Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault says he might try to stop some of the development that could result from Ontario’s plans to allow housing on once-protected Greenbelt lands, warning that the province’s move defies efforts to prepare for climate change.
The Minister made the remarks at a news conference in Toronto on Thursday, while responding to questions from the environment-focused online publication The Narwhal.
Mr. Guilbeault was taking aim at Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s move last month to remove 3,000 hectares from the Greenbelt – an 800,000-hectare protected area of farmland and countryside that arcs around the Greater Toronto Area – to allow developers to build 50,000 homes. The plan would also add 3,800 hectares elsewhere to the protected area. Mr. Ford had previously promised that he would not open the Greenbelt to development.
Mr. Guilbeault did not detail specifically what he is considering doing, but he said Ontario’s plan “flies in the face of everything we’re trying to do in terms of being better prepared for the impacts of climate change.”
The Narwhal says the Minister warned that the federal government “will be looking at the potential use of federal tools to stop some of these projects.”
Mr. Guilbeault suggested he could use federal species-at-risk legislation if any proposed development threatened the survival of vulnerable animal populations. The federal government did this in 2016, when it blocked a housing development in a Montreal suburb over concerns about western chorus frog habitat.
“You can imagine that if similar projects were to be proposed on lands that were part of the Greenbelt, then I have a legislative obligation to intervene,” Mr. Guilbeault said, according to the Narwhal.
He also mentioned Ottawa’s Impact Assessment Act, which is already being used to scrutinize Mr. Ford’s Highway 413, a proposed expressway that would carve through Greenbelt land.
The sharp federal criticism of the Ontario Premier emerged just days before a Feb. 7 meeting between Canada’s premiers and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to hash out a health care funding deal.
Victoria Podbielski, a spokesperson for Ontario Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark, said building “at least” 50,000 homes on the Greenbelt lands is necessary to address the province’s housing crisis, “especially when taking into account the new immigration targets set out by the federal government.”
She also said the province “will require that environmentally sensitive areas are set aside and protected before any construction begins.”
Mr. Guilbeault was speaking at an event marking $8-million in federal funding for nature conservation projects. He also had harsh words for the Ontario government’s plans to restrict the powers of the province’s local conservation authorities to intervene in ecologically sensitive development plans. He called the legislation “terrible” and said he was “saddened and shocked” by the changes.
Last month, Parks Canada said the opening of Greenbelt lands close to the Rouge National Urban Park, on the eastern flank of Toronto, could cause “irreversible harm” to the park’s wildlife and ecosystems.
A few days earlier, Mr. Guilbeault had told The Canadian Press that the owners of homes built on floodplains as a result of Ontario’s changes would not be entitled to federal compensation in the event of floods.
And last week, both Ontario’s Auditor-General and its Integrity Commissioner said they were launching investigations into the Greenbelt decision.
The Globe and Mail and other news outlets have reported that some of the land taken out of the Greenbelt changed hands as recently as September, 2022. Both Mr. Ford and Mr. Clark have said they did not tip developers off before the decision was made public in November. The Ontario Provincial Police have said they are considering launching an investigation.