the pies and cakes. 

Those places are mostly gone, and in their stead, are Irving gas station diners where processed food is more often the norm - not always, but all too often.  Contrary to what you make think, New Brunswickers are a resourceful people, but like institutional racism, the entrenched fiefdom of poverty means anyone who can hightails it out of the province as soon as possible or be ground down.

I was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick; my mother was born and raised in Northumberland Country.  She lives in the house she born in, the same house her mother was born in, the same house my great-grandfather was born in – and so on all the way back to two escapees from a life sentence of indentured servitude brought them to the New World.  The house started as a log cabin and each generation added their mark. Now it is a large rambling 5 bedroom home, the last homey house at the end of the road going nowhere. The house sits on 100 acres of prime timberland but the market value of the house and land is about $35,000. I jest not.

My mother met my father when she was working on the air force base as a civilian clerk. The air force base outlasted their marriage, but it too is now long gone. I spent the first two years of my life in New Brunswick and never returned until my 17th birthday when I came back with my mother. Her father was ill, all her sisters had moved back. She wanted to go home but would not return without me.  I managed two weeks, before I made the decision, I had to get the hell of there or spend a life toiling in despair.  

The people were some of the most decent you could find, but to them, I was always an outsider. I remember one woman in a clothing store asking me where I was from as she couldn’t place my foreign accent.  See what happens when you are raised by Eastern Europeans in Upper Canada?

I worked the hardest I have ever had to work in order to save every penny I could. I had a job as a chambermaid, waitressing at truck stops and fish shacks. At one point, I had three jobs and got by with only 5 hours sleep a night. I even worked as an assistant lumber broker for Leonard Ellen Lumber. I held the dubious distinction of being the worst lumber broker in the Maritimes. It took me nine months to save $3,000 and I returned to Toronto May 1, 1980. It might not seem like a lot of money, but when the minimum wage was around $3.25 or less (if you worked in the hospitality industry) and I still had to pay to live. My first work’s pay in Toronto was for $175.00. I felt like a queen. My knees, hands and back thanked me. I never went back to live. What I did learn was that survival in New Brunswick meant working at a Sisyphean task. 

My mother is old and quite frail and still manages to live in her girlhood home.  Last year she came to spend the winter with me and the Last Amazon.  This summer, her twin sister had a stroke, so my mother refused to leave her Mamie.  I worry about her.  Toronto scares her. It’s too big and loud, and more importantly, she feels the innately the vulnerability of old age here. The hard edges of Toronto citizenry makes her feel like there is always a knife poised at her throat. 

Toronto depresses her and she feels there is no room to breathe. The restaurants are better than when she was young, but she tells me everyone looks so used up and worn out.  She sees no joy in the faces of the crowd. And I get that now. But since she used her beauty to marry for looks rather than wealth; it is only here I can make a living. 
I have gone back, now and then, to visit my mother, I have sent all my children to spend time in the last homey house at the end of the road going nowhere.  It’s a place of great beauty and where the stars shine so bright and hang so low at night it makes you believe you only need to stretch out to grasp them in your hand.  I miss the solitude of the woods and the sound of the river but one cannot feast on beauty alone. 

Can New Brunswick be saved? I sincerely don’t know, but I suspect it will take more than any provincial government to put all the things right which are so clearly so very wrong.

1 comment:

  1. Did your mom name that deer Stu?
    Because she looks delicious.

    I liked your post, you're a terrific writer.