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The RCMP has launched a criminal investigation into the Ontario government’s now-abandoned move to open parts of the province’s environmentally protected Greenbelt to housing construction.

The announcement follows months of speculation that the government could face a police probe of its Greenbelt carveouts, which the province’s auditor-general said favoured landowners with connections to Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives and handed them a potential windfall of more than $8.3-billlion in increased property values.

In August, the Ontario Provincial Police anti-rackets squad, after considering its own investigation, referred alleged “irregularities” in the Greenbelt process to the RCMP, citing a potential conflict of interest that the OPP did not explain. On Tuesday, the RCMP’s Ontario Division confirmed it had launched a probe.

The force’s sensitive and international investigations unit, in charge of the file, handles “high risk matters that cause significant threats to Canada’s political, economic and social integrity of its institutions,” the force says on its website. The unit’s expertise includes corruption, fraud and breach-of-trust allegations aimed at senior federal officials, and illegal lobbying. It also handles war crimes, torture and cybercrime.

An RCMP spokeswoman, Corporal Christy Veenstra, said in an e-mail that the unit had launched an investigation into allegations associated with the province’s decision to open parts of the Greenbelt for development. She said the force would be providing no further information for now.

The Ontario Greenbelt controversy: Your questions, answered

The government’s plan to take 3,000 hectares out of the 800,000-hectare Greenbelt that surrounds the Greater Toronto Area, which it said was necessary to alleviate the housing crisis, was first publicly announced last fall. It flew in the face both of repeated promises by Mr. Ford not to touch the protected area and experts who said the province already had ample land earmarked for housing. Almost a year later, it has prompted two cabinet ministers to resign and cost the government three senior political aides. And now it has sparked a probe by an elite law-enforcement unit.

The Auditor-General’s report, released in August, concluded the Greenbelt land-selection process was “biased” and conducted without the normal analysis by professional civil servants, reigniting controversy over the move. The province’s Integrity Commissioner then concluded that Mr. Ford’s housing minister, Steve Clark, had violated the rules that govern MPPs for failing to oversee his chief of staff, Ryan Amato, and the “chaotic and almost reckless” way he chose Greenbelt lands for removal. After at first vowing to stay on, Mr. Clark quit last month. Mr. Amato also resigned.

The Premier’s Office issued a brief statement on Tuesday saying it would “fully co-operate” with any investigation but offered little other comment “out of respect for the police and their process.”

“We have zero tolerance for any wrongdoing and expect anyone involved in the decision-making about the Greenbelt lands to have followed the letter of the law,” the statement from spokeswoman Caitlin Clark reads.

It was not known what precisely the RCMP would investigate. Media outlets, including The Globe and Mail, have reported that some of the lands removed from the Greenbelt had changed hands after Mr. Ford was first elected in 2018, and in one case, less than two months before the plan was announced last fall – prompting questions from opposition politicians whether some developers were tipped off.

In their reports this summer, both now-retired auditor-general Bonnie Lysyk and Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake harshly criticized the three-week process for choosing the land. All but one of the 15 plots removed from the Greenbelt were put forward by Mr. Clark’s chief-of-staff. Overseeing a small group of civil servants, Mr. Amato received proposals for land removals directly from prominent developers at an industry banquet and had bureaucrats alter or scrap environmental and other criteria to evaluate them.

But both Mr. Clark and Mr. Ford said they had believed the lands were chosen by professional bureaucrats before the proposal went to cabinet last year.

Ms. Lysyk had told reporters when she delivered her report in August that she had met with the OPP during her investigation. Reached on Tuesday, she welcomed the RCMP probe.

“The RCMP doing an investigation will probably address either the perception or the reality that there was favouritism,” Ms. Lysyk told The Globe and Mail. “This is the type of review people want in order to [learn how] things were handled.”

The advent of a criminal probe was a potential watershed moment for Mr. Ford’s government. After sticking to his Greenbelt plans despite the scathing reports from Ms. Lysyk and Mr. Wake – and even suggesting more protected land could be removed for housing – Mr. Ford backed down last month, calling the move a mistake and saying he would reverse it. His new Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Paul Calandra, said last week that legislation restoring the Greenbelt protections would be introduced next Monday.

New Democrat Leader Marit Stiles said the RCMP probe is a “shameful situation” for the government.

“For over a year, sign after sign has pointed toward a cash-for-access culture of corruption and collusion at the heart of how this government made decisions, particularly around the Greenbelt land swap,” Ms. Stiles told reporters on Tuesday.

Ms. Stiles also said Tuesday that the province’s acting auditor-general, Nick Stavropoulos, was examining the government’s use of ministerial zoning orders, decrees it has deployed repeatedly to fast-track developer projects. She had requested an audit of the practice last month but the auditor says his office had already decided to launch probe.

Mr. Clark, the former housing minister who remains a PC MPP, said in an e-mail that he had not been contacted by the RCMP. So did a lawyer for Kaleed Rasheed, another cabinet minister who resigned amid the Greenbelt scandal for providing inaccurate information to the Integrity Commissioner about a 2020 trip to Las Vegas where he met up with a prominent developer. Mr. Amato, Mr. Clark’s former chief of staff, declined to comment through his lawyer.

With a report from Laura Stone

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