COVER

K. C. IRVING SUPERSTAR

MARITIMERS ASSESS THE IRVING MYTH

BARRY CAME February 6 1989
COVER

K. C. IRVING SUPERSTAR

MARITIMERS ASSESS THE IRVING MYTH

BARRY CAME February 6 1989

K. C. IRVING SUPERSTAR

MARITIMERS ASSESS THE IRVING MYTH

Little is known about the full extent of K. C. Irving’s influence, but even the accounts of his enormous wealth and power that do exist seldom reflect what New Brunswickers think about their richest citizen. So when Richard Knowles, who teaches drama at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., set himself the task of writing and directing a play about Irving, he decided to consult with New Brunswickers first. Before

staging the satire K. C. Superstar, he sent his cast out to discover how the citizens of the province viewed the polite goliath who has managed to turn the province where they live into something of a fiefdom for his own family. The actors spoke to more than 100 people, ranging from company executives to fishermen, gas station attendants and residents of old-age homes.

Said Knowles: “Feelings about Irving ran the gamut, from absolute hatred to total devotion.” He added, however, that everyone interviewed agreed that “New Brunswick is Irving.”

Controls: That is a perception that many others in New Brunswick and throughout the Maritimes share. Few lack an opinion about the individual who controls a gigantic slice of the province’s economy. One Maritimer who has expressed concern about the effects of the Irving empire,

Saint John orthopedic surgeon Dr. John Acker, is co-chairman of that city’s environment committee, a body that has been seeking a way to force Irving interests to control the stench from their Reversing Falls pulp mill. Acker says that any other owner would have been forced to clean up the mill long ago. Said Acker: “Irving proved himself to be a brilliant businessman. But he certainly made his fortune at the expense of New Brunswickers in some respects.” The Irvings’ reach extends beyond commerce and into government, and K. C. Irving has fought several fierce battles with federal and provincial agencies that have tried to limit the family’s control. New Brunswick’s J. E. Belliveau, author of Little Louis and the Giant K. C., a 1980 book about Irving and former New Brunswick premier Louis Robi-

chaud, said that “the Irvings don’t have to fight government anymore. They’ve got it all now.” Like others who have known Irving personally, Belliveau says that any portrait of him must have more than one dimension. “He is so personable and courteous,” he said. “He has been extremely loyal to early employees who stayed with him and—though they didn’t become millionaires—they remain loyal to him.” But Belliveau said that, in private, Irving was

“implacable,” adding, “You couldn’t change the old man’s mind.” And he described Irving’s acquisition of almost all of the province’s media outlets as “an attempt to keep himself out of them.”

Plantation: Linda Dyer, president of Baseline Market Research Ltd. of Fredericton, a polling firm with three offices in Canada and another soon to open in Maine, does business with Irving interests. Said Dyer: “He operated as a 19th-century industrialist” for whom New Brunswick was “his plantation.”

But in the Northumberland Strait communi-

ty of Buctouche, K. C. Irving’s home town and the site of the car dealership and gas station upon which he founded his empire, there are few critical voices. Leonard LeBlanc, the 40year-old proprietor of Buctouche Bakery on Irving Boulevard, the community’s main street, says that he has had a “lifelong fascination” with K. C. Irving. He added: “Some people are bitter about hún—them fathers may have worked long hours with little pay. But he put food on them tables in hard times.” LeBlanc reports that K. C. Irving is still a frequent visitor: “They have a cottage in Buctouche Bay, and just last summer you’d see him going by in an ordinary blue Ford—a company car— every night.” Charles Roy, a retired Buctouche

builder, worked for K. C. Irving firms for 30 years. Said Roy: “He was the kind of man who would come and shake hands with all the workers no matter who they were. I can’t fault the man for anything.”

Wrong: But Knowles, whose K. C. Superstar was well received—even by Irving newspapers—during its tour of the Maritimes and Maine last fall, says that he does not agree with the wide admiration that Irving enjoys. Said Knowles: “K. C. Irving is [one of the] richest men in the world in this country’s thirdpoorest province [after Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island]. He is the symbol of many of the things that are wrong with the economy of the region.” Many former members of the K.C. production express similar opinions. For some, including 33year-old Krista Wells, who was 17 when Irving left New Brunswick to take up residence in Bermuda, K. C. Superstar was a learning experience. Wells said that after scanning the public record and interviewing Maritimers herself, she found that her attitude shifted “from one of ig-

norance to one of fear.” With most of the media controlled by Irving interests, she added, “we’re at the point where our news can be fed to us.” Given Irving’s obsession with privacy, it is unlikely that in his lifetime Maritimers will ever know the true extent of his influence. But for New Brunswickers in particular, it is apparent that a traditional reluctance to bite the hand that feeds still pervades most of their dealings with the enigmatic K. C. Irving.

BARRY CAME

GLEN ALLEN