Comic Relief: Reading ‘The Codfathers’ in 2021

Had I read Gordon Pitts’ The Codfathers: Lessons from the Atlantic Business Elite when it first came out in 2005, I think it would have annoyed me — it’s just a collection of Cover of "The Codfathers" by Gordon Pittsfawning portraits of wealthy Atlantic Canadian business types. But in 2021, post-financial crisis, mid-plague, as the world is finally starting to awaken from its neolib nightmare, it reads like top-drawer satire and I enjoyed every cringey page of it. In fact, my dearest wish now is that someone will adapt it for television so that I can see the scene that opens Chapter 4 — a scene starring Cape Breton’s own Annette Verschuren — dramatized.

As the action begins, we find Verschuren, then head of Home Depot, “facing the toughest decision of her life,” (Pitts doesn’t date this fatal moment but it’s September 2002). That decision?

[W]hether to give the final order to evict 110 destitute people from their homes in the Tent City on [Home Depot property on] Toronto’s waterfront.

In her hour of need, she does what any Atlantic Canadian faced with such a dilemma would do — she calls former New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna, who tells her to go for it.

Pitts explains that “a year later, almost all the Tent City occupants were successfully relocated to city-funded housing” and “Home Depot suffered no reputational backlash.” Moreover:

In early 2005, reformist mayor David Miller announced a no-tolerance policy toward homeless squatting in Toronto’s city hall square, which many say as a public affirmation of Verschuren’s bull-by-the-horns policy.

“These are defining moments in a person’s character,” said Verschuren, a sunny blond woman who blends a self-revelatory candour with the the tough core of a seasoned corporate executive. “When you’ve got a guy like Frank saying, ‘Look, it’s right, let’s go’ — that means a lot. I use Frank for that.”

This is Verschuren’s main appearance in the book — she doesn’t rate a full chapter (no woman does, it’s the CodFATHERS, after all) — but what an appearance it is.

 

“Impressive, affluent people”

Pitts’ thesis, which he apparently first took for a trial run in the Globe and Mail where he is a business reporter, is that people like Verschuren and McKenna are part  of a “tightly knit, loyal network of owners and professionals,” a non-criminal “mafia” of Maritimers who exert an outsized influence on the country from positions on Bay Street, in government and at the heads of Canada’s “leading” companies. (There’s a also a “Newfoundland mafia” but it’s “different” and merits only a chapter near the end of the book.)

The “godfathers” or “more appropriately,” the “Codfathers” of this mafia are people like Wallace McCain, Arthur and James Irving, Ron Joyce (the half of the Tim Hortons coffee chain who wasn’t Tim Horton), Richard Currie (former CEO of Loblaw’s grocery chain) and Donald and David Sobey. (The book came out in 2005, McCain, Joyce and Donald Sobey have since died.)

It cannot be overstated how much Pitts loves these people.

He loves their looks — Kenneth Irving is “tall” and “coolly handsome” while Wallace McCain and his sons are “tall and rangy, like Gary Cooper, striding in from central casting for some Western movie.” (I don’t think Pitts knows much about movies — central casting is for background actors, not stars, and “some Western movie” makes it sound like he’s never heard of High Noon.)

He loves their disdain for “pretty” or “fancy” degrees — unless they’ve earned one or been granted an honorary one, in which case, he’s all for pretty, fancy degrees.

He loves their “salty” language, because while swearing every time you open your mouth is frowned upon for us plebs, it’s delightful when you’re rich.

He loves their modesty and lack of pretense — unless they’re into conspicuous consumption and multiple residences and 40-foot yachts, in which case, that’s fine too.

He loves their “hardscrabble” childhoods and rags-to-riches origin stories, but if they’re a fourth generation Sobey walking into a senior management position on the strength of their last name, that is also (somehow) admirable.

He loves both the “classic Maritime approach” to business where “friendship is considered more important than an extra buck or two” and the “Maritime way” which “is all about making money first.”

He loves the family dynasties like the Sobeys, the Irvings, the McCains, the Ganongs, the Braggs and the Olands, with room left over in his heart for a few arrivistes and politicians, like George Armoyan, John Risley and McKenna.

