Potential Irving influence over fate of N.B. Museum worries observers

The New Brunswick Museum collections centre on Douglas Avenue in Saint John was the public face of the institution when it opened in the 1930s. (Julia Wright/CBC News - image credit)
The New Brunswick Museum collections centre on Douglas Avenue in Saint John was the public face of the institution when it opened in the 1930s. (Julia Wright/CBC News - image credit)

Green Party Leader David Coon is worried that legislation proposed by the provincial government will eliminate checks and balances that are usually built into Crown construction.

He's also worried it might open the door to conditions placed on private-sector contributions to the construction of a new New Brunswick Museum in Saint John.

Former Saint John mayor Don Darling echoed Coon's concerns about private-sector influence, particularly from the Irvings.

Coon said philanthropic donations are normal — even "integral" — for projects of this magnitude across the country.

He said he hopes the Irvings contribute to the project — he just doesn't want any strings attached to any potential contribution.

"No one should be holding out for anything in return, in terms of how the building is designed or where it's sited or any of those things."

Ed Hunter/CBC
Ed Hunter/CBC

The issue surfaced last week, when the government announced legislation that would give the museum's board of directors "the authority to manage the design and construction of the museum's new home in Saint John."

The government is selling the plan as "empowering" the board of directors to build a new facility, but some see it as off-loading the responsibility.

Darling wonders if board members are even qualified to take on the responsibility.

Coon worries about the implications of the process going ahead as a non-government work project.

"My concern is that it removes the checks and balances that are in place for large construction projects that are undertaken by government."

He said those measures, outlined in the Crown Construction Contracts Act, ensure there's no political interference, and that the tendering process for products, material and contractors is done fairly "without any favouritism."

'Epic failure'

Darling said the provincial government's handling of the New Brunswick Museum and its future has been "an epic failure."

He said there's been little talk about the future of the museum for the last four years, with "no public engagement on the file, and now we're being told the only way going forward, it sounds like, is to do a private-sector deal."

Tourism, Heritage and Culture Minister Tammy Scott-Wallace said government has had 44 different versions of a new museum in Saint John over the last 30 years but was never able to "get it over the finish line" because of the cost, magnitude and complexity of the project.

Government of New Brunswick
Government of New Brunswick

"And the one thing that characterizes them all," said Coon, "it's been done behind closed doors, shrouded in darkness and lots of secrecy going on around it. So we need to throw the shades open, throw the windows up."

Most recently, a proposal to expand the museum's Douglas Avenue building was abandoned in 2015 amid concerns from neighbours about the integrity of nearby Riverview Park, which is owned by the city and covered by the Heritage Construction Area Bylaw.

Then, a plan to build a $100 million structure on the old coast guard site uptown seemed a certainty with a promise of $50 million from the Liberal government of Brian Gallant in 2018.

When Blaine Higgs became premier later that year, that promise was revoked, a move described by the museum's then-CEO Bill Hicks as a "punch in the gut."

Since then, concerns about the museum's Douglas Avenue building have grown, and the museum recently had to close its exhibit space in Market Square and put the collection displayed there into storage.

Minister won't elaborate on private possibilities

Scott-Wallace said the legislation will allow the museum board to "partner with private businesses or organizations" as the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton does.

"We know there's high, high interest in the New Brunswick Museum and getting this over the finish line, and this really gets us to the finish line the fastest," she said.

She said government anticipates "a lot of interest and support for this project," but she wouldn't say whether there were private partners already willing to get involved.

Like Coon, Darling also suggested the Irvings are interested.

Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

On Twitter, he wrote, "The worst-kept secret in town is that negotiations continue with large local industrialists that a donation would be made if the museum is built meeting their terms."

Darling said the public should be consulted about the future of the museum.

"My personal view is that the Irvings have too much influence in this province and on this particular file shouldn't get to decide the museum's future by themselves," Darling told Information Morning Saint John.

During debate on the bill In the legislature, Coon said, "Mr. Irving didn't think it was a good idea to have a museum on the waterfront. Perhaps Mr. Irving thought that the waterfront should be just for for-profit businesses."

Coon later clarified that it was J.K. Irving, the owner of J.D. Irving Ltd., he was referring to. JDI was asked for comment on Monday morning, but had not provided one by publication time.

Neither Coon nor Darling elaborated on what they thought Irving might have in mind for the museum.

Graphic based on Service New Brunswick information
Graphic based on Service New Brunswick information

Darling thinks the provincial government should be more transparent about its plan — if there is one – to include money from private companies.

"If that is the path we're gonna go down, wouldn't we invite anyone from all over Canada to invest in our new museum?" he said of the move to get the private sector involved.

"Why is it always one industrial family in town with legislative advantages, tax advantages, you know, taxpayers money to fund and move their businesses forward?

"Maybe that is a great plan, but a deal made between a few people in a backroom is not good governance," said Darling.

Board members won't talk

About half the museum board's regular number of seats are unfilled at present, and no members who were contacted would agree to be interviewed.

In an emailed statement sent Friday on behalf of the board, chair Kathryn Hamer said "we are encouraged by the proposed amendments to the Act introduced on November 15, which will empower the Board to oversee construction of a new facility in Saint John.

"As the Bill moves through the usual legislative process, we will follow its progress with great interest. Once it has passed the committee stage, and we have had an opportunity to review the amendments in their final form, we will be able to comment further."

Scott-Wallace's office was asked to clarify the process and provide more information, including  whether the Irvings have expressed interest in being involved, but no one responded by publication time.