Since he conducted a review of the Lands Protection Act in 2013, Horace Carver has said little on the topic of land use in the province.
At least, that was the case until the Charlottetown lawyer and former cabinet minister in the Angus MacLean government made an appearance before the Standing Committee on the Natural Resources and Environmental Sustainability. Carver, who was responsible for guiding the act through the legislature back in 1982, told the committee it was a personal decision to stay silent.
With my occupation and interest in these matters, sometimes it wasn’t always easy," he said. "I thought that when the invitation came, I would’ve accepted it even if I disagreed with anything that was happening, which I don’t. "
He signaled his plan to "go in silent mode again, but said he will be watching the committee's review of the Lands Protection Act with great interest. Agriculture and Land Minister Bloyce Thompson has indicated he will tabling an updated version of the act during the spring session of the legislature.
"You are tasked with a huge responsibility. You are tasked with trying some solutions and going down some roads that probably hasn’t happened for a long time in this particular regard," Carver said. "It’s important, absolutely important. I wish you all the best. "
Carver recalled a discussion with then prime minister Pierre Trudeau at a national meeting prior to the repatriation of the Constitution in 1980, telling the late prime minister "The most valuable resources is not the oil, possible gas and uranium, but the top 10 inches of this soil, our soil, and this is the most valuable aspect to us in how we are going to survive in the years to come. "
He said PEI was able to have a provision regarding property rights included in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Without that happening, he said the passage of the Lands Protection Act would have been impossible without the use of the notwithstanding clause.
When asked by Wilmot-Summerside MLA Lynne Lund about the spirit of the act, Carver referred to the late premier Angus MacLean who felt strongly "That land should not be viewed as a commodity traded on the stock market like silver and gold. Land should be viewed as a renewable resource to be protected for this generation and proceeding generations."
The former politician suggested the question of whether residents who are not bona fide farmers and who have no intention of farming should be able to hold 1,000 acres needs to be debated. Lund also asked the presenter if he found any evidence during the research leading up to his report that having access to lager parcels of land would make farming more economically viable.
Carver said one of the things that "shocked" him when holding the public meetings was the level of crop rotation being practiced in the province. He said one presenter told the Agriculture Crop Rotation Act was followed by approximately 75 per cent of farmers. He maintained that should be closer to 100 per cent and that was one of the reasons why he recommended the "lease in/lease out" changes to the act. That included a sunset clause that expires at the end of this year.
Before any recommendation is made to increase the limits, he said government and industry must work together to identify barriers to profitability and quantify the relationship, if any, between farm size and profitability; Improve compliance with the Agricultural Crop Rotation Act, improve soil quality, and reduce losses from soil erosion; and Evaluate and report on the potential impact on rural communities of further farm consolidation.”
Carver maintained without the Lands Protection Act, "I do not know what this province and rural Prince Edward Island would look like today." He added " There are serious issues with our deep water wells or a whole bunch of other things that need to be addressed and everything cannot be about the almighty dollar, but we do need to look upon dollars as a potential friend to do things that I recommended in my report about land accusations that haven't happened."
Answering a question from Opposition Leader Peter Bevan-Baker, Carver noted "if the minister of agriculture was here, the question that I would ask him, not necessarily to have him answer it: Do you feel you have the necessary authority to find out who owns certain parcels of land in regards to corporation and who the shareholders are? If you don't, then I would ask my colleagues to give it to me."
Carver told Opposition Agriculture Critic Michele Beaton he was not in favour of a provincial ombudsman where farmers could talk privately about their concerns regarding land ownership. He noted "I have never been in favour of an ombudsman because I believe we have 27 ombudsmen in this province. I believe that it's another unnecessary level of bureaucracy that one of the benefits of this House is that you're all acting in that particular capacity."
The former cabinet minister said every time problems have been pointed out with the Lands Protection Act, there have been improvements made by government.
He agreed with veteran Liberal MLA Robert Henderson that land is a valuable asset for farmers, saying there has been a tremendous escalation in farmland prices since his report was compiled. Carver added "if anybody in this province who wants to get into farming and we want to pass on this honourable generation of farming, thinks that they can do so in the free marketplace without some restrictions on whatever, they are just crazy."
Carver explained "those people that think that they can compete and always win on a free marketplace about buying land are wrong. Because, however much money they have, I am convinced there are people close to our shores, as I say in my report, that are prepared to pay way more money than these people have. "
Carver said there is a need for a constant vigil so cases like the acquisition of 2,200 acres of land in the Summerside-Bedeque area last year don't happen. He added "I sometimes, have felt over the years that politicians tip-toe around the Lands Protection Act P.E.I. and hope they can get through a House or get through a government without addressing it because they’re afraid that it may blow up in their face. I feel that. If they act with openness and transparency and lots of public input and that people aren’t feeling as if someone’s trying to do something a certain way, I think it might be surprising what level of public support there is out there."