“The Once and Future New Brunswick Free Press” (2010) outlines what a free press entails

For Christmas 2018, we were in Saint John, N.B. for a family get together.

A get together in a congenial setting such as Uptown Saint John, with well-planned events (organized with a spreadsheet) spread out over several days, is a great way to enjoy the holiday season.

Such events recharge our batteries; they have tremendous value.

Our stay in Saint John has also prompted an interest, on my part, in learning about the history of the city. In such a learning process, I like to contrast and compare.

How does the history of built form in Stratford, Ontario compare, for example, to the history of built form in Saint John?

View of Duke St., Saint John. Jaan Pill photo

View of Duke St., Saint John. Jaan Pill photo. Click on image to enlarge it.

To answer such a question, I like to just walk up and down the streets of a given city, and consider, and articulate, what I observe. I first like to get my own first-hand impressions, and express them in my own terms and terminology, before I attend to what others have observed. I like to start from my own naive and untutored vantage point.

This is a way of observing streetscapes and other aspects of daily life that Jane Jacobs among many others (including Erving Goffman, by way of example) has emphasized. It’s an approach that appeals to me.

For other, more broadly based, research about a given city, I like to read journal articles and book-length academic studies. I also like to read news accounts from the CBC. The research concerns narratives and evidence.

Narratives regarding Saint John

The narratives, that I refer to, may entail interesting generalizations that serve to orient a reader, and give rise to emotional engagement. In my experience, narratives in this category are good for background reading but may be rather vague.

Especially in some longer, evidence-based pieces, by way of contrast, narratives may entail precise analysis featuring comparisons focusing on selected topics within specified time periods. An example is a Dec. 29, 2018 Globe and Mail article entitled “Searching for Boris Birshtein.” Another exemple is a book of essays by historians entitled Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared (2009).

I had been to Saint John once before in August 2016, driving from Ontario to Prince Edward Island. During the latter trip, we stopped on Aug. 6, 2016 in Moncton, N.B. to visit with Graeme Decarie, who taught history at Malcolm Campbell High School in the early 1960s, before he began teaching history at Concordia University.

This time, I got to know Saint John even better than on the first trip, during which we had stayed at the nearby community of Rothesay.

Screen shot of Google Maps 3D image of Uptown Saint John. Click on image to enlarge it.

Screen shot of Google Maps 3D image of Uptown Saint John. Click on image to enlarge it.

During our current visit, I noticed that the houses in Uptown Saint John, where we stayed, generally have very shallow setbacks from the street and tend to have flat roofs.

When I saw the houses, I thought at once of depictions, in graphic novels, of Canadian streetscapes from before the Second World War. The graphic-novel effect was especially evident in the evening, when street lighting served to infuse the forms with a sense of atmosphere and drama.

Among other things, as I began to read about the history of Saint John, I began to picture the sectarian violence, between the Orange Order and Irish-Catholics, that occurred on these graphic-novel streets in the 1840s.

I am speaking of such a cartoon-like quality in a positive sense. I like cartoons, comics, and graphic novels. As well, I like Saint John. It’s a great place to visit. The history of Saint John and New Brunswick is also of much interest – in its own right and in the context of world history. The context of world history is of particular relevance, as it addresses, among other things, the characteristic language that power speaks, in which it may happen that up is down, large is small, and inside is outside. That is to say, power speaks its own language, because in many circumstances, it can.

I learned about the new Irving headquarters, rising above other buildings in Saint John’s historical district

I was interested to learn the story behind a new building, currently under construction, south of King’s Square in Uptown Saint John.

Tall building in background is new Irving headquarters in Uptown Saint John. Jaan Pill photo

Tall building in background is new Irving Oil headquarters in Uptown Saint John. Jaan Pill photo. Click on image to enlarge it.

Considerably taller than other buildings in the historical district, in which it is located, the building will serve as the new Irving Oil headquarters.

The building has given rise to a revised bylaw, quickly passed by the city council, related to heritage buildings in Saint John. The previous bylaw would not not have permitted such a tall building to be constructed in the heritage district.

An April 11, 2016 CBC article, entitled “Saint John council votes to rewrite heritage bylaw to allow Irving Oil HQ,” outlines the story.

As we were driving in from the airport, our taxi driver told us about a recent explosion at the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John. As I subsequently learned from Canadian Press and CBC news reports, the explosion and similar incidents have given rise to renewed scrutiny concerning the Irving industrial empire.

A Nov. 8, 2018 Canadian Press article at the CTV Atlantic News website is entitled: “Mishaps put spotlight on Irving family’s relationship with Saint John.”

