PEI

Minister says Islanders will have to ask for controversial IRAC report through Freedom of Information

The P.E.I. government will not release a report by the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission on a controversial 2019 corporate land transaction involving a member of the Irving family, P.E.I. Minister of Agriculture and Land Bloyce Thompson said in a written release Friday. 

Strict corporate land ownership limits on P.E.I. are at the heart of the controversy

Agriculture and Land Minister Bloyce Thompson says P.E.I.'s privacy commissioner advised against releasing the IRAC report to the public. (Stephanie Brown/CBC)

The P.E.I. government will not release a report by the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission on a controversial 2019 corporate land transaction involving a member of the Irving family, P.E.I. Minister of Agriculture and Land Bloyce Thompson said in a written release Friday. 

Thompson had said last October he hoped to make the report public if the privacy commissioner gave him the green light. 

"The Information and Privacy Commissioner recommends that any disclosure of this IRAC report be dealt with under the access to information process pursuant to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act," Thompson said in Friday's statement.

"We will allow this process to proceed, and will not release the IRAC report except in accordance with this statutory process."

In other words, if Islanders want to know what's in the report, they have to file a Freedom of Information request — what journalists refer to as a "FOIPP." Under the process, the government may choose to redact or black out what it considers sensitive or proprietary information.

CBC News has already filed a request for the report.

"Although it was frustrating that we couldn't release the IRAC report immediately, our government will follow due process," Thompson's statement said. 

2,200 acres in Summerside area

At the centre of the controversy is 2,200 acres of land in the area of Summerside and North Bedeque that had belonged to a family-owned farming operation, purchased in June 2019 by Haslemere Farms, which listed Rebecca Irving as its director. Haslemere Farms has since changed its name to Red Fox Acres. 

A previous attempt to purchase the same land had involved several corporations with connections to the Irvings, and failed to receive the necessary cabinet approval.

But in the Haslemere Farms/Red Fox Acres transaction, Thompson said the transfer had not been put before cabinet for approval. He asked IRAC to investigate, and vowed to close "loopholes" in the Lands Protection Act, legislation that sets limits on individual and corporate land ownership on P.E.I.

Thompson issued a written statement Oct. 27, 2020, saying the investigation had found "there are reasonable and probable grounds that two individuals and the corporation involved contravened the Lands Protection Act by having aggregate land holdings in excess of the prescribed limits."

Thompson's October statement went on to say: "The involved parties have received correspondence from government asking them to divest land and become compliant with the Lands Protection Act within 120 days." However, the statement did not disclose who the involved parties are. 

Under the Lands Protection Act, individuals are limited to owning 1,000 acres of land. For corporations, the limit is 3,000. With allowances for leased and non-arable land, those limits increase to 1,900 acres for individuals and 5,700 acres for corporations.

The act also includes measures 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. 

In November 2020, Rebecca Irving applied to P.E.I.'s supreme court, asking it to quash the October decision by the province. 

Because the matter is now before the courts, Thompson said he would have no further comment.

Opposition Green Party MLA Michele Beaton immediately criticized Thompson's refusal to release the report, and said she would be filing an official FOIPP request. 

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