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A corporation that lists a member of the Irving family as its sole shareholder has become the owner of more than 2,200 acres of farmland, despite an eleventh-hour rejection of the sale of this same land to other Irving-owned companies by the previous Liberal government.
Property assessments indicate 2,220 acres of farmland previously owned by family-owned Brendel Farms Ltd. is now owned by Haslemere Farms Ltd. Haslemere lists Rebecca Irving, daughter of Mary Jean Irving, as its sole director.
The Irving family is among the wealthiest business dynasties in Canada.
The same 2,220 acres, scattered around the areas of North Bedeque, Lower Freetown and Wilmot Valley, were part of a proposed sale by Brendel that was denied by the Liberal executive council on March 26, the same day the provincial election was called.
The prospective buyers for the land were three companies — Long River Farms, Galloway Farms and Indian River Farms – which all listed members of the Irving family as shareholders. The minister responsible at the time, Richard Brown, said the sale was denied because it contravened the Lands Protection Act.
The act limits agricultural land holdings of corporate owners to 3,000 acres, although there are some exceptions for non-arable land.
Typically, large land sales require the approval of the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission, as well as P.E.I.’s executive council.
Reached by The Guardian on Friday, Agriculture Minister Bloyce Thompson said cabinet had not approved the sale of the Brendel lands.
"Executive council did not receive, review or approve the Brendel-Haslemere land sale. The sale was completed without government approval and I will be sending a letter to IRAC requesting a review of the transaction," Thompson said in a statement.
Property assessments indicate the ownership of the land changed on June 27, 2019 — 10 days after Haslemere Farms Ltd. was incorporated. The total value of the land was assessed at $5.1 million by Wilson Scott, an assessor with the finance department.
Michele Beaton, agriculture critic for the opposition Green party, raised rumours of the sale in the legislature during the spring sitting.
“Our government doesn't operate on rumours,” Thompson said at the time.
“When it's facts, and it comes across our desk, and if IRAC advises us to not approve it, that's what we will do."
In its election platform, the Progressive Conservatives pledged to uphold both the “spirit and intent” of the Lands Protection Act.
Beaton said it was unclear how the sale of the 2,220 acres occurred without the approval of executive council.
“This transaction seems to clearly violate that spirit, the spirit of the Lands Protection Act,” Beaton told The Guardian on Friday.
"We're at the point right now where there appears to be a loophole.”
Beaton suggested that the transfer of land could have occurred through a corporation sale. This would mean Haslemere Farms Ltd. may have initially been incorporated by the Gardiner family, and then transferred to Rebecca Irving.
"The public no longer has confidence in the government on the protection of P.E.I. lands. That's an issue,” Beaton said.
The Guardian reached out to the consumer, corporate and insurance division to determine if Haslemere Farms Ltd. had changed directors after being incorporated on June 17. Staff informed The Guardian the province’s corporate registry was in the process of being updated and could not provide details on whether the company’s original director was Rebecca Irving.
In a statement, a representative from J.D. Irving Limited said the Brendel sale did not involve either Cavendish Farms or J.D. Irving Limited. The Guardian was referred to a lawyer from Stewart McKelvey as “the appropriate contact.”
Concentration of ownership of P.E.I.’s limited farmland has been a public concern for decades. According to a recent review of land ownership in P.E.I., corporate ownership of land has been increasing over the last 10 years, but many family farms are also converting themselves into corporate owners.
The review found that 385,000 acres, or 27 percent of the province’s land mass, was owned by corporations.