Guest Opinion – Charlottetown Guardian, April 15, 2019
By Douglas Campbell and Edith Ling
The National Farmers Union (NFU) has heard the Hon. Richard Brown’s repeated declarations that the government decisions on land transfers are “not political.”
However, this is P.E.I. With our history of rampant political suspicions, it is natural to believe that a major decision made just before the 2019 election campaign may, in fact, be quite political. It is also natural to wonder why a politician needs to say so forcefully and so often that “it is not political.”
On the very day the premier “dropped the writ” (March 26, 2019), executive council had denied the application of a cluster of Irving companies to purchase 2,200 acres in the Bedeque area. This should have calmed the concerned Island residents (aka voters) that the P.E.I. government is indeed upholding the spirit and the letter of the Lands Protection Act. In ordinary circumstances, this is a “good news” story.
Of course, we should always expect, and not just at election time, that the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission (IRAC) would recommend the denial of an application of this cluster of companies controlled by the same corporate family. And we should expect the premier and his cabinet to deny this proposed unlawful transfer of land. Compliance with the Lands Protection Act demanded this because the act states the following: “for the purposes of this Act, a corporation and other corporations directly or indirectly controlled by the same person, group or organization shall be deemed to be one corporation.” (section 1 (d)).
It is clear in the Lands Protection Act that the “one corporation” can have ownership of no more than 3,000 acres of arable land. Many Island residents know that the same “family, group or organization” seems to be able to form many interlocking corporations. Using this mechanism, they can take control of large acreages. It appears as though the P.E.I. government, through executive council, has sanctioned what appears to many people to be violations of the act.
On the same day as the denial of the Irving cluster application, executive council approved the application of another Irving corporation, Island Holdings Ltd. The acquisition was 100.25 acres. The directors of Island Holdings Ltd. are Robert K. Irving and James K. Irving. It is noted that another Irving Company, Grand Forest Holdings, Inc. of Saint John, N.B. is a shareholder in Island Holdings. It is interesting that Island Holdings was the Irving-owned corporation which was found in violation of the Lands Protection Act in 2008. They were required to divest and pay a modest fine. At that time, investigators pointed out that it was difficult to judge Irving’s compliance because of the company’s complicated system of sub-leasing farmland. That remains a challenge eleven years later.
The National Farmers Union indicates that we are using the example of the Irvings because their control seems to be so wide-ranging. There are other corporations under our scrutiny. We insist that the government, which will be elected on April 23, must immediately establish a third-party investigative team to examine and report publicly on past approvals of land acquisitions with special attention to interlocking corporations. We expect this third party to set up a mechanism for ongoing monitoring of the recommendations of IRAC and the decisions of the executive council. Above all, we want farmers and all Islanders to be knowledgeable and on the alert.