Calling for an Independent Review of Land Holdings and Transfers

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by Douglas Campbell

May 3, 2017

Published in the Charlottetown Guardian

The National Farmers Union (NFU) has continuously raised the alarm in public about the conditions in which PEI land is being transferred. We therefore welcomed the announcement of the Minister of Communities, Land and Environment, the Honourable Richard Brown, that he is initiating a review of non-resident and corporate land holdings. However, we have serious concerns about the Minister putting this task into the hands of the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission (IRAC).

The NFU understands and appreciates IRAC and its role to provide advice and recommendations to the Executive Council (the Cabinet) on all matters relating to the Lands Protection Act. IRAC receives all applications for land transfer to which the Lands Protection Act apply and recommend to the Cabinet either a denial or approval.

In our dealings over the years with IRAC, we take for granted the integrity of the Commission. They give as much information as possible to the public. However the NFU believes that because IRAC has authority only as delegated by government, the Commission may not be totally free to do a comprehensive and independent review of how the Lands Protection Act is administered.

It is difficult to understand the intent or scope of the proposed review, given that the Premier, the former Minister of Communities, Lands and Environment and the current Minister have all declared categorically that the letter of the Act is being followed. It would be difficult for IRAC to unearth findings which would contradict these authorities. The NFU even wonders if it is fair, given these circumstances to ask IRAC to perform this task.

The NFU has never claimed that the letter of the Act is violated. It seems, however, that there are loopholes in the Act, which appear to be easily navigated with the help of astute lawyers. The clearest example of a loophole is that a corporation can spawn various other corporations with separate directors, all of which, in reality, remain connected by access to the mother-corporation’s capital assets and management. The community knows that land is being concentrated and placed under the control of fewer and fewer corporations.

Following only the letter of the law is not sufficient for the land situation we are facing. The letter of the law and the spirit of the law must go hand-in-hand. The current proposed investigation concerns only the letter of the law. If we continue to follow only the letter of the law and ignore the spirit, intent, and purpose of the Act, then Island farmland will continue to be sold off to the highest bidder. Now is the time for government to shoulder its responsibility for this. The NFU is looking for real expressions of “political will” to truly protect PEI land according to the intent and spirit of the Lands Protection Act. The buck stops with the Government. The use of loopholes is in violation of the “spirit”, the intent, of the Act.

If we want to know the spirit of the Act we need to go back to its origins. The NFU has talked to key people who were involved in the early development of the Lands Protection Act. They speak clearly about what Premier Angus MacLean and his government intended. The intent, they say, was to keep all Island lands, including the shoreline, woods, and environmentally sensitive land in the hands of Islanders. The hope was that those who gained access to acreage would live on the land and actually farm it. People buying up farm land, and not farming it, are rightly called speculators and “land grabbers”. The original goal was to maintain farmland in responsible farming. The intent was to keep the land intact for future generations. Acreage limits were meant to serve this intent. The current excessive accumulation of land under one capital source definitely contravenes the spirit of the Lands Protection Act.

There is a central phrase in the Act, “steadfast stewardship”. Some may think this is referring only to land use practices; however in the context of the original intent it means maintaining a watchful eye and responsible policies so that land will be here and be protected not just for the few, but for the many, in the far-reaching future.

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