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A government sign shows entry into the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, in Pickering, Ont., on June 19.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario Provincial Police decision to refer to the RCMP a potential probe into Premier Doug Ford’s government and its interactions with Greenbelt developers is highlighting confusion in Canada about which police agencies are best suited to investigate politicians, their aides and the public sector, observers say.

The provincial police force announced this week that the RCMP would take over its review of the Ontario government’s decision last year to carve out 15 sections of land from the protected Greenbelt to open them up to housing development.

While the OPP has said it was handing off the case to avoid any potential perceived conflict of interest, it has declined to explain the nature of the potential conflict or why it was only acting on those concerns months after investigators started looking at the issue. The RCMP’s sensitive and international investigations section will now review the case to determine whether a full criminal investigation into the Greenbelt issues is warranted.

The OPP has investigated the provincial government before without expressing any need to bring in an outside agency.

“The real take away: Canada and its provinces urgently need independent crime and corruption commissions,” said Christian Leuprecht, a professor at Queen’s University.

Prof. Leuprecht, a policing expert, said the OPP’s investigative handover speaks to a disarray in Canadian law-enforcement – but added that this problem could be cleared up by policymakers looking to other jurisdictions.

Australia has just set up a new national anti-corruption commission specifically to investigate that country’s public sector for offences ranging from breach of trust to misuse of documents. Quebec has a specialized anti-corruption squad known as UPAC, which has been the only entity of its kind in Canada for more than a decade.

“You really need a separate entity, precisely because these investigations are so sensitive and so complex,” Prof. Leuprecht said.

Ontario’s Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk released a report this month concluding that a political aide in the Ford government led an internal project to select lands for removal from the Greenbelt for development. The report said the selection process was “biased,” that it “favoured certain developers” and that it delivered to them a potential $8.3-billion windfall in the Greenbelt, an environmentally protected zone around the Greater Toronto Area.

The provincial police force had confirmed last December that its anti-rackets branch would review issues around the Greenbelt’s development after receiving public demands for a police probe.

In Canada, it is not uncommon for police organizations to hand over sensitive investigations. The OPP has itself been called in to investigate several matters in Thunder Bay, including one past mayor and the city’s troubled municipal police force.

Yet past probes at Queen’s Park have sat squarely within the OPP’s jurisdiction. In 2015, the police force laid charges against two top aides of former premier Dalton McGuinty, accusing them of breach of trust, mischief in relation to data and misuse of a government computer system.

Opinion: Doug Ford has yet to do the bare minimum on the Greenbelt development scandal

Like other large police forces in Canada, the OPP is close to politicians by design. The force’s commissioner is appointed by a provincial cabinet decree. And provincial police officers provide personal security to the Premier.

Mr. Ford faced allegations this month that he inappropriately used a new OPP plane to travel to Windsor. “The Premier’s official protection detail travel with him at all times,” said Caitlin Clark, Mr. Ford’s spokeswoman. “As is custom, the costs associated with government business were covered accordingly.”

Some government critics welcome the OPP’s decision to call in the RCMP. “It is encouraging to see that this investigation is being transferred to a law enforcement agency that is less dependent on the good will of the Ford government,” said Phil Pothen, counsel for Environmental Defence. The advocacy organization has called for police to investigate the Greenbelt land removal.

Toronto lawyer Julian Falconer says the handover is puzzling. “This raises far more questions than answers,” he said. “The essence of the mandate of the OPP is that it is an independent police service.”

Starting in 2018, Mr. Falconer represented acting OPP commissioner Brad Blair – a senior officer who publicly accused Mr. Ford of encroaching on police independence.

That controversy ended with Mr. Blair’s ouster from the police force. But the allegations highlighted how, shortly after Mr. Ford was elected, his top aides had tried and failed to get a police friend of the Premier’s appointed as OPP commissioner.

Integrity commissioner David Wake looked into the controversy and urged the province to rein in its political powers for picking OPP police chiefs. “There ought to be an established appointment process in place, which is independent,” he said.

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