Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his Conservative government are backtracking on their plan to develop parts of the environmentally protected lands in the province’s Greenbelt. Mr. Ford has faced widespread criticism for the decision to open up 3,000 hectares of the Greenbelt, breaking an oft-repeated promise that he would leave the land intact.
After months of backlash that resulted in the resignation of two cabinet ministers, Mr. Ford apologized for breaking his promise and vowed not to touch it in the future.
Here’s what you need to know about the controversy, the developers involved in the plan and how the government has responded.
What is the Greenbelt, and what does it have to do with housing?
The Greenbelt is a swath of land that arcs around the Greater Toronto Area. The 800,000-hectare Greenbelt was created in 2005 to preserve farmland, forests and wetlands, while encouraging denser development by limiting suburban sprawl.
Last fall, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that the government planned to open the Greenbelt up for development, removing protections from 3,000 hectares and adding protected land elsewhere. The decision came months after Mr. Ford’s re-election in June, 2022. During his first successful campaign in 2018, the Premier had pledged not to touch the land, after a backlash erupted when he was caught on video promising “a big chunk” of the Greenbelt to developers.
Mr. Ford has since said that opening up the Greenbelt is necessary to build homes to address the housing crisis, although experts say there is enough land outside the Greenbelt to do so.
Mr. Ford’s announcement sparked protests from environmentalists, agriculture advocates and land-use experts, who argue that swapping one piece of land for another may be ineffective, because of different environmental values. They also say the plan paves the way for other developers to push for their properties to be removed from the Greenbelt.
Ten days after public consultations, in December, 2022, the Ontario government issued regulations to go ahead with the contentious plan, which would carve out 15 areas of the Greenbelt for development. The government has since said it will return one parcel of the land to the Greenbelt after the owner put it up for sale.
The developers involved in the Greenbelt
Investigations by The Globe and Mail and other media outlets have shown that key parcels of the land are owned by developers who are large donors to the governing Progressive Conservative Party and that some of the land changed hands as recently as September, 2022.
The proposed carve-outs of 15 areas of land include at least nine properties that were bought by developers for $10-million or more – transactions that topped $300-million in total – since the Progressive Conservatives took office in 2018, property records show.
At least four developers who bought the properties the government removed from the Greenbelt have either donated to the PC Party, hired conservative lobbyists, or both. One of the developers, Shakir Rehmatullah of Flato Developments, based in Markham, Ont., was invited to the wedding of one of the Premier’s daughters last year.
In December, the opposition Ontario Liberal Party and the environmental group Environmental Defence called for the OPP to investigate whether developers were tipped off in advance of the Greenbelt proposals. The NDP called for the province’s Auditor-General and the legislature’s Integrity Commissioner to investigate whether rules were broken. In January, Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk agreed to perform a “value-for-money” audit of the “financial and environmental impact” of the Greenbelt decision, as did the Office of the Integrity Commissioner.
The findings of the Ontario Auditor-General’s report
On Aug. 9, Ms. Lysyk issued a scathing report on the government’s removal of land from the Greenbelt, saying the changes resulted from a “biased” process driven by a senior political staffer that “favoured certain developers” and lacked environmental or financial analysis.
The report also estimates, based on 2016 data from the Municipal Property Assessment Corp. (MPAC), that the landowners of the 15 formerly protected sites opened up for housing last year could see their worth balloon by more than $8.3-billion.
The Auditor-General found that then-housing minister Steve Clark’s former chief of staff, Ryan Amato, drove the Greenbelt process and favoured certain developers. The auditor found that he altered or scrapped criteria to ensure lands suggested to him by two prominent developers were included.
The findings of the Integrity Commissioner’s report
On Aug. 30, the Integrity Commissioner found that Mr. Clark violated ethics rules over the government’s decision to remove select lands from the Greenbelt. Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake said Mr. Clark failed to properly oversee “an important initiative in his ministry.” Mr. Wake found that the minister contravened both the conflict-of-interest and insider-information sections of the act governing MPPs that prevent them from making a decision or using information not available to the public to further their or another person’s private interests.
With regards to the political donations, the report said it is “too facile” to draw an inference from political contributions to major policy shifts made by the government, noting developers often contribute to more than one party.
What was the fallout from the release of the reports?
On Aug. 22, two weeks after the Auditor-General’s report was released, Mr. Amato resigned.
Mr. Clark apologized for a lack of oversight into his own office over the removal of select lands from the Greenbelt, but initially refused to resign. On Sept. 4, Mr. Clark resigned from his role as minister of municipal affairs and housing, saying in a statement that he was becoming a “distraction” from work addressing the housing crisis and needed to “take accountability for what has transpired.” He said he will stay on as MPP for Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes.
Mr. Ford named former long-term care minister Paul Calandra as Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
The OPP announced that it was referring a probe into a possible criminal investigation on the matter to the RCMP. The OPP requested that it investigate “irregularities in the disposition of the Greenbelt surrounding Toronto.” The OPP, which had been reviewing the matter since last fall, did not explain the nature of the conflict of interest, or why it had waited to refer the case.
On Sept. 20, another cabinet minister resigned after news reports questioned his connections to a developer. Kaleed Rasheed, the Minister of Public and Business Service Delivery, resigned after CTV and Queen’s Park publication the Trillium reported that he travelled to Las Vegas at the same time as developer Shakir Rehmatullah, whose company owns land that was among the parcels removed from the Greenbelt.
Will the proposed developments move forward?
In a stunning turnaround, Mr. Ford announced on September 21 that the province is backtracking on its plans and apologized for breaking his promise not to develop Greenbelt lands. “We moved too quickly and we made the wrong decision,” Mr. Ford said after a caucus retreat in Niagara Falls, Ont. “This process, it left too much room for some people to benefit over others. It caused people to question our motives.”
With reports from Laura Stone, Jeff Gray, Dustin Cook, Oliver Moore and Jill Mahoney