He loves all these “impressive, affluent” people we first meet as they are arriving at McKenna’s fourth annual Maritime business summit at donut tycoon Ron Joyce’s Fox Harb’r golf course to hear former US President Bill Clinton who, according to blueberry and cable “tycoon” John Bragg, addressed them like they were “doctoral students.”

 

Backwater

Cover of "My Life" by Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton’s biography came out in 2005, the same year as Pitts’ book.

As mentioned, this book came out in 2005, before people really started coming to grips with Clinton’s legacy — defanging Glass-Steagall and paving away for the 2008 financial crisis, introducing “tough on crime” policies that led to the largest increases in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history, destroying the welfare system. Not that any of these would likely be seen as negatives by the Fox Harb’r crowd. They appreciate Clinton, we’re told, because he came from “a desperately poor and backward part of his country” and SO DO THEY!

Pitts never misses an opportunity to stress how poor and backward we are and what a contrast we present to these shining exceptions to our general mediocrity. He also has a trick of attributing his most devastating evaluations to “observers” and “critics” although the phrases seem so ready to hand — and flow so effortlessly from his pen — that I think he’s just quoting himself.

Atlantic Canada is “reputed to be an economic backwater” that “mainlines grants and unemployment benefits.” It’s a “regional financial weakling, considered a quaint, rustic but impoverished vacation spot.” It’s “the sad sack of Canada.” Atlantic Canadians are “sometimes characterized as poverty-stricken, EI-addicted, laggards in the economic race.”

At one point, he comes very close to tarring his subjects with this same brush, writing of the glitterati at McKenna’s clam bake (or whatever it is):

Critics might argue that these people are just part of the East Coast disease of poverty and dependency, that they have to leave home to find opportunities, thus contributing to the managerial and human-talent deficit in these traditionally have-not provinces. That observation is valid but the reality is more complex.

The “reality,” as Pitts sees it, is that powerful Maritimers based elsewhere in Canada often keep summer or second homes here and even if they don’t, exhibit a fierce loyalty to each other that…well, Pitts doesn’t say it (or even seem to see it) but that benefits them, even as it has left Atlantic Canada struggling. Which is why the term “mafia” is actually appropriate, because mafias are not known for their service to their surrounding communities (unless you consider “Pay me so I won’t burn your restaurant down” a service). Mafias are known for looking out for themselves.

 

Artful Tax Dodgers

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Pitts’ chapter on the Irvings, in which he recounts an Irving family move so egregious, the reviewer for Canadian Business  — Canadian Business! —  felt compelled to mention it, calling it the “one trash fish that Pitts hauls ashore in this book.” (The Irvings, the fools, were the only Atlantic businesspeople who didn’t speak with Pitts, so come in for the closest he gets to criticism — which is not very close.)

Pitts opens the Irving chapter (“K.C. and the Sunshine Band”) with Saint John city council caving to “pressure tactics used by Irving Oil to extract a long-term municipal tax break for its latest mega-project,” the Canaport LNG terminal, a joint venture between Irving and the Spanish petrochemical company Repsol SA.

Tall, coolly handsome Kenneth Irving, head of Irving Oil, negotiated:

…a 25-year tax bill of $500,000 annually, with no inflation indexing, on a terminal project whose value would otherwise yield $3 million to $5 million a year for the city.

In poverty-afflicted Saint John, that amounts to a potential $60 million to $100 million in lost revenue over 25 years.

Canaport LNG terminal, Saint John, NB

Canaport LNG terminal, Saint John, NB. (CBC photo)

Tax reductions aren’t unusual for the Irvings, for whom death may be inevitable, but taxes, not so much (Pitts remarks elsewhere that patriarch K.C. Irving was “never a lover of the Canadian tax system” and “left Canada in 1974 for the Bahamas and later Bermuda” to avoid them), but even by Irving standards, this one was a humdinger.

