"This is a game changer."
That was how the district director of the National Farmers Union summed up a series of paper transactions that resulted in Rebecca Irving owning 2,200 acres of farmland in the Summerside-Bedeque area.
She is the daughter of Mary Jean Irving, who is CEO of Master Packaging and president of Indian River Farms. Her uncle, Robert Irving, is president of Cavendish Farms.
"The National Farmers Union is shocked beyond belief that the Irving Corporation has found a way to access the 2,200 acres of prime Island farm land they coveted," Douglas Campbell said.
This is the same land three companies with ties to the Irvings tried to purchase earlier this year. The Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission recommended the sales be turned down and the former Liberal government agreed.
"It seems that the Irvings, by whatever corporate designation they choose, have worked hand in hand with their accomplices, to find a loophole to circumvent the PEI Lands Protection Act," the district director said. "This latest acquisition goes against the earlier recommendation of IRAC, and the decision of the PEI Government to deny the Irvings that specific land purchase."
Geoffrey Connolly was the lawyer who handled the transaction. While the Island Farmer was unable to reach Connolly for comment, he did explain how the transaction unfolded in a recent media interview.
Brendel Farms (which lists Derrick, Dwight, Megan and Crystal Gardiner as directors) incorporated another company known as Haslemere Farms Limited on July 17. Ownership of the land in question was transferred from Brendel to Haslemere Farms. Rebecca Irving then purchased Haslemere Farms and changed the company name to Red Fox Acres Limited.
Connelly said during the interview the land transaction happened when the Gardeners owned Haslemere. Since the company was purchased rather than the land, IRAC was not involved. He told the newspaper the sale was in full compliance with the Business Corporation Act, which was passed last June by the previous Liberal administration.
"This breach of the Act through the selling of a corporation, which holds the land assets, rather than a straight land transaction, puts the Island in a precarious position," Campbell said. "If allowed to be finalized it further opens the Island to the world wide land grab that is making land a commodity in the power games of corporations and financial elites."
Campbell argued "This is far bigger than the Irving’s getting another 2,200 acres to add to their already “over the limits” Island land stock. If the Island government doesn’t act swiftly and with conviction to prevent this deal, the very future of the control of our land is at stake. We are in a deep crisis."
Kevin J. Arsenault agrees. A farmer, researcher and blogger, he also ran against King for the Progressive Conservative leadership earlier this year, finishing third in a field of five. He sees the transaction as a direct challenge to government and predicts public pressure will force the government to reverse the sale.
"To be honest with you, I think the Irvings are surprised it has gotten this much attention," Arsenault said. "I don't think there is any way the government can allow this to stand. If it does, the Lands Protection Act is finished."
Both Campbell and Arsenault are concerned about what they called the "cozy" relationship Connolly has with both the Irving empire and the provincial government. While the Business Corporation Act does not require companies to list their shareholders or directors, Connolly was listed as a director of Indian River Farms under the Companies Act-- the legislation it replaced. They both also noted Connolly's law firm, Stewart McKelvey, does extensive work for the province.
Connolly has indicated Red Fox Acres is not affiliated with J.D. Irving or Cavendish Farms.. However, both Red Fox and Master Packaging share the same address in Charlottetown.
"As minister, I am not happy with the Brendel-Haslemere land sale and I appreciate that many Islanders are also not happy," Agriculture and Land Minister Bloyce Thompson said in a statement. "I am concerned that this was carried out without government’s knowledge or approval"
Thompson said he has asked IRAC to investigate the transaction, adding " I am committed to preserving and protecting our lands for Islanders today and for future generations."
Opposition Agriculture Critic Michele Beaton asked Thompson in the legislature July 10 if he was aware another attempt was being made to purchase the Brendel property. The minister indicated at the time government does not operate on rumours, adding cabinet was prepared to turn down the sale if that was the recommendation that came from the commission.
"Now that this has crossed the minister's desk, he has the responsibility to ensure that the spirit of the act is upheld," the Green MLA said in a social media post. "This loophole must be closed and the minister must report back to Islanders on how big this problem is."
Campbell is urging Premier Dennis King to call the legislature back in session immediately to plug the loophole in the act. He also maintains the agriculture and lands minister doesn't have to wait until he receives a report from the commission to take action.
The direct director said the Lands Protection Act gives the minister "the power to deem what a corporation is, and whether Haslemere Farms is an ‘interlocking” corporation connected with J.D Irving Limited. He has power to protect the very future of this province."
The district director added "As Islanders, we all need to take a stand for our land and for the future of every Islander. The Irvings have once again snubbed their noses at the PEI Government. "How the land is owned, controlled, and used has a deep impact on all of us. We are facing serious consequences if we remain silent now. Future generations will judge us if we do not speak up against the current and ongoing violations of the spirit and intent of the Lands Protection Act."