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IRAC CEO questioned about Buddhist landholdings on P.E.I.

The Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute in Brudenell.
The Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute in Brudenell. - Daniel Brown/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Editor's Note:

The Guardian has spent months interviewing members of Buddhist organizations and residents of Kings County about the hundreds of Buddhist nuns and monks who now live P.E.I. The story that has emerged, which will be published in two parts this coming week, is one that involves land holdings, immigration, housing, government transparency, religious freedom and geopolitics in Asia. Watch for the first part on Monday.

CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. — subject of land holdings of two Kings county Buddhist organizations was briefly raised during a standing committee meeting on Thursday.

During a meeting of the standing committee on natural resources and environmental sustainability, Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission CEO Scott MacKenzie was asked if the commission would consider a public land audit of two Buddhist organizations.

Green MLA Michele Beaton said the public lacks clarity about the issue.

“There is concerns over land holdings down in the eastern end of the province,” Beaton said.

"From the side of the individuals with the land holdings, they're also concerned and it's kind of a 'he-said-she-said.'”

Suggestions have been circulating online for years that two Buddhist organizations – the Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute (GWBI) and the Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society (GEBIS) – have accumulated more land holdings than they are permitted under the Lands Protection Act.

There is no clear evidence this has happened. Both groups own significantly less than 1,000 acres, which is far below the land size limits under the act.

But some of these concerns played into a decision made by Three Rivers Council in September to deny a permit for a proposed dormitory and campus proposed for GWBI. The organization of Buddhist nuns says it needs to construct the campus due to a lack of housing for hundreds of its members.

Buddhist nuns are currently scattered between a monastery farmhouse in Uigg, a dormitory in Brudenell, a converted lobster shanty in Montague and several individual homes.

“At what point in time does IRAC make a decision to help out individuals in a situation where the public believes that they are doing something — whether they are or not — but have an arms-length body like yourself do an investigation or an audit of some sort?" Beaton asked.

"I don't think we've ever done that. I think anyone who knows what their landholdings (are), can disclose what their landholdings are," MacKenzie said.

Three Rivers' denial of the building permit has had real consequences for GWBI.

In an interview last weekend, three board members of GWBI confirmed that about 30 students aged 14-17, enrolled at a private school run by the monastic organization, left P.E.I. in January, in part, due to the lack of housing.

“They need space," Venerable Sabrina Chiang, a GWBI board member told The Guardian.

“They're lively. They need to run around and to play.”

"I think it's the best decision for everyone," Venerable Yvonne Tsai, another GWBI board member, told The Guardian.

"Everyone wants everyone to live better. So that's why they made that decision."

Both Tsai and Chiang said they hope to work directly with IRAC to address land concerns that have been raised in the community.

MacKenzie did not directly say whether IRAC has looked into land holdings related to the Buddhist organizations.

“Have you ever done an investigation on, for instance, GEBIS or GWBI, on their landholdings?" Beaton asked MacKenzie.

"I can neither confirm nor deny. We will not talk about any possible investigations that may have or may not have happened,” MacKenzie said.

Stu Neatby is The Guardian's political reporter. 

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