As noted, Pitts’ book was published in 2005, so doesn’t reveal what Saint John residents would discover in 2015, thanks to a tax court case; namely, that Irving not only out-negotiated the city, it out-negotiated Repsol. As the CBC explained:

Canaport was built to export natural gas into the United States but while under construction watched helplessly as the United States became self-sufficient in the fuel…in 2013 Repsol wrote off $1.3 billion it invested in the project and the associated Brunswick natural gas pipeline which runs from Canaport to the Maine border.

But Irving was guaranteed a 14% after-tax profit on the project, whether Canaport shipped LNG or not and in 2015, the CBC put the value of this dividend “in excess of $10 million per year.”

And three months after telling the City of Saint John it couldn’t afford to pay full property taxes on Canaport, Irving Oil signed a deal with Repsol that paid it “more than $12 million a year in rent on that land.”

Plus, Irving built a pipeline allowing it to unload crude oil from ships at the LNG wharf, although the property tax arrangement applied “solely for the receiving and containment of liquefied natural gas.”

When all of this was made public, Saint John council voted to ask the provincial government to roll back the tax break — which amounted to a 90% reduction — and lo! and behold, the provincial government did. Saint John seemed poised to collect $8 million in taxes on Canaport in 2017 but before it could, the provincial government slashed its assessment of the property from $299.5 million to $98 million, trimming $5.5 million off Irving’s tax bill in one fell swoop.

“Mind-boggling” was how a Saint John’s councilor who had pushed for an end to the tax deal characterized it.

But for Pitts, it would serve simply as an example of the what brilliant dealmakers, what “tough birds” the Irvings — whom he describes elsewhere as New Brunswick’s “industrial benefactors” — are.

 

Codmothers?

Pitts admits, early on, that the “Codfathers” of the title are all “aging, mostly male chieftains,” and while I do not for a moment imagine that a female Irving, were she to claw her way to the top of the family enterprise, would represent any kind of improvement for the people of New Brunswick, I’m still struck by the faint note of misogyny the author manages to strike whenever he does speak to (or about) a woman.

Not that he often does — his preface includes a list of 77 people he interviewed for his book, precisely seven of whom are women. (I initially thought he’d interviewed eight women, but that was only because I thought Allison McCain was a woman. He is not.) Somehow, this man who has never met a Maritime “titan” he can’t find multiple, positive adjectives for — cerebral, macho, brilliant, unstoppable — loses his thesaurus around women.

Take Verschuren. Her role in the book is purely a supporting one, she’s brought in to bolster the reputations of McKenna and Purdy Crawford, her “mentor,” and yet, Pitts manages to work in the revelation that as a child, she would milk the cows on her family’s North Sydney dairy farm then go to school carrying the aroma cow manure, earning her the nickname “Poopie.” (She’s one of only four people whose nicknames make the book, the others being KC Irving’s sons Greasy, Oily and Gassy.)

Then there’s Bryana Ganong, who, in conversation, exhibits “a reluctance to venture beyond the bland and superficial, which may reflect a nervousness and lack of experience in dealing with the press.” (She’s now president and CEO of the company.)

And what about Julie Gossen, who, when we meet her, is running Canjet for her father, Ken Rowe? Pitts notes that both her brothers work in the business too, but it’s Julie who, “observers” say, “operates on a very short leash from her father.” (Gossen took “early retirement” from IMP, Rowe’s firm, sometime around 2018.)

He’s somewhat kinder to Harrison McCain’s daughter, Laura, described as a “chip off the old block with energy and charisma to burn,” but the story he chooses to tell about her entrepreneurial spirit involves her buying 50,000 pounds of live lobster, only to have half of them succumb to a parasite in the lobster pound. “It was a crushing blow, and Harrison, who supported her ventures, was not happy, but she survived.” (I’ll leave it to you to decide whether having your multi-millionaire father finance your business ventures makes you an “entrepreneur.”)

But Pitts really lays his cards on the table in his discussion of the Olands and the difficulty of convincing “good people” to locate in Saint John:

It may sound sexist, but it is a fact of life: The best candidates are couples with full-time mothers looking after the kids.

