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Ontario Premier Doug Ford at a press conference in Toronto on Oct. 31, 2023.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says he was not involved in the selection of land his government unilaterally added inside the urban boundaries of several municipalities, greenlighting it for future development.

The Premier faced reporters on Tuesday for the first time in six weeks, a day after thousands of internal government records were released by the advocacy group Environmental Defence in which a staffer in the Housing Minister’s office suggests the Premier’s Office was involved in specific changes the government made to municipal official plans.

The documents were released as the Progressive Conservative government faces an RCMP investigation into its now-rescinded move to open up the province’s environmentally protected Greenbelt, as well as political fallout from its now-reversed decision to earmark thousands more hectares of farmland for future development by rewriting a series of municipal official plans.

Mr. Ford also said Tuesday he has not been contacted by the RCMP. The Mounties are expected to begin interviews with government officials as early as this week.

The documents released this week include a set of e-mails to provincial staff from last November in which Ryan Amato, then-chief of staff to the province’s then-housing minister Steve Clark, says that Premier’s Office staff asked for changes to allow development to take place on two properties in Nobleton, Ont.

A bureaucrat within the Housing Ministry replied with two maps that were labelled “Flato and Wyview Group Properties” – a reference to Flato Developments, founded by Shakir Rehmatullah, a friend of the Premier’s who attended his daughter’s wedding last year, and Wyview Group, which owned the land.

Michael Fenrick, a lawyer acting for Mr. Rehmatullah’s Flato Developments, said the properties were not among the changes the province ultimately made to York Region’s urban boundaries last November.

Asked on Tuesday if he directed his staff to inquire about the Nobleton properties, Mr. Ford said he was not involved in any of the urban boundary decisions.

“Honestly, I don’t even know which lands you’re talking about,” Mr. Ford told reporters at an unrelated announcement at a gas station in the west Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, where he pledged to extend an existing fuel-tax discount. “I wasn’t aware of it, let me be very clear on that.”

The newly released documents shed light on the directives from political staff that overrode professional, neutral civil-service experts and led to many of the sweeping changes the province imposed last November on the official plans of York, Peel, Niagara and Halton regions, and the City of Hamilton.

Municipal plans, which are drafted by local officials, are subject to provincial approval. But the sheer amount of changes in these cases, dictated by provincial political staff, was highly unusual.

New Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Paul Calandra announced last week that he would rescind all of the province’s rewrites of municipal official plans, saying political staff were too involved in the decisions and that the reversal was needed to restore public trust.

Opposition parties at Queen’s Park charged that it’s not plausible the Premier was unaware of the properties his own office staff were working to have included in the boundary expansions imposed on municipalities.

“It’s very convenient to suddenly have amnesia and to be blaming your staff for everything. That’s not leadership,” Niagara MPP Jeff Burch, the NDP’s critic for municipal affairs, said Tuesday.

Interim Liberal leader John Fraser said there was “absolutely no way” Mr. Ford didn’t know what was going on in his office.

Mr. Ford also said Tuesday that when he learned how the lands were selected, he asked his new Housing Minister, Mr. Calandra, to cancel the urban boundary changes.

The documents also suggest that the Premier agreed to pursue the removal of a parcel of land from the Greenbelt at an event with a Hamilton-area developer and Progressive Conservative fundraiser, Sergio Manchia, in September, 2021 – more than a year before Mr. Ford’s government would announce its Greenbelt carve-outs.

The Premier said he could not remember agreeing to the Greenbelt removal or the fundraiser he attended at Mr. Manchia’s home, adding that he goes to “hundreds and hundreds” of fundraisers.

Mr. Manchia’s small consulting firm, UrbanSolutions, issued a statement on Tuesday saying he has retired after a 30-year career. The statement, from urban planner Matt Johnston, also said that Mr. Manchia had only raised the Greenbelt removal briefly with the Premier at the fundraiser and that the removal of the land had long been supported by the City of Hamilton.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated land associated with Flato Developments was included in the Ontario government's changes to York Region's urban boundaries. The company says the properties were not included in those changes. In addition, the story incorrectly reported the land is owned by Flato. In fact, it is owned by Wyview Group and Flato is a development partner.

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