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OPINION: Who is afraid of the Irvings?

Douglas Campbell

Guest Opinion

The National Farmers Union (NFU) has been waiting, not always patiently, to hear the newly elected Progressive Conservative government distancing itself from corporate sector control. We heard some brave language during the election campaign and even in the Speech from the Throne.

The National Farmers Union and many other Islanders understood those statements to mean that the time of the Irving’s free rein on land control is over. We are hopeful that this government will act on their intentions and promises. It will make a big change when all MLAs have the opportunity to receive orientation on the Lands Protection Act, especially if that is designed by IRAC which is the group which has the deepest knowledge of the Act.

We hear repeated the tiresome and exasperating expression – ‘But the Irvings have contributed so much to the P.E.I. economy.’ The National Farmers Union dares to wonder about this belief. There are, of course, signs of a growth in GDP, and that is for many reasons. However, GDP is a very narrow and misleading measurement of how well we are doing. For sure, the Irvings are doing well for themselves. Farmers not so well. And the land is paying the price.

The National Farmers Union contends that fear is behind every politicians’ veiled protection of the Irving interests. The corporation’s not-so-veiled threats nourish this fear. Elected officials seem to believe that if P.E.I. doesn’t fall in line, the Irvings will take their business elsewhere.

This threat, having been expressed so many times in our history, is part of our cultural baggage and does not even require repeating to take its effect. Interestingly, the threat was the backdrop of the formulation of the Lands Protection Act in 1982 as the Irvings had been making it clear that they wanted, and expected, more P.E.I. land. The restriction to 3,000 acres meant that the corporation, at that time, was even required to divest of thousands of acres.

In 1999, it was deemed that the Irvings owned or controlled 5,600 acres of land on P.E.I. The provincial cabinet at that time set a schedule for divestment of the company’s holdings to bring it into compliance with the Lands Protection Act. The government of the day had the courage to ignore threats. Then in 2008, the government put before the courts the acreage of Island Holdings, a major Irvingowned corporation. Island Holdings was found in violation of the Lands Protection Act, fined and ordered to divest.

Now, almost 20 years into the 21st century, people are seeing clearly that P.E.I. lands need protection like never before. Now is a time to take brave new steps. Politicians need to step up and establish and uphold the true spirit and intent of the Lands Protection Act. The intention of the act was, and still is, to maintain farm land in the control of Island farm families. This is far beyond mere political declarations. This means changing the whole game plan of how agriculture is organized in P.E.I. It means reclaiming the land. It means taking already destroyed land (and there is a lot of it) out of production. It means making good land available for family-controlled production. It means breaking with a belief that corporate-minded law firms are the protectors of the land.

The National Farmers Union message to the current government, including all MLAs, is you are the persons whom Islanders elected to take on your foremost and crucial responsibility to ensure the protection of P.E.I. lands. There is no time or place for fear. Jellyfish belong in the sea, not in the legislature or around the Cabinet table. Current and future generations will judge you on how well you have managed those lands that are under your care.

Douglas Campbell is a P.E.I. dairy farmer in Southwest Lot 16 and district director of the National Farmers Union.

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