P.E.I.'s minister of justice says a corporation with ties to the Irving family is in compliance with the province's limits on land ownership, even though that corporation has not sold land acquired in a controversial land transfer in 2019 after a divestiture order from the minister the following year.
During question period in the P.E.I. legislature Tuesday, Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker questioned why all the parcels of land involved in a controversial land transfer in 2019 are still owned by the same corporation. That information was published Saturday by the Charlottetown Guardian.
"The cloudy web of convoluted corporations that is the Irving empire has yet to divest the 2,200 acres that have become known notoriously as Brendel Farms," Bevan-Baker said.
"Red Fox Acres, an Irving corporation, still owns that land and leases it out to Lady Slipper Farms Ltd., a New Brunswick corporation owned by, yes, you guessed it, the same Irving family member as Red Fox Acres."
Corporate records in New Brunswick list Rebecca Irving as the sole director of Lady Slipper Farms Ltd. P.E.I. records list her as one of three directors and three shareholders in Red Fox Acres Ltd.
"In other words, the Irvings are leasing out the land to themselves," Bevan-Baker said.
Minister vowed to 'close loopholes' in Act
P.E.I.'s Lands Protection Act places limits on the amount of land individuals and corporations can control.
In August 2019, Justice Minister Bloyce Thompson vowed to close any loopholes in the Lands Protection Act and ordered the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission to investigate after a transfer of land from Brendel Farms involving 890 hectares in the Summerside and North Bedeque areas went ahead without going before cabinet for approval. It was acquired by Haslemere Farms, which later changed its name to Red Fox Acres.
In October 2020, Thompson said a report from the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission (IRAC) had concluded a company and two individuals had contravened the Lands Protection Act by having too much land.
Thompson said he asked the parties involved to divest of the extra land within 120 days.
Since then, Rebecca Irving and Red Fox Acres have both asked P.E.I.'s Supreme Court to nullify the minister's decision.
Rebecca Irving is a member of the larger Irving family, which has multiple corporate interests including Cavendish Farms Ltd.
Lands Protection Act 2.0
Last fall, after a review and consultation process, Premier Dennis King's government implemented a suite of changes to the Lands Protection Act.
They were meant, in part, to make it easier to police P.E.I.'s land ownership limits — particularly measures meant to prevent corporations "directly or indirectly controlled by the same person, group or organization" from stacking up land limits in order to control more land.
Those changes came into effect April 1, and Thompson said on Tuesday that under the revised law, "I'm prepared to see that going forward and hope that this never happens again."
Thompson didn't provide an answer when Bevan-Baker asked him in the legislature whether "the Irvings are still within their landholding limits."
Later, he told reporters that IRAC had advised him in February 2021 "that the corporation had come in compliance."
Thompson said the corporation was able to become compliant with P.E.I.'s land limits by means of a global lease.
Act allows leasing
Under the Lands Protection Act, corporations can discount up to 1,500 acres of arable land from their holdings if that land is leased out, with the land counting against the limit of the party leasing it.
But the act also seeks to prevent multiple corporations under the same control from stacking land limits together.
Asked whether Red Fox Acres was able to become compliant by leasing out land to a corporation also under the control of Rebecca Irving, Thompson said, "I can only go by what IRAC, the regulator, tells me. And they said yes."
"My hands are tied and it's frustrating that they were able to do this," he said.
But Bevan-Baker said the minister has more power to enact change than he seems to realize.
More transparency urged
The most important change, Bevan-Baker suggested, would be to increase transparency so Islanders have a better idea what's happening and what effect the changes to the Lands Protection Act might have.
The Official Opposition has asked for the minister to release the advice cabinet received from IRAC on the matter, and to publish the divestiture schedule it approved.
It also noted that IRAC's report on its investigation of the Brendel Farms sale has been tied up in back-to-back privacy reviews since the fall of 2020 without being released to the public.
"I know the minister's frustrated, but my goodness, Islanders are frustrated. This has been cloaked in secrecy for, you know, well over two years now," said Bevan-Baker.
"He has the power to do things here to create confidence for Islanders that we do know whether this will ever happen again. You can't just say 'This will never happen again' and not provide us the information so we can actually assess for ourselves and hold government to account."