It is easy these days to see goblins behind every fence post, or question the motives of big business, however the recently announced donation by the Irving corporation of one million dollars to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital raises some troubling questions.
The Irving family certainly is no stranger to endowing and financially assisting public institutions. When I was a graduate student at the University of New Brunswick, my study room was located on the top floor of the Harriet Irving Library, an impressive building named after the wife of legendary industrialist KC Irving, and made possible by a generous financial contribution to the university.
As most Atlantic Canadians know, the Irving empire headquartered in Saint John, New Brunswick, owns and controls vast natural resources in that province, and its economic power has led to immense political influence, regardless of the party holding office. A free press and liberal democracy are handmaidens, and yet the Irving family continues to exercise monopoly control over the province’s English language newspapers. It has been that way in New Brunswick for over 50 years.
Until the advent of Cavendish Farms in 1980, Prince Edward Islanders were unfamiliar with this kind of political pressure from big business. Local construction companies lobbied for contracts. Tourist operators and other small businesses scrambled for access to low interest government loans. But the players and the stakes were comparatively small.
That changed once the Irving industrial giant got a foothold in the province in the 1990s, eventually taking control of the Island potato industry, and creating a large and industrial workforce at its processing plant in New Annan. As a result, the Irving family and Cavendish Farms have a powerful influence over the decisions and policies of the provincial government, especially as they pertain to agriculture, land and the environment.
It is my experience that Island premiers are very accessible people. If time permits they will meet with just about anyone. But the premier’s office door is always open to Robert Irving and his sister Mary-Jean. They carry a big stick and to ignore their requests and complaints can be perilous for a government dependent upon their economic contributions.
That naked corporate power was apparent in June, 2014 when Cavendish Farms President Robert Irving and his then vice president of Agricultural Affairs, Blaine MacPherson, met with a provincial legislative committee to put forward their case for lifting the moratorium on deep water wells.
The PEI Potato Board, undoubtedly under the direction of Cavendish Farms, had made a similar request two years earlier and now the big stick was being waved. The Guardian newspaper at the time called the Irving presentation to the legislative committee an “ultimatum”, and certainly it left nothing to doubt. If the province refused to lift the deep well irrigation moratorium, Cavendish Farms would be forced to downsize its operations.
Government is now in the final stages of bringing forward a new Water Act, to better “protect the quantity and quality” of the Island’s water and ensure our water supply is “healthy and sustainable” into the future. This could be an historic environmental turning point for Prince Edward Island, one that asserts the fundamental right of citizens to an essential, vulnerable resource.
During the consultation stage last fall, the PEI Potato Board called for “equitable access” to water. That’s code for selectively allowing more irrigation from deep water wells in agricultural areas throughout the province. It is a monumental battle with environmental groups and most ordinary citizens on one side and potato growers and the processing industry on the other side.
That is why the one million dollar gift by Robert Irving to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital must be viewed as something other than selfless philanthropy, and why our premier and his government must retain a spotless heart when making decision about our water resources.
Leo Broderick of the Council of Canadians has questioned whether corporations should be making sizeable donations to publicly-funded institutions like the QEH, and I believe he raises a valid issue.
There is a very small and tight circle of economic and political power in our little province and it is always interesting to connect the dots.
In this dead serious drama around water, potatoes and government decision making, I will remind readers that Blaine MacPherson until recently was Robert Irving’s right hand man. Mr MacPherson now helps direct the affairs of Health PEI, which operates the QEH. Meanwhile, the past chair of the QEH Foundation is a Charlottetown lawyer who is also a close advisor to Premier MacLauchlan. Coincidentally, his law firm represents Irving business interests on the Island.
While not imputing dubious motives or impropriety to any of these associations, it is important to know they exist. Islanders can only hope the recent Irving donation to the QEH does not have strings attached and is not a cynical attempt to grease the skids for an eventual lifting of the moratorium on deep water wells.
A former Minister of Agriculture once told me that water is Prince Edward Island’s oil, presumably meant to be exploited, traded, and used like any other commodity.
That is a false and dangerous philosophy, one which I believe potentially threatens access to healthy, uncontaminated water by Island families and communities.
All Islanders can only hope that when Premier MacLauchlan and his Cabinet sit down to make water decisions, continuing to grow the Irving corporate giant’s industrial bean stock isn’t their first concern.