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Ontario Premier Doug Ford announces that he will be reversing his government’s decision to open the Greenbelt to developers during a press conference in Niagara Falls, Ont., on Sept. 21.Tara Walton/The Canadian Press

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is backing down on his plans to develop parts of the province’s protected Greenbelt, in a reversal that follows months of backlash and has resulted in the resignation of two cabinet ministers.

Mr. Ford said on Thursday that it was a mistake to open up development in the environmentally protected zone that arcs around the Greater Toronto Area. He admitted that the process for choosing the land has left his government open to allegations of wrongdoing.

“I made a promise to you that I wouldn’t touch the Greenbelt. I broke that promise. And for that, I’m very, very sorry,” a sombre-looking Mr. Ford said at a press conference in Niagara Falls, Ont., where he was meeting with his Progressive Conservative caucus.

“It was a mistake to open the Greenbelt. It was a mistake to establish a process that moved too fast,” Mr. Ford said.

“This process, it left too much room for some people to benefit over others. It caused people to question our motives. As a first step to earn back your trust, I’ll be reversing the changes we made and won’t make any changes to the Greenbelt in the future.”

Mr. Ford said he still believes opening the Greenbelt to development could make a “big difference” to address the housing crisis but will no longer pursue it as an avenue to build much needed homes.

“We moved too quickly, and we made the wrong decision,” he said.

The Ontario Greenbelt controversy, Doug Ford’s role and what has happened so far

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he is reversing his plan to open the protected Greenbelt lands for housing development and won't make any changes to the Greenbelt in the future. (Sept. 21, 2023)

The Canadian Press

The Premier said he made the choice to back down after speaking with the public, his cabinet and his caucus. He said voters will judge him on his promises in the next election, which is scheduled for 2026.

The PC government has been on the defensive all summer, after two reports from independent watchdogs revealed that certain developers were favoured in the Greenbelt land swap, which saw 15 sites removed from the environmentally protected region. (One parcel of land was later returned after it was put up for sale.)

After announcing the reversal on Thursday, and when asked if the government will face lawsuits from developers for returning the land to the Greenbelt, Mr. Ford said he can’t predict what will happen. But he said he wants to work with builders on housing and that he will make public any costs incurred by the reversal.

The growing scandal has cost Mr. Ford two cabinet ministers and also two top aides, with the Premier revealing Thursday that his housing policy director, Jae Truesdell, has also resigned.

Mr. Ford’s reversal happened a day after MPP Kaleed Rasheed resigned from cabinet as minister of public and business service delivery and from the Progressive Conservative caucus. Mr. Rasheed quit after his office admitted to giving incorrect information to the province’s Integrity Commissioner about a 2020 trip by the MPP to Las Vegas, where prominent developer Shakir Rehmatullah was also vacationing.

Mr. Truesdell had also been on the trip to Las Vegas before entering government.

Mr. Rasheed is the second minister to leave cabinet in the aftermath of a report from Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner, J. David Wake. Steve Clark also resigned from cabinet as housing minister after Mr. Wake determined that he broke ethics laws for failing to oversee his former chief of staff, Ryan Amato, who drove the “flawed” process for selecting lands from the Greenbelt for development. Mr. Amato also resigned.

Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk, who has since retired, also concluded in a report that the process for selecting the land was biased and favoured certain developers, who were set to see an $8.3-billion windfall as a result of releasing their properties from protection.

The 800,000-hectare environmentally protected Greenbelt was created by a previous Liberal government in 2005. While removing 3,000 hectares last fall, Mr. Ford’s government added 3,800 hectares elsewhere back into the protected area, although a substantial amount of that land was undevelopable or already protected.

Mr. Ford and his government had promised multiple times not to touch the protected land. In the 2018 election, the Liberals released a video showing him promising a “big chunk” of the area to developers, forcing him to backtrack and pledge not to do so.

Since announcing the carveouts, the Premier has derided the Greenbelt as a “scam,” claimed it was drawn up by the previous Liberal government using highlighters and a dart board, and compared it to a field of weeds. But on Thursday he vowed to protect it and keep it at its now-larger size.

The Ontario Greenbelt controversy: Your questions, answered

Opposition NDP Leader Marit Stiles said the reversal was a victory for activists and citizens who have protested the move for months. She called on Mr. Ford to follow through and pass an NDP bill restoring the Greenbelt’s former boundaries that she intends to introduce when the legislature returns from its summer break on Monday.

“It was a calculated attempt by the government to benefit a select few Conservative insiders at the expense of everybody else,” Ms. Stiles told reporters. “This whole scandal has pulled back the curtain on a government that’s all too comfortable making backroom deals.”

Tim Gray, executive director of the advocacy group Environmental Defence, which has been fighting the Greenbelt decision, credited a groundswell of local activism for forcing Mr. Ford to back down.

“This is what happens when the entire province mobilizes and takes the message to their elected officials,” Mr. Gray said in an interview. “It must have been a pretty rough time for members of provincial Parliament, based on the feedback that we were getting from people around the province. It just becomes untenable at some point and you have to do the right thing.”

Opposition critics have charged, citing recent land transactions, that some developers could have known in advance of the plans to remove Greenbelt lands. This summer, the OPP referred the Greenbelt matter to the RCMP, and the national police force is now evaluating whether to launch an investigation.

Mr. Ford’s climbdown followed just hours after the Integrity Commissioner released a report on Thursday declining to launch a full investigation into a stag-and-doe party held for Mr. Ford’s daughter before her wedding.

Mr. Wake said there are insufficient grounds to investigate the complaint. But he noted that Tony Miele, chair of the PC Ontario Fund, the fundraising arm of the Ontario PC Party, sold approximately 20 tickets to the event, including to a developer who later benefited from the Greenbelt decision.

Mr. Ford told reporters Mr. Miele is an old friend and sold the tickets on his own accord.

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