Strengthen P.E.I.'s Lands Protection Act, urges former justice minister
Horace Carver says he’s ‘gravely concerned’ about corporate land ownership, land consolidation
For all the times Horace Carver's 2013 review of P.E.I.'s Lands Protection Act has been invoked in debates around land ownership in the province, the author of that report had never spoken about it publicly since its release — until Thursday.
"I am disappointed certain aspects of the report have not been implemented. Particularly those that cost money," the former PC cabinet minister told the province's standing committee on natural resources and environmental sustainability, which had called on him to appear.
Carver was part of the government that first enacted the Lands Protection Act in 1982, which set limits on individual and corporate land ownership in the province.
The act and the issues around land ownership it addresses flared up as a topic of debate during the 2019 provincial election campaign.
Promise to close 'loopholes'
Last fall P.E.I.'s Attorney General Bloyce Thompson promised to close any "loopholes" in the act after a controversial deal that saw farmland transferred to a corporation related to the Irving family, without coming before cabinet for approval.
A key issue is how government interprets and enforces a measure in the act 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.
Carver, a lawyer, said he's always understood the minister has the authority to deem corporations as related under the act, but other legal minds differ.
"If something isn't as firm as it needs to be, guess what? Put the firmness in there," he told MLAs, advising them they have the power to make whatever changes are necessary in the legislation.
"If we make the mistake the first time, do it the second time."
In November, the Dennis King government announced public consultations to be held in early 2020 as part of a "fulsome review of land-related legislation" working toward "a renewed Lands Protection Act 2.0 and other related legislation."
Minister should know 'who owns the land'
Carver said he didn't understand changes made under the MacLauchlan government that meant the province was no longer collecting information on the identities of shareholders of provincially-registered corporations.
The King government has already begun reversing those changes. Carver said it's "essential" that the minister of agriculture and land has "the power to compel answers to questions such as 'who owns the land?'"
"And if the minister feels that he doesn't have the legal authority to ask who owns the land, then give him the authority to get the answers that he needs."
Asked whether increasing land ownership limits would make it possible for Island farmers to become more profitable — a case made by Cavendish Farms president Robert Irving when he appeared before a P.E.I. standing committee in 2018 — Carver voiced concerns about increasing corporate land ownership in the province.
He said he was concerned while conducting his review "and even more so now — gravely concerned about the impact on rural communities in regards [to] large corporations and lots of land consolidation."
Recommendations not followed
Carver expressed disappointment talking about some recommendations from his report which have never been enacted by government including:
That the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission submit an annual report to cabinet on non-resident land ownership, and that the report be made available to the public.
That the province establish a land bank to sell or lease land back to farmers (something government is now working toward).
That the province establish a land trust to "preserve unique and cherished Island viewscapes," funded with a portion of land transfer taxes and IRAC fees.
Instead of funding the purchase of more public land, Carver said the province is "reaping millions and millions of dollars in land transfer fees and a significant amount of dollars in IRAC fees," with the money going to general revenues.
After speaking for close to two-and-a-half hours, Carver said he would resume his self-imposed silence on the legislation and his review of it, leaving MLAs to decide what changes are needed.
Opposition Leader Peter Bevan-Baker said a key for him will be to make sure corporate and land ownership become more transparent to Islanders.
"A regular and transparent reporting requirement — and that was one of the recommendations of the Carver report. We have not seen a report on land holdings since 2004. That's just not acceptable," Bevan-Baker said.