Land Transactions: Government must exercise its people-given authority

By Douglas Campbell
District Director of the National Farmers Union

The National Farmers Union (NFU), like many other Islanders is still in shock after seeing the Irving family name on yet another land transfer. Rebecca Irving, the young daughter of Mary Jean Irving was able to put more PEI land under the Irving name. No one would dare suggest that Ms Irving’s newly crafted corporation, Red Fox Acres, is connected to Irving corporate empire.

In PEI, people have become accustomed to silence about how the Irving family has gained such wide ranging control. Some people are even afraid to speak out. That is understandable. However what is not understandable and very disheartening to watch is the apparent powerlessness of the PEI Government to exercise its authority in the face of corporate power.

The NFU has emphasized the need to place emphasis on enforcing the “protection” aspect of the Lands Protection Act, i.e, its spirit & intent. The loopholes in the Act have served the interests of the Irvings and others in the corporate sector. We have also warned about the lack of transparency in the MacLauchlan government’s Business Corporation Act. This act received unanimous support from all MLAs in June, 2018).

It is significant that when the Irving corporations, in their varied combinations, were no longer allowed to use the Lands Protection Act loophole, they found an open door in some provisions of the Business Corporation Act. The 2,200 acres to which they wanted titled ownership suddenly became the property of a newly formed corporation. Then an Irving family member, under the Business Corporation Act, was able to buy this new corporation and its assets aka, the 2,200 acres. All legal, they say.

Governments of the past did not display a simple deficiency of political will to protect the resources and life sources of PEI. Rather what they have displayed is a distorted political will to openly serve the interests of corporations. Do they think that the people do not see this? It is common to hear people say that it is corporations which run PEI, not government.

It is our belief any government which lurks behind the veil of powerlessness is unworthy to govern. This is an opportunity for a new government to take a different path to protect the Island, its land/water and its people. Our message to the current PEI Government is that you have the authority to make legislation. Now use it. You have the authority to replace any legislation or articles of legislation to protect the interests of Islanders. Now do it. You have the authority to declare null and void the latest Irving acquisition (and maybe some former ones). Now do it.

The NFU would like to see the Honourable Bloyce Thompson take a stronger stand against the latest Irving acquisition. He is not only minister responsible for agriculture and lands but also as Attorney General is the overseer of all legislation. Minister Thompson must be seen to take control of the situation. The same goes for Premier King, who in the fever of the election campaign vowed to make open and transparent the workings of the Business Corporation Act and its Regulations. Open and transparent government was his pledge to Island voters. We are still waiting to see the openness and transparency.

Do We Want to be Irving Islanders?

By Douglas Campbell, District Director of the National Farmers Union

The National Farmers Union is shocked beyond belief that the Irving Corporation has found a way to access the 2,200 acres of prime Island farm land they coveted. It seems that the Irvings, by whatever corporate designation they choose, have worked hand in hand with their accomplices, to find a loophole to circumvent the PEI Lands Protection Act. This latest acquisition goes against the earlier recommendation of IRAC, and the decision of the PEI Government to deny the Irvings that specific land purchase.

This latest legal scheme is a bold announcement that the Irvings will stop at nothing to own the Island’s primary resource of land and indirectly water; and as such, control the potato industry in the province – to the determent of independent farmers and all Islanders.

This recent land transaction is, to date, their loudest public proclamation of their contempt of the spirit and intent of the 1982 Lands Protection Act that was put in place to enable Islanders to protect our land from corporate and foreign ownership, as well as, to ensure the livelihood of independent farmers.

Geoffrey Connolly, who is a Haslemere Farms representative (the newly formed corporation that obtained the land), is referenced by Stu Neatby in the Guardian of Monday, August 13 giving details of how the deal was done. The lawyer, a partner of the Charlottetown law firm Stewart McKelvey, indicates that the transaction was allowed due to a “loophole” in the Lands Protection Act. This is one of a number of loopholes in the Act about which the NFU has written and spoken at every opportunity. Lawyers and accountants have eagerly and profitably searched these out over the years. Previous governments have willingly turned a blind eye.  Apparently the current government was caught unaware of this latest strategy by the Irving family.

This breach of the Act through the selling of a corporation, which holds the land assets, rather than a straight land transaction, puts the Island in a precarious position.  If allowed to be finalized it further opens the Island to the world wide land grab that is making land a commodity in the power games of corporations and financial elites. This is far bigger than the Irving’s getting another 2,200 acres to add to their already “over the limits” Island land stock. If the Island government doesn’t act swiftly and with conviction to prevent this deal, the very future of the control of our land is at stake. We are in a deep crisis.

