Agriculture Minister Bloyce Thompson has not ruled out the possibility of releasing a redacted version of a report detailing the results of an investigation into a land sale found to have contravened the Lands Protection Act.
The investigation, carried out by the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission, dealt with the transfer of 2,200 acres of land from Brendel Farms Ltd., a family farming operation, to a corporation whose sole director was a member of the Irving family.
The sale of the same 2,200 acres of land, to three corporations that listed members of the Irving family as shareholders, was denied by the cabinet of the previous Liberal government.
The IRAC investigative report was released to Thompson in October. But Thompson has said he will wait for the advice of Denise Doiron, the province’s information and privacy commissioner, before releasing it.
Thompson has pledged to publicly release the results of the IRAC investigation.
However, Thompson did not deny the possibility that the released report could include redactions of the names of parties found to have contravened the Lands Protection Act.
“We'll have to wait for her advice on it. But I fully expect this will end up in the court someday," Thompson said. "We want to make sure that when this goes to court, that it stands up. So we have to be very careful."
Thompson has said the report found “reasonable and probable grounds” that two individuals and one corporation contravened the Lands Protection Act in the 2019 sale. He has also said he has asked that the land in question be divested.
But during question period on Wednesday, Green MLA Michele Beaton drew a distinction between the request from Thompson for divestiture of the land, and a ministerial order that the land be divested.
Beaton said the minister has not yet referred the IRAC investigation to the province’s Crown prosecutor.
“If you have what you called ‘reasonable and probable grounds’ that the Lands Protection Act, P.E.I. was contravened, why would you sit on that information instead of referring it to the Crown prosecutor’s office?” Beaton asked.
In an interview, Thompson said he has requested either the divestiture of the lands involved, or a plan for their divestiture. The parties involved were given 120 days to respond as of October.
He did not specify how much land he has requested be divested.
"If we don't have a divestiture plan then it's an order," Thompson said. "We requested a divestiture plan. If we don't get that then I will officially put an order in."
Beaton noted that lawyers from the Access and Privacy Services Office have told the House it is standard practice to refer potentially sensitive documents to. The APSO office reports to Thompson.
“If you’re not listening to your own departmental lawyers, which lawyers are you listening to?” Beaton asked.
In response, Thompson referred to Section 51 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
The section says that a head of a public body “may ask the commissioner to give advice and recommendations on any matter respecting any rights or duties under this Act”.
In an interview, Beaton said the wait for a response from the privacy commissioner should not preclude Thompson from referring the IRAC report to Crown prosecutors, who would issue an order for divestiture.
"The thing is, when you have a redacted report, that's not very beneficial to the Crown Prosecutor's Office. So there is no need to wait. They're two separate things," Beaton said. "For too long, I think it's been speculated that the Lands Protection Act has been circumvented in other situations. If we have clear direction that that's what happened, I would expect that legal action should be taken."
Stu Neatby is The Guardian's political reporter.
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