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A farm in the Greenbelt in Freelton, Ont., on July 10.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

The RCMP are evaluating details of the Ontario government’s decision to open up parts of the protected Greenbelt to development, after the Ontario Provincial Police referred the matter to the national force, citing a possible conflict of interest.

The Mounties confirmed Wednesday that the OPP had requested that they 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.

“We will review and assess the information received and will take appropriate action as deemed necessary. As the investigation is in its infancy and is ongoing, we decline to offer any further comments,” said RCMP spokesperson Corporal Christy Veenstra. The force later clarified that it has not launched a full investigation, but rather an “evaluation” of the information.

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

The RCMP made their announcement one day after the resignation of Ryan Amato, the chief of staff to Ontario Housing Minister Steve Clark. Mr. Amato was thrust into the centre of the Greenbelt controversy two weeks ago, when the province’s Auditor-General released a report that concluded he had led an internal government project to select the lands for development. The report said the selection process was “biased,” and that it had “favoured certain developers” and delivered them a potential $8.3-billion windfall.

The Greenbelt is an environmentally protected zone that arcs around the Greater Toronto Area. Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government has faced widespread criticism over its move last fall to break its own repeated promises and remove protections from 3,000 hectares of Greenbelt land, which it explained as a bid to build more homes and address the housing crisis. The government added new protected land elsewhere.

Last fall, the OPP said they had received several requests from members of the public and advocacy groups calling for an investigation into the province’s Greenbelt land swap. The force’s anti-rackets branch had been reviewing these requests since December, to determine if there were grounds for a criminal investigation.

Although the OPP confirmed in a statement on Wednesday that they will no longer be looking into the matter because of what they called a “potential perceived conflict of interest,” the force has investigated provincial government actions in the past. It conducted a probe into a scandal that stemmed from the former Liberal government’s decision to cancel construction on two gas plants. This resulted in two senior staffers of former premier Dalton McGuinty being charged with breach of trust, mischief in relation to data and misuse of a computer system. One of the former aides was sentenced to four months in jail.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the RCMP review during a news conference in Charlottetown on Wednesday, he declined to comment. But he said governments need to ensure that more housing, including rental housing, is built across the country.

“We see densification, we see proper partnerships with municipalities across provinces, as being essential to do that,” Mr. Trudeau said. “We don’t think that the only solution is to build on protected lands.”

Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson from Mr. Ford’s office, said Wednesday that the OPP’s decision to refer the matter to the RCMP was made “independent of government.” She added that the Ontario government is working to implement 14 of the recommendations in the Auditor-General’s report. The government has said it will not heed the report’s 15th recommendation, which calls on it to reverse the Greenbelt land swap.

According to the report, all but one of the properties removed from the Greenbelt were identified by Mr. Amato, the chief of staff, for a small group of civil servants assigned to work on the project. The report said the process took just three weeks to complete and was “seriously flawed.”

In his resignation letter on Tuesday, Mr. Amato said he had been treated unfairly.

“The public statements about me in recent weeks have unfairly depicted me and my role regarding the Greenbelt. I am confident that I have acted appropriately, and that a fair and complete investigation would reach the same conclusion. However, these public statements have made it impossible, as a practical matter, for me to continue in my present role,” the letter said.

After Mr. Amato’s resignation, opposition parties reiterated their calls for Mr. Clark, the Housing Minister, to step down.

Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles told reporters on Wednesday that it defies belief that neither Mr. Ford nor Mr. Clark were aware of Mr. Amato’s actions.

“The rot starts at the top. Minister Clark needs to step down,” she said, adding that the government should also recall the Ontario legislature so it can reverse its decision to develop the Greenbelt.

She said the OPP decision to refer the matter to the RCMP was the right one.

After the release of the report, Mr. Ford asked the province’s Integrity Commissioner, J. David Wake, to review Mr. Amato’s conduct and determine if he had violated the Public Service of Ontario Act. This was one of the Auditor-General’s 15 recommendations.

Michelle Renaud, a spokesperson for the Office of the Integrity Commissioner of Ontario, said Mr. Wake is focused on completing a separate Greenbelt inquiry focused on Mr. Clark.

Mr. Wake will then address the request to look into Mr. Amato’s conduct, Ms. Renaud said.

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