The Island government is not helpless. The government can do something in this instance. The agriculture minister, Bloyce Thompson, has the power to deem what a corporation is, and whether Haslemere Farms is an ‘interlocking” corporation connected with J.D Irving Limited.  He has power to protect the very future of this province. The government can move to repeal Wade McLaughlin’s work of replacing the Companies Act with the Corporate Business Directory that allows corporate shareholders not to be named. They can move to tighten the Lands Protection Act so that its spirit and intent is honoured.  Every elected member of the legislature needs to get immediately invested in the welfare of our primary resource. Prove you are as smart and diligent as those who are attempting to undermine the very fabric of this province. Prove that you do stand for Islanders and that you have a real commitment to honour the spirit and intent of the Lands Protection Act.

As Islanders, we all need to take a stand for our land and for the future of every Islander. The Irvings have once again snubbed their noses at the PEI Government. They also make it clear that they have little respect for the residents of Prince Edward Island. We must join together to make our voices heard about the future of PEI lands. How the land is owned, controlled, and used has a deep impact on all of us. We are facing serious consequences if we remain silent now. Future generations will judge us if we do not speak up against the current and ongoing violations of the spirit and intent of the Lands Protection Act.

Who is Afraid of the Irvings?

By Douglas Campbell
District Director of the National Farmers Union

 

The National Farmers Union (NFU) has been waiting, not always patiently, to hear the newly elected Progressive Conservative Government distancing itself from corporate sector control. We heard some brave language during the election campaign and even in the Speech from the Throne. The NFU and many other Islanders understood those statements to mean that the time of the Irving’s free-rein on land control is over. We are hopeful that this government will act on their intentions and promises. It will make a big change when all MLAs have the opportunity to receive orientation on the Lands Protection Act especially if that is designed by IRAC which is the group which has the deepest knowledge of the Act.

We hear repeated the tiresome and exasperating expression. “But the Irvings have contributed so much to the PEI economy”. The NFU dares to wonder about this belief. There are of course signs of a growth in GDP and that is for many reasons. However GDP is a very narrow and misleading measurement of how well we are doing. For sure the Irvings are doing well for themselves. Farmers not so well. And the land is paying the price.

The NFU contends that fear is behind every politicians’ veiled protection of the Irving interests. The corporation’s not-so-veiled threats nourish this fear. Elected officials seem to believe that if PEI doesn’t fall in line, the Irvings will take their business elsewhere.

This threat, having been expressed so many times in our history, is part of our cultural baggage and does not even require repeating to take its effect. Interestingly, the threat was the backdrop of the formulation of the Lands Protection Act in 1982 as the Irvings had been making it clear that they wanted and expected more PEI land. The restriction to 3000 acres meant that the corporation at that time was even required to divest of thousands of acres.

In 1999, it was deemed that Irvings owned or controlled 5,600 acres of land on P.E.I. The provincial cabinet at that time set a schedule for divestment of the company’s holdings to bring it into compliance with the Lands Protection Act. The government of the day had the courage to ignore threats. Then in 2008, the government put before the courts the acreage of Island Holdings, a major Irving-owned corporation. Island Holdings was found in violation of the Lands Protection Act,was fined and ordered to divest.

Now, almost 20 years into the 21st century, people are seeing clearly that PEI lands need protection like never before. Now is a time to take brave new steps. Politicians need to step up and establish and uphold the true spirit and intent of the Lands Protection Act. The intention of the Act was, and still is, to maintain farm land in the control of Island farm families. This is far beyond mere political declarations. This means changing the whole game plan of how agriculture is organized in PEI. It means reclaiming the land. It means taking already destroyed land (and there is a lot of it) out of production. It means making good land available for family-controlled production. It means breaking with a belief that corporate-minded law firms are the protectors of the land.

The National Farmers Union message to the current Government, including all MLAs is: “You are the persons whom Islanders elected to take on your foremost and crucial responsibility to ensure the protection of PEI lands. There is no time or place for fear. Jelly fish belong in the sea; not in the legislature or around the Cabinet table. Current and future generations will judge you on how well you have managed those lands that are under your care”.

P.E.I. Land Transfers: It’s All Political

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.

Loopholes Unlimited

By Edith Ling, Women’s District Director of the National Farmers Union and a member of the Coalition for the Protection of PEI Land.

The Lands Protection Act was passed in this province in 1982 to prevent a large corporation of the day from amassing large tracts of land. In fact, this large corporation and a few others were forced to divest themselves of some land in order to comply with the Act. Individuals could own 1,000 acres of land and corporations were allowed to own 3,000 acres. When the Act was drafted, a corporation was considered to be family members, for example three brothers farming together or a similar combination of family members. Three individuals with 1,000 acres each added up to the 3,000 acreage limit for a corporation. We still have the Lands Protection Act in force today, so what has changed? Continue reading