The second paragraph notes: “The Irvings of New Brunswick are facing renewed scrutiny after a major industrial accident at the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John – one month ago Thursday – and three guilty pleas the following day from Irving Pulp and Paper for polluting the Saint John River.”

So, the cartoon-like character of the city began to take hold of my imagination. I subsequently began to read news articles, journal articles, and books about New Brunswick.

An anecdote that I encountered, while in Saint John, was that if a person reads an Irving newspaper every day, it’s bound to have an impact on that person’s perception of reality. That is an apt observation.

View of Duke St., Saint John. Jaan Pill photo. Click on image to enlarge it.

View of Duke St., Saint John. The vertical set of lights in the background are from the new Irving Oil headquarters building. Jaan Pill photo. Click on image to enlarge it.

A 2010 Journal of New Brunswick Studies article by Julian H. Walker is entitled: “The Once and Future New Brunswick Free Press.”

You can access a PDF of the article at the link in the previous sentence or you can access it here:


An excerpt, which serves as an introduction to the article, and which sets the scene for an understanding of the current, cartoon-like print media environment in New Brunswick, reads:

The Theory of the Free Press

The pioneers of the free press advanced the notion that free speech and the free press are essential elements of liberal democracy. As early as 1644, the English poet John Milton argued that truth can only prevail where there is a free exchange of ideas [8]. Thus, the diligent work of one strong thinker working alone in his or her attic will not produce truth. The key is interaction, opposing viewpoints, and debate.

The nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill is perhaps best known for his concept of a “free marketplace of ideas,” where great ideas and opinions compete on their merits. It is a noble concept that nonetheless lacks a sense of who controls the flow and nature of ideas — in other words, who has power. If Mill’s “marketplace” is governed at all, it is by something akin to economist Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” where the forces of supply and demand guide capitalism [9]. But a closer reading reveals that Mill has in mind a much more rigourous marketplace:

However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that, however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth [10].

Mill offers a path for modern-day journalism: so that we are not left with “dead dogma,” full, frequent, and fearless debate should be the order of the day. Bold and diverse voices provide the best path to truth. In the media today we often look to the “quality” newspaper or broadcast outlet for comfort that the press is strong and effective, but, reading Mill, it is the variety of outlets, the unruly competition among them, and the ardour of the debaters that offer the better road to quality journalism and truth. Many would point to the Internet as providing this degree of diversity today, reducing the lack of competition in traditional media to be a matter of little concern. Mill would certainly argue for the most rigourous possible environment, one featuring competition at all levels: the Internet, the traditional media, and the blended Internet and traditional media. Mill would argue just as forcefully today for unfettered discussion and the search for the “living truth.”

Media theorists Robert Martin and G. Stuart Adam argue there is a strong link between a society based on free expression and debate and a democratic one. Referring to Canada, Great Britain, and the United States, Martin and Adam argue:

The democratic tradition recognizes the right to know, to speak and to express opinions without first seeking the permission of authorities and without the risk that the law will be used to forbid or punish the exercise of the right. The understanding is that free expression is so fundamental to democratic societies that it can be limited only for clear and pressing reasons. There cannot be democracy if the right to criticize is not secure; nor can democracy exist if governments possess the power to define the meaning of events and values. Accordingly, the notion of freedom of expression in liberal democracies includes the belief that the state has no right to abrogate this fundamental freedom [11].

The tie between free expression and democracy is vital, and the right to criticize is essential in a healthy democracy. Martin and Adam argue that governments cannot dominate and define the debate. In New Brunswick’s recent debate over the sale of NB Power, there was at least a perception of a triangle of mutual interest among the Irving industrial empire, the media conglomerate owned by the industrial empire, and the provincial government. In the case of such an aligning of the stars, it is the media that must break away and provide the scrutiny, the criticism, and the forum for public debate. In this case, while some good work was done, the Irving media in the NB Power debate took an uncritical role, overall, toward its owners, the large industrial power users, and the government of the day.

[End of excerpt]

Above-noted excerpt features following notes:

8 John Milton, Areopagetica. 1644. Intro. Albert C. Baugh and George William McLelland, Ed. English Literature. (New York: Appleton-Centure-Crofts Inc., 1954).

9 Adam Smith, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.” The Journalist’s Moral Compass. ed. Stephen R. Knowlton and Patrick R. Parsons (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1995), 159- 164.

10 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty. 1859. ed. Knowlton and Parsons. Ibid., 76.

