Minister Richard Brown brought a glossy slide show to the National Farmers Union Annual District Convention on Tuesday, March 19, 2019, presenting the preliminary results of his promised and long-awaited review of non-resident and corporate land holdings in PEI.
In a nutshell, the results of the review offered aggregate data showing the total land acreages owned by non-residents and corporations in 2018, contrasted with those same totals over the past 10 years. Various graphs offered the percentage of land owned by residents, non-residents, resident corporations and non-resident corporations.
The report told us whether land holdings in these various categories have increased, decreased or remained the same over the past 10 years; they provided no insights into what’s really happening with land ownership in PEI, and failed to answer the key questions the NFU asked a year ago, which the Minister assured the NFU would be answered in the non-resident and corporate review of land holdings, especially questions concerning the total land holdings of specific corporations and affiliated companies of Cavendish Farms, Vanco Farms, and the Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society (GEBIS).
The slide show presentation was completely anonymous, and did not address the issue of whether individuals and/or corporations are using loopholes in the Lands Protection Act to circumvent the intention of the Act, allowing them to amass more than the 1,000 acre limit for individuals and 3,000 acre limit for corporations. Let’s not forget that this objective was the publicly-stated intention of the review by Minister Brown when it was first announced, as was stated in a recent Guardian Article:
“In April 2018 Minister of Communities, Land and Environment Richard Brown said he’d asked IRAC to conduct a major review of land ownership on P.E.I. to see whether anyone was breaking the rules. At the time he said he hoped the review would be ready to present to committee by the fall of 2018.”
What Minister Brown actually presented to the NFU Convention was something completely different – aggregate totals with no breakdown, no analysis, no insights, and no names, neither of individuals or corporations.
One slide showed a significant increase in corporate land holdings over the past decade – 85,000 acres – but was accompanied with no analysis of that increase in terms of how many corporations (or interlocking companies owned by the same individuals or families) own that land. Perhaps there were 200 corporations owing 300,000 acres back in 2008 and 25 owning 385,000 in 2018…it’s anybody’s guess – with no explanation or breakdown, we just don’t know.
In other words, the review offered no answers whatsoever to the key question asked by the NFU; namely, whether certain individuals, families and corporations are circumventing the spirit and intention of the Lands Protection Act so they can acquire land holdings that far exceed what the Lands Protection Act says they can own, something NFU farmers are certain is in fact the case. After nearly a full year, we are absolutely no closer to getting those answers from government.
And here’s the really maddening thing about this kick-the-can-down-the-road cynical charade: I – or any other researcher – could easily tabulate the total land holdings of individuals and families owning specific corporations such as Cavendish Farms, Vanco Farms or GEBIS. That is, if the government wasn’t continuing to block access to the cumulative corporate data present in the Business/Corporate Registry by allowing us to search only corporations one-at-a-time, but not individuals who may own multiple corporations, listed either as named or numbered companies.
If a simple “name search” feature was added to the Corporate/Business Registry – as was recently added to the Lands Protection Act Application Databank – it would literally take a few days to uncover all the interlocking corporations of which certain individuals are directors and shareholders, thereby allowing a quick tabulation of the total land holdings associated with those individuals, thereby answering the simple question whether those individuals and parent corporations exceed the land holding limits specified in the Lands Protection Act.
My frustration and anger with this insulting government response to the NFU members eagerly awaiting answers from Minister Brown – who have been pretty patient, especially given the urgency of the issue – resulted in a tense exchange between me and Minister Brown in the Q & A session following the slideshow presentation:
Kevin: Minister Brown, I was here last year and I don’t think there was any question that what the National Farmers Union wanted to know is “can we get information on especially Irving, Vanco farms, GEBIS or any other corporations, in terms of whether or not, through interlocking corporations, which as Edith Ling pointed out in her presentation you have the power to close as a loophole – goes against the intent and spirit of the Lands Protection act?” People wanted to know – the NFU wanted to know – whether or not the exemptions are exceeding the 3,000 arable acres. And I said at the time that I could find that out myself in three days if the government would allow a simple search on the corporate registry. That’s not happened – it’s been brought up by the opposition PC Party a number of times in the House. but there’s never been an answer. This aggregate, ambiguous data about trends is not answering the question, it’s evasive, and it’s not open and transparent. I’m going to ask you a yes or no question: “Will you and/or your government put a simple search feature in the corporate registry so I can give the answer to these people and the rest of the Island, whether or not corporations are – through interlocking entities – violating the spirit and intent (and perhaps even the letter) of the Lands Protection Act: Yes or No?Minister Brown: You can go online right now and call up any corporation in Prince Edward Island and see the directors, and the presidents and the officers of the company….Kevin: One at a time…but you can’t do the research Mr. Brown….Minister Brown: 99% of the time, it’s the directors, presidents and the officers of the corporations [who] are the ones that own the property, so it’s transparent in terms of wanting to know this company, who’s the directors, who’s the officers and who’s it’s president, and it’s vice-president. Those things are online individually.Kevin: You’re not answering my question. Can you put a search feature in so when I type in a name like Mary Jean Irving, I will see a list of all the corporations that’s she’s a director of, and then through the interlocking kind of simple math, we can then do a total [calculation] of the acreage of the land held by each of those corporations, and answer the question finally, rather than deliberately avoiding answering the question.Minister Brown: I’ll commit to you today, I will write the Office of the Privacy Commissioner and ask for permission to allow that search to happen. We have a law with the protection of privacy, we have a right to privacy, we have an Act that allows people to have a right to privacy. We’re one of the very few countries that still have privacy laws for people, and I will commit here today that I will write a letter to the Privacy Commissioner requesting that be done.Kevin: You don’t need to, because I was able to have Scott Mackenzie add that search feature to the Lands databank, and I’ve already inquired independently, and it’s not a breach of privacy; in fact, you said yourself a minute ago that those names are already public information on an individual corporate basis. I want access to that feature, so I can put a list together. It’s a simple, simple thing. And if you say no, or the government says no, then what you’re really saying is: “We don’t want you to know”…and that’s what we’re asking.[Applause]Minister Brown: I made a commitment here today that I will be writing a letter to the Privacy Commissioner asking her permission to put that [search feature] on [the Corporate/Business Registry].