That doesn’t “sound” sexist — that is sexist.

 

The Help

But at least there are a few women in Pitts’ account of our region; that’s more than can be said for workers, who are virtually non-existent. Reading this book, you’d think these “titans” of Maritime business had accomplished all their mighty deeds single-handedly — or with the assistance of a few key, C-suite employees.

I can count Pitts’ references to workers on one hand, beginning with the lucky, lucky employees of the first McCain plant in Florenceville New Brunswick. Victims of a desire on the part of young Harrison and Wallace to “make their presence known,” they were paid one week entirely in $2 bills. (I would love to know what kind of nicknames that earned the McCains around town that week. “Poopie” wouldn’t half cover it.)

Harrison and Wallace McCain at the site of the Florenceville factory, 1956.

Harrison and Wallace McCain at the site of the Florenceville factory, 1956.

Ches Penney, one of the few Newfoundlanders included in the book, got a job as a branch manager of a bank but “resented the cheap salary” he felt was no better than that of “a lowly labourer at the local paper mill in Grand Falls,” so he he quit and went into auto parts and supermarkets and construction and oil tankers.

Oh, and then there’s Sean Riley, the former president of St. F.X University who, after a rambling, roundabout, deeply uninteresting career path that involved jobs in politics and banks, bought a cabinet-making company in Montreal where he was forced to deal with “restless unions” and had “labour troubles and lived in fear that he might be in personal danger.”

When Frank McKenna, as premier, was bringing the miracle of call centers to New Brunswick, one of the province’s advantages was its “well-educated people, many of them bilingual; a loyal but underemployed workforce with no place to go and few other income alternatives.”

Pitts apparently interviewed Basil (Buzz) Hargrove, a New Brunswick native and former boss of the Canadian Auto Workers union, but doesn’t actually quote him. Instead, he quotes McKenna saying that when there was “union trouble”:

I’d call Buzz and curse at him, and say, “Listen, you’re going to close this goddam place down.” There’s a brotherhood where we can do that.

(Even the labor leaders are part of the “mafia?”)

Just one businessman, Bernard Imbeault of Pizza Delight and Mikes Restaurants (the only Acadian in the book) bucks this trend. It doesn’t happen until 245 pages in, but Imbeault tells Pitts he is concerned that:

…many founders get too big for their britches; they feel their success is attributable to themselves and not to their workers or community.

Merci, M. Imbeault.

 

Miscellaneous

There’s so much I want to comment on, but I risk writing a review that’s longer than the book itself, so I’m going to do end with a few items I don’t have time to explore at length but want to note:

Stereotypes

The “Codfather” character Pitts paints actually could come from central casting — it’s just the stereotypical direct, plain-spoken, no-nonsense, anything-for-a-buck businessman found literally everywhere in popular culture. The idea that there’s something particularly “Maritime” about loving money more than the air you breath is, frankly, kind of lame.

Entrepreneurship?

Even as he’s lauding the business acumen of the “Atlantic business elite,” Pitts has to acknowledge that John Risley was aided by a “regulatory climate” that was “changing to help an ambitious guy who wanted to consolidate the industry.” Likewise, John Bragg’s investments in cable and internet (he owns Eastlink) are helped by the fact that it’s a regulated industry that limits competition. In fact, stamping out the competition is considered savvy business 101 — Pitts notes in passing that Stellarton, where Sobeys is headquartered, used to have a dozen grocery stores on its main street. And literally all these rugged individualists are happy to accept government largesse (even the ones who claim to hate it) whether they need it or not. As Pitts puts it, in the Maritimes, there is generally a government ready to pay you to do something you were planning to do anyway.

Simple life

Can we put to bed once and for all the notion that there is something admirable about living “modestly” when you run a business that, to borrow a phrase from Matt Taibbi, attaches itself to your home province like a vampire squid, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money?

"One Hell of a Ride" by John Lawrence Reynolds

My next read?