11 Robert Martin and G. Stuart Adam, A Sourcebook of Canadian Media Law. (Ottawa: Carleton UP: 1994), Chap.1. 1-5.


An abstract for the above-noted article reads:

New Brunswick was at the forefront of the diverse, unruly, and fiercely competitive free press of Canada’s Confederation era. Yet today over thirty newspapers of various types operate in New Brunswick, virtually all of them owned by the Irving interests. In the case of the proposed sale of NB Power to Hydro-Québec, this essay notes that the Irving press applauded the proposed lower power rates for large industrial users, including major Irving-owned industry. With minimal competition in New Brunswick’s media sector, this appeared to commentators as a conflict of interest. This essay will argue that the Irving media monopoly muffles debate in the province and that it is time to let in some fresh air through a modern, diverse, and competitive free press.



A response (by an Irving newspaper editor at large, Neil Reynolds) to Julian Walker’s “The Once and Future New Brunswick Free Press” by can be accessed here.

A subsequent post regarding Saint John and related topics is entitled:

What is the ideal size and branding for a given city?


A March 18, 2019 CBC article is entitled: “A reporter asked the government about a Navy ship — then got a call from an Irving president: ‘I asked the federal government for comment. Irving isn’t part of the federal government’: David Pugliese.”

A June 15, 2019 Toronto Star article is entitled: “New Brunswick’s Telegraph-Journal wins 2018 Michener Award.”

The opening paragraphs read:

OTTAWA—The Telegraph-Journal in New Brunswick has been named the winner of the 2018 Michener Award, which honours excellence in public service journalism.

The Saint John-based newspaper was nominated for an 18-month investigation that exposed problems with New Brunswick’s ambulance service. The newspaper uncovered a severe shortage of paramedics that left ambulances sitting empty, leaving some people in emergency situations to be transported in regular vehicles.


A June 30, 2019 Washington Post article is entitled: “This Trump critic’s cartoon went viral on social media. Within hours, he no longer had a contract.”

A July 1, 2019 CTV News article is entitled: “Canadian cartoonist Michael de Adder loses job after viral Trump cartoon.”

A Dec. 18, 2019 CBC article is entitled: ‘Tough to take’: New Brunswick grabs unwanted title as Canada’s poorest province: Province will begin receiving most equalization funding per capita.”

2 replies
  1. Graeme Decarie
    Graeme Decarie says:

    The Irving papers don’t even pretend to be real or useful. They are pure propaganda sheets for the Irvings. At least half of their commentaries are by puppet university teachers or by propaganda houses (like Fraser Insitute).

    An added piece of info for you – the Irvings, with their huge holdings in Saint John, pay almost no property taxes. That’s a tremendous loss in the tens of millions of dollars every year for the city of Saint John. Mind you, it’s even worse for the province and for Canada to whom they pay no income tax whatever. Funny how our news media never mention that.

    (I’m now living in Ottawa where the print news media carry no news whatever, not even lies.)

  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    I will make it a point to explore the taxation angle.

    My recent visit to Saint John has prompted an interest, which I otherwise would not have had, in reading widely about topics that you’ve been exploring at your blog for many years.

    With regard to Ottawa, a book that I very much enjoyed, having bought it at a bookstore in Guelph around August 2018, is Unaccountable: Truth and Lies on Parliament Hill (2015) by Kevin Page. I now follow Kevin Page, and some of his colleagues, on Twitter.

    A blurb for Page’s book reads:

    In March 2008, Kevin Page was appointed by the federal Conservatives to be the country’s first Parliamentary Budget Officer. The move fulfilled a Tory campaign promise to deliver greater government transparency and accountability. He was later denounced by the same people who appointed him to scrutinize their spending. When he challenged the government on several issues – most notably about the true costs of the F-35 fighter planes – and publicly claimed the government was misleading Canadians, Page was vilified. He was called “unbelievable, unreliable and incredible” by then-Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. Page’s term was not extended and he retired from the civil service.

    Page’s assessment of the F-35 procurement was proven right, a major embarrassment to the Harper government. But Page’s overriding concern is that Parliament does not get the information and analysis it needs to hold the executive (the prime minister and cabinet) to account. Parliament, he argues, is broken, with power centralized in the PMO. The civil service appears cowed, and members of parliament almost never see enough financial analysis to support the policy decisions they make. That was true at various times on the tough-on-crime legislation, new military procurement as well as changes to the Canada Health Transfer and Old Age Security.

    In this shocking insider’s account, Page argues that democracy is being undermined by an increasingly autocratic government that does not respect facts that run counter to its political agenda. Elected officials need accurate, independently verified data to support the implementation of policies and programs. In Unaccountable, Page tells all Canadians why we should be concerned.



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