MILTON, P.E.I. - The coming election loomed large at P.E.I.’s regional convention of the National Farmers Union on Tuesday.
The organization has been increasingly outspoken about the issue of land concentration in P.E.I. in recent months. Members pledged to raise issues around what they deemed to be circumvention of P.E.I.’s Lands Protection Act (LPA) by large landholders during the coming election season.
District director Doug Campbell, in his report to members, said large agricultural corporations have increasingly been purchasing large landholdings. Many have been using subsidiaries or smaller, registered companies to purchase landholdings, Campbell said.
The Lands Protection Act currently limits land holdings by individuals to 1,000 acres and by corporations to 3,000, although there are exemptions to these limits. Campbell said the use of subsidiary companies by landholders to purchase land has violated what he calls the “spirit” of the act.
“The history of P.E.I. is steeped in the lands question,” Campbell said.
Campbell noted that the government of Angus MacLean in 1982 enacted the LPA in order to limit the concentration of land. The intent of the act was to maintain land holdings for family farms.
But Campbell said no political party on P.E.I has adequately addressed the act’s loopholes.
“We are going into an election. The land grab issue needs to be front and centre,” Campbell said.
In her report to members, NFU women’s district director Edith Ling singled out two large agricultural businesses – Irving and Vanco Farms Ltd. – as examples of corporations that she says have found loopholes in the act.
But Ling also said the Greater Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society and “Asian investors” have purchased “acres and acres” of farmland.
It is unclear how much acreage is owned by companies or enterprises connected to Irving, Vanco or GEBIS. A representative from the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission would not release data on large landholding subsidiaries to The Guardian, although it was noted that information land purchases can be searched on IRAC’s website.
The IRAC representative also told The Guardian the commission did not have a policy that prohibited releasing this information to media but said it was a practice for the commission not to do so.
NDP Leader Joe Byrne, Progressive Conservative Leader Dennis King and Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker were all present at the NFU meeting. All were asked to briefly address what they would do about LPA loopholes.
Byrne said information should be publicly available for Islanders to determine how much land is controlled by large landholders.
“The system where you can set up another company and another company and another company is ridiculous.”
Bevan-Baker said recent governments on P.E.I. have followed the letter of the LPA but have ignored its intent.
King said he hoped to enforce the Lands Protection Act and to honour its intent. He said his PC Party had, in recent years, "forgotten some of the progressive values" of former premiers Angus MacLean and Pat Binns. He said he hoped to follow in the footsteps of these former leaders.
King also said he would be working with Kevin Arsenault, a former executive director of the NFU, to develop the party’s platform on land use issues. Arsenault, who has been outspoken on land use issues, also ran for leader of the party earlier this year.
Communities, Land and Environment Minister Richard Brown addressed the meeting Tuesday afternoon. He told The Guardian that foreign land ownership has not increased on P.E.I. in recent years, but that there has been an increase in both corporate ownership and sole proprietorship.
He did acknowledge that there were concerns around publicizing land use.
“There could be more transparency,” Brown said.