Book Review: The Fisher Kings

Canadian Business reviews The Codfathers: Lessons from the Atlantic Business Elite.

Sure, the arch-anglo Upper Canadian surnames Thomson and Weston appear (again) in spots one and two on our Canadian Business Rich 100. But energy-challenged Ontario is in decline and the huge levels of oil wealth piling up in Alberta suggest power in this country is going to shift over to the left side of the map in the coming years.

Or has it already shifted the other way? It's now clear that a secret network lurks deep in the social structure of this country–an organization that has successfully extended its influence into the corporate boardrooms of the nation and the halls of Parliament, and that may someday even find its way into the Prime Minister's Office. And it comes from the East.

That's the lesson, anyway, in a new book by veteran Canadian business journalist Gordon Pitts, The Codfathers: Lessons from the Atlantic Business Elite, (Key Porter; $38.95).

As the title suggests, there's a Maritime Mafia on the loose in this country. It includes such imposing names as the Irving and the McCain families, of course, but they are just the tip of this Labradorian iceberg. Other members of the cabal include John Risley of Clearwater Seafoods, Ron Joyce of Tim Hortons fame, and Nova Scotian John Bragg, operator of a massive blueberry production ring. Also in on the deal are Richard Currie, the well-respected former manager of Loblaws; Purdy Crawford, who maintains his cover as the governance guru of Bay Street; and the ceremonial kingfish of the clan, Frank McKenna, Canadian ambassador to Washington and an oft-mentioned replacement for Paul Martin.

These Codfathers have long tentacles, matey–but there's not much fishy about their success. According to Pitts, the pearl they share is the blunt, tell-it-like-it-is attitude of the East Coast. This is especially true in the case of McKenna, who has impressed Americans with his defence of Canadian interests in the U.S., where direct, forthright discussion is highly respected.

So where do you go to ask a favour of a Codfather? Try any one of their fishing lodges on the Restigouche River, or the stunning 1,000 acres of reclaimed swampland that make up Fox Harb'r Golf Resort & Spa, a Joyce-built bit of luxury that might be considered the Codfathers' informal headquarters. In fact, it was at Fox Harb'r that former U.S. president Bill Clinton spoke to the group in person. Clinton is a favourite of the Codfathers. After all, like them, he managed to scramble his way to the top of the North American economy from Arkansas, another economically challenged area. A Codfather always respects that kind of thing.

If there is one trash fish that Pitts hauls ashore in this book, it's a deal struck between Irving Oil and the city of Saint John, N.B., that will see taxes capped at $500,000 for the 25 years on an LNG terminal Irving is building there. Some have complained Saint John city council is giving the surf 'n' turf buffet away for free–inflation will begin to tip that deal in favour of Irving from Day 2–but you didn't hear it here. We don't want to end up sleeping with the fishes, do we?