This would be true even if any of these people actually lived “modestly, but what passes for modesty in these circles includes getting your new car dirty so people won’t notice you have a new car, driving a Jaguar instead of a Rolls-Royce and settling for four homes in-province instead of owning homes in other countries. (Ken Rowe, president of IMP, which is involved in a lot of things but chiefly aircraft repair and maintenance, takes this line of thinking to absurd levels, wanting Pitts to understand that while he doesn’t live extravagantly — although he is the one with the four homes in Nova Scotia and since the book was written seems to have purchased one in Florida — he could.)

There is nothing particularly admirable about living like you’re the last Viceroy of India either, although it will make for good television when this book is adapted. My favorite example has to be that of Craig Dobbin, the Newfoundland helicopter magnate, who, in the mid-’90s, found himself in need of a lung. Lungs being in “short supply and heavy demand” and “not all hospitals” being willing to “perform the procedure for someone in his early 60s,” Dobbin and his wife Elaine hatched a plan:

He would set himself up in a geographically central place, from which he could easily reach as many of the U.S. transplant hospitals as possible. He chose Birmingham, Alabama, and put himself on the waiting list in 16 hospitals, all of which he could reach by air within two hours — the minimum for status a s a preferred “local patient.” Equipped with a leased Gulfstream Jet and a team of pilots, he rented two little houses near the Bessemer airfield in Birmingham, one for himself (at $3,500 a month) and one for his rotation of four pilots.

Then he and his wife sat and waited. Well, not exactly — he actually, at one point, flew to his vacation house in Florida, where he got a false alarm about a potential lung, which made him sad, so he got drunk to drown his sorrows, then he got an actual call about a lung in Philadelphia, and so flew off, half-cut, for his transplant.

A terrible reflection on the American medical system, but great television. I’d spend a good part of the episode telling the stories of all the other people in Philadelphia on that waiting list for a lung.

Mr. Clean

Purdy Crawford, the corporate lawyer described as the “conscience” of Canadian business, was a director of Imasco, the Montreal-based holding company “for a big slice of the Canadian economy, including Imperial Tobacco of Canada.” Pitts’ attempt to put lipstick on this pig is worth a mention:

It seems odd that Purdy Crawford, the Mr. Clean of the Canadian corporate world, would have thrown his lot in with a company that has taken such a heavy toll on Canadians’ health and public finance. But his association was a long one, back to when cigarette smoking was not a big issue. Indeed, he joined the company’s board just as it faced a crisis: The U.S. Surgeon General’s report linked smoking with cancer, which led CEO Paul Paré to embark on a major diversification program to lessen Imasco’s dependency on tobacco.

How can Crawford’s involvement with Imperial Tobacco pre-date the period when smoking was considered a problem if he joined the board the year the US Surgeon General linked smoking to cancer? Rather than answer this, Pitts, as he often does when faced with two contradictory statements of his own composition, simply shrugs and walks away, saying that cigarette sales continued to grow throughout the ’70s and ’80s and Imasco used the profits to diversify its product line, before selling its Imperial Tobacco stake to British Imperial Tobacco in 2000.

Worth noting: Imperial Tobacco of Canada was one of three tobacco companies — the others being JTI-Macdonald Corp. and Rothmans, Benson & Hedges — fined $15 billion in 2019 as a result of a class action suit pursued by 100,000 Quebec smokers. A Quebec Superior Court Justice ruled in favor of two groups representing smokers who’d become addicted or ill, saying the companies didn’t warn their customers about the dangers of smoking. The case involves plaintiffs who began smoking before January 1976 and others who began after, which means, while Crawford was on the Imasco board.

Sadly, Mr. Clean didn’t live to see the decision. He died in 2014.

Poppy Bush

George Bush Sr pops up a couple of times in this book — actually, he pops up and he falls down. In his chapter on Newfoundland, Pitts recounts that Craig Dobbin, he of the American lung, “created more value after the transplant than before,” returning to both his work and his hobbies full bore. His hobbies included “regular mid-June jaunts to the best salmon fishing streams in eastern North America,” and he brought along “a varied bunch of fishing pals,” including:

…the former president of the United States, George Bush Sr., who fell and almost drowned as a guest of Dobbin in the early 90s.

