IRAC report, obtained by subpoena, leads to single recommendation to change Lands Protection Act
Committee reviewed report in closed meetings, and will now hand it over to a second committee
The committee of MLAs that issued a rare subpoena to a P.E.I. cabinet minister demanding he hand over a report delving into a controversial land transaction has made a single recommendation to change P.E.I.'s Lands Protection Act.
The Standing Committee on Health and Social Development — which oversees justice and public safety, and thus freedom of information in P.E.I. — met four times in private to go over the 600-page report, which was hand-delivered to the committee by Minister of Justice and Public Safety Bloyce Thompson in March.
The single recommended change is that government require corporations to receive cabinet approval when land changes hands through the sale of corporate shares.
Currently under the Lands Protection Act that approval is only required when a corporation directly purchases land, not when it acquires land through the purchase of shares in another corporation.
In August 2019, 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 he had received the investigation from IRAC, and that the report 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 four months.
Since then Rebecca Irving and the corporation Red Fox Acres have both asked P.E.I.'s Supreme Court to nullify the minister's decision.
Irving is a member of the larger Irving family with multiple corporate interests including Cavendish Farms Ltd.
Commissioner recommends report be released
Thompson also sought advice from P.E.I.'s Information and Privacy Commissioner on whether government could make the report public.
The recommendation, delivered in January, was that government do that in response to a freedom of information request filed by CBC News back in October.
But in March government advised CBC that a third party included in the report had requested another review by the commissioner, and the report won't be released until that second review is complete.
'Significant report' that should be released, says MLA
PC MLA Cory Deagle was a substitute member of the health committee during the deliberations.
He said there's a lot more in the report — but he's not allowed to share it.
"I'm bound," said Deagle. "I can't say what's in it, but I think it's something that should be released."
"I certainly hope that through [freedom of information] they'll make it public soon because it's a significant report … with a lot [of] important points out of it, and a lot of things that I think will affect how we move forward when the Lands Protection Act 2.0 I guess it's called comes in the fall," Deagle said, referring to a retooling of the Lands Protection Act promised by Thompson.
2019 changes still not implemented
The only other recommendation in the report deals with legislation to amend the Lands Protection Act introduced by Thompson in the fall of 2019 which passed, but which still hasn't been enacted.
Those amendments seek to provide clarity to help determine whether multiple corporations are controlled by the same person or organization under the Act, meaning they would be grouped together in determining their land ownership limits.
Under the Lands Protection Act, corporations are limited to owning 3,000 acres of land. With allowances for leased and non-arable land the limit increases to 5,700 acres.
If enacted the amendments passed in 2019 would also significantly increase fines for contraventions of the Lands Protection Act.
The health committee has recommended a different committee, the Standing Committee on Natural Resources, consult with farmers and other landowners on what the potential impact would be if those amendments were to come into force.
Chair Gord McNeilly said his health committee will also pass along the IRAC investigation it received under subpoena to the other committee, suggesting a review of the Lands Protection Act falls more naturally under its mandate.
"They can dive into the Lands Protection Act and look at this a little bit more in-depth than we were able to do," he said.