The Ontario government says it plans to introduce a bill “very soon” that would restore the boundaries of the province’s protected Greenbelt and go even further to formally enshrine them in law, as Premier Doug Ford tries to recover from a political scandal that has left his Progressive Conservatives reeling.
But on Monday, his PC MPPs blocked the introduction of draft Greenbelt legislation from the Opposition NDP. That bill, voted down before it was even granted first reading, would have also returned the 3,000 hectares the government removed last fall and, NDP Leader Marit Stiles said, formally set the 800,000-hectare Greenbelt’s boundaries in law.
After months of outcry, Mr. Ford last week backed down on his promise-breaking move to allow developers to build housing on parts of the Greenbelt. He apologized to the public and vowed not to touch the area again, even though he had previously derided the Greenbelt as a “scam” reminiscent of oppressive communist regimes in North Korea and China.
The reversal capped off a difficult summer for his PC government, which was bruised by scathing reports on the Greenbelt from the province’s Integrity Commissioner and from the Auditor-General, who condemned the Greenbelt carveouts for favouring a small group of developers and handing them $8.3-billion in increased land values.
The affair prompted the resignation of two cabinet ministers. Two senior aides have also resigned. The Ontario Provincial Police has referred the matter to the RCMP, which is considering whether to investigate.
On Monday, with the Ontario Legislature back after its summer break and holding Question Period for the first time since Mr. Ford’s about-face on the Greenbelt, the Premier answered a few questions from Ms. Stiles, the Official Opposition Leader, but deflected some of her inquiries to Housing Minister Paul Calandra.
Mr. Calandra said the government would not support the NDP’s Greenbelt bill and would instead introduce his own legislation “very soon” to codify the protected area’s boundaries.
“We’re going to do what has never been done in this province before. We will protect the Greenbelt once and for all,” Mr. Calandra told the legislature.
In answering questions on the Greenbelt in the House, Mr. Calandra also said he would bring forward “a bill later on this week which will ensure that the people of the province of Ontario are focused on what matters to them: build houses.” His office later clarified that this bill was not the Greenbelt legislation.
Speaking to reporters at Queen’s Park, Ms. Stiles said she would not take the government at its word and warned of weaknesses in whatever Greenbelt legislation it does bring forward.
“I don’t trust this government to fix the mess of their own making, not for a second,” Ms. Stiles said. “I don’t trust that whatever legislation they provide won’t have giant loopholes.”
The province’s Greenbelt Act, which dates from 2005 and was set up to save farmland and contain suburban sprawl, allows the government of the day to change the boundaries of the protected area, provided it does not shrink it, by issuing regulations.
These moves must be posted online for 30 days of consultations, as the government did last fall when it vowed to carve out parts of the Greenbelt to allow the construction of as many as 50,000 new homes. (It also added more land elsewhere back into the protected area, although much of that new land was already protected or undevelopable.)
Enshrining the restored Greenbelt boundaries in law would require the government to bring any changes to the legislature for a vote. However, a majority government, such as Mr. Ford’s, could still easily force through alterations in a few days if it saw fit, invoking time-allocation motions to shut off debate.
The Greenbelt issue had consumed the government for weeks, before Mr. Ford’s reversal last week. Steve Clark resigned earlier this summer as housing and municipal affairs minister, after Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake found he had violated ethics rules for failing to oversee his chief of staff, Ryan Amato.
It was Mr. Amato, according to the Integrity Commissioner and the Auditor-General, who drove the selection process for Greenbelt land to be removed. He and a senior aide to Mr. Ford, Jae Truesdell, have also resigned.
Kaleed Rasheed quit as minister of public and business service delivery, after acknowledging he gave incorrect information to the Integrity Commissioner about a 2020 trip to Las Vegas he took at the same time as a prominent developer, Shakir Rehmatullah, who would later benefit from the Greenbelt land swap. (On Friday, Monte McNaughton resigned as labour minister to take a job in the private sector, although he said it wasn’t related to recent events.)
In the legislature on Monday, Ms. Stiles accused the government of being mired in scandal and disarray and asked Mr. Ford to “come clean” and explain his own involvement in the affair. Mr. Ford said he was clear to the people of Ontario when he apologized last Thursday.
“That’s what you call leadership: admitting if there was a mistake, moving forward and making sure we go on with our agenda,” the Premier said, to guffaws from opposition MPPs.
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner has asked the Integrity Commissioner to use his powers to trigger a public inquiry into the Greenbelt land swap. The commissioner’s office said the request was under review.
Meanwhile, several hundred demonstrators gathered outside Queen’s Park to oppose the government’s plans to expand the role of private health clinics, in a protest organized by the union-sponsored Ontario Health Coalition.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story reported that the Ontario government was bringing forward legislation to restore its protected Greenbelt lands this week, based on comments made by Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Paul Calandra in the legislature on Monday. His office says the minister, while answering questions on the Greenbelt, was referring to another bill on housing coming this week and that the government’s Greenbelt bill would be introduced at a later time.