Pitts doesn’t explain how Dobbin met Bush (let alone how Bush almost drowned) but in 2018, when Barbara Bush died, the CBC published a story about her friendship with Elaine Dobbin, noting that:

Craig Dobbin and George Bush first met in Newfoundland, in 1988, said Elaine Dobbin. Brian Mulroney, who was prime minister at the time, contacted Craig Dobbin and asked if he’d consider inviting George Bush on a fishing trip.

That began a tradition of annual trips for the two men, both on the island and in Labrador.

Barbara and George Bush Sr.

Actual caption for this photo: “Just for the fun of it, the Bushes had their own mock Summer Olympics in 2004. Here they compete in the hotly contested Segway race, won by Mrs. Bush.” (Office of George Bush)

Bush was also a fishing buddy of Ron Joyce, who:

…met George Bush Sr. at the first McKenna conference and has gone fishing with him two or three times, including a high-security excursion at Hilton Head, North Carolina, right after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001.

The morning of 9/11, Bush Sr famously attended the Carlyle Group’s annual investors’ conference in Washington, D.C., as did his longtime business associate Shafiq bin Laden, one of Osama’s many brothers

McKenna also has Carlyle Group connections, having served as an “adviser” on the Canadian board of what even Pitts terms the “controversial U.S. private equity giant that has served as a retirement home for former government heavyweights.” When Bush Sr died in 2018, McKenna told CTV that his wife was friends with Barbara Bush and that Bush Sr had also become friends with John Bragg.

This will all be tied together in the heavily conspiracy-laden episode of the television adaptation.

Cape Breton connection

The owner of the Cape Breton Eagles turns up late in the “Codfathers,” and his experience growing up in Cape Breton is used not to bolster but to counterbalance Pitts’ whole “mafia” theory.

Irwin Simon is included in a chapter called “Life Among the Up-Alongs.” (Pitts claims “up-alongs” is an East Coast way of referring to people who have left the region and I dearly hope this is because there’s an East Coaster somewhere in his circle who keeps feeding him stuff like that — “You know, Gordon, in Newfoundland, they call shoes ‘foot houses’ but in PEI they’re called ‘feet boxes.'”)

“In truth,” writes Pitts:

…a lot of people have very mixed feelings about their past in the East. Irwin Simon often thinks about his Maritimes roots as he wanders his neighbourhood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where he lives with his wife and four children. As he takes his kids to private school, he knows that the annual tuition for each of them is more than his father would make in one year as a grocer in the Cape Breton coal mining town of Glace Bay…

Although Simon worries that his children “are missing out on the values of a real world, where community and family were more important than money,” he has “no illusions,” about his childhood in Glace Bay where it was hard growing up Jewish and he “got chased home” and “called names” because of it. Simon also says he had to leave the Maritimes to succeed, he doesn’t hang out with East Coast businesspeople and his bachelor’s degree from “an obscure East Coast university” (St. Mary’s) “probably hasn’t helped him” in “credential-obsessed US business circles.”

Joe Shannon “an industrial power in Cape Breton, has a lot of fans.” (Literally, that is all Pitts wrote about Shannon, without giving any hint as to who his fans are or why they are fans.)

And finally — as in, on the very last pages of the book, pages given over to a “Who’s Who in the Atlantic Canadian Mafia,” Bernd Christmas makes a list of “New Faces,” and the only lawyer in Sydney, Jim Gogan, makes a list of “Key Consiglieri” (the term for an adviser to the mafia) his mafia being Sobeys.

I can whole-heartedly recommend The Codfathers for anyone in need of a coming-out-of-lockdown laugh. Based on the number of times my library copy has been borrowed — nine since 2008, including by me — I suspect many of you have yet to read it. That’s not really surprising, Pitts’ intended audience is clearly not Atlantic Canadians.

I’m also open to anyone who would like to discuss adapting it for television. I have lots of ideas.

And I would like to thank the spectator who recommended I read it — you have given me the gift of laughter.

Featured image: Cover of The Codfathers and photo of author Gordon Pitts.