Land ownership questions draw a big crowd in Kings County

A grassroots land-protection group is calling on the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission to investigate the ownership of land in the Kings County area of ​​Prince Edward Island.

More than 200 people attended a public forum in Montague on Saturday, organized by the Coalition for the Protection of PEI Lands.

“This is a big issue within Three Rivers,” said Shane MacDonald, one of the speakers at the meeting. “A lot of people have been waking up to the actual mass of purchases of large corporations in the Three Rivers area or even just Eastern PEI”

The meeting focused mainly on land owned by two Buddhist monasteries in Kings County, as well as land owned by corporations or individuals that coalition organizers believe to be affiliated with the Buddhist movement on PEI

The coalition has concerns over what it sees as a concentration of land ownership, and the impact of rising land prices on the local community.

“Multiple properties being sold and resold to non-residents is giving us massive inflation,” MacDonald told CBC News on Monday. “There’s evidence to see that a lot was sold a year ago for $20,000 and then sold for $100,000 a year after that. That’s a massive increase.”

'A lot of people have been waking up,' says Shane MacDonald.
‘People are generally concerned about the future of the land,’ says Shane MacDonald. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

He added: “People are generally concerned about the future of the land and how future generations are going to be able to purchase land.”

Limits on land accumulation

Coalition organizers say people and corporations they believe to be associated with the Buddhist community in Kings County are conducting real estate transactions that, in the view of the coalition, contravene the spirit — if not the letter — of Prince Edward Island’s Lands Protection Act.

The Lands Protection Act places limits on the amount of land that can be owned by any single person or corporation. A person can’t have more than 1,000 acres, and a corporation can’t exceed 3,000 acres in total.

The coalition says real estate transactions involving 15,500 acres of land in Kings County can be traced back to an entity or entity with the name “Bliss and Wisdom.”

The coalition claims to have examined the ownership details given for some of the entities and found that the names of owners and directors of various entities overlap in some cases. That leads the coalition to speculate that the organizations are linked. CBC has not independently verified those claims.

The data examined was gathered from “Canada tax, GeoLinc and … two or three other organizations,” according to Douglas Campbell, district director of the National Farmers Union.

Man in sweater in front of dairy truck.
Douglas Campbell, photographed in 2017, was one of the speakers at Saturday’s meeting in Montague. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

“On the government’s part, there’s been a blind eye turned to what is going on,” Campbell told CBC News.

The coalition has also complained that the crop land they believe to be affiliated with the Buddhist community is not being farmed, and instead left fallow.

Social media contains misinformation, say monks

A spokesman for the Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society monks living communally in Kings County say the monks are dismayed and alarmed by what they say is rumor and misinformation.

“It’s not true that they are using shell companies to buy up land in Kings County,” said Xing Chang, a monk who identified himself in English as Venerable Dan.

“Some people have solidified a conclusion about us… There’s clearly a disconnect.”

Man in orange robe stands in front of large residential building.
Venerable Dan, photographed in June 2022 for a story about the monks’ efforts to end food poverty on Prince Edward Island, (Thinh Nguyen/CBC)

Venerable Dan says the Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society (GEBIS) owns about 575 acres of land. A separate group based in Brudenell, the Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute nuns, owns 663 acres of land, a spokeswoman told Saltwire News on March 21.

The GEBIS monks are completing construction on a large multi-purpose building in Heatherdale that will become the society’s main campus in Kings County, including residential facilities.

Venerable Dan says the monks employ organic agricultural methods on their cropland, and are unaware of any of their acreage that has been left fallow. Some of their land is loaned out “for free” to other organic farmers in Kings County, he said.

The monks say “Bliss and Wisdom” is a name used by several non-profit organizations, but there is no formal connection among them. They compare the use of the phrase “Bliss and Wisdom” to the common use of the word “Island” in the names of various independent businesses on PEI

A new multi-purpose building in Heatherdale will become the focal point of the main campus in Heatherdale, PEI, for worship and study by monks of the Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society.
A new multi-purpose building in Heatherdale will become the main campus for worship and study by monks of the Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society (GEBIS). (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Social media posts about the issue contain misinformation, Venerable Dan said.

“The past two or three months, it seems there are more people drawn into it. You keep posting stuff and people believe it.”

Venerable Dan says the monks were aware of Saturday’s meeting in Montague and chose not to attend.

The Lands Act needs ‘constant revision’: federation

The PEI Federation of Agriculture said Saturday’s meeting reflects long-standing concerns over land ownership on the Island, as well as questions over the effectiveness of the Lands Protection Act when it comes to corporate aggregation.

‘We see issues with land ownership [in Kings County]. We see some confusion,” said Donald Killorn, executive director of the federation. “We saw un update on the Lands Protection Act recently that we hope did close some of the more prominent loopholes.”

Donald Killorn in PEI Federation of Agriculture office.
The PEI Federation of Agriculture has long lobbied for better protection for farmland, says Donald Killorn. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Killorn points out that he knows of “Island-born” farmers who have exceeded land ownership limits, by listing their spouses as owners of tracts of crop land.

“The act does require constant revision as people work to try and circumnavigate the law,” said Killorn.

This is not about racing. It’s always been about the land.—Douglas Campbell

The coalition says ethnicity is irrelevant, and in the past, the accusations that asked questions about the monks being motivated by racism or xenophobia have diverted attention from legitimate concerns.

“This is not about race,” said Campbell. “It’s always been about the land.”

CBC News reached out to the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission for comment on the coalition’s concerns. It replied with an email saying it was aware of Saturday’s meeting but nobody from the coalition had been in direct contact with the commission.

The email added that IRAC “will continue to serve its role in administering the Lands Protection Act.”

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