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In the weeks before Christmas, while Ontarians were understandably focused on other things, the Ford government quietly neutered the provincial bodies that protect natural areas and watersheds.

Thanks to last-minute legislation snuck into a budget bill adopted on Dec. 8, the province’s 36 conservation authorities will be forced to green-light development projects for which the government issues a ministerial order that overrides their independence.

So-called ministerial zoning order orders (MZOs) have existed for years but are meant to be used only on rare occasions. The Ford government has ratcheted up their use since taking power in 2018. And now MZOs will strip conservation authorities of their ability to withhold permits from development projects they deem harmful.

The CAs will still be able to make developers mitigate any damage their projects might do, but the conditions they impose can be appealed to the environment minister, rather than to their own appeals body.

As one example of the consequence of this change, it is now expected that a development company whose owner donated thousands of dollars to the Ontario PC Party will be able to pave over a 57-acre lot in the Toronto suburb of Pickering that is under protection as a “provincially significant wetland,” and build a distribution centre.

Ontario’s Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister, Steve Clark, issued an MZO for the project in October at the request of Pickering’s municipal council, the mayor of which also received political donations from the development company involved.

The defanging of Ontario’s conservation authorities could open the door to more projects in the Greenbelt – two million largely undeveloped acres that ring the Greater Toronto Area, containing farmland, parks and fragile ecosystems, as well as serving as the watershed for Canada’s largest metropolis.

And that’s the real danger here. The Ford government’s move to create easier channels for developers to get their projects built comes at the expense of a conservation regime designed to serve long-term needs.

Ontario’s conservation authorities were created in 1946 in response to widespread concerns about rapid development and deforestation.

The CAs own and operate dams, monitor streamflow, snow pack and rainfall, and operate flood-warning systems. They also maintain conservation areas, plant trees, manage woodlots, protect water sources and approve septic systems.

And until last month, they were able to independently regulate development around wetlands and other sensitive zones. That has now been put in jeopardy by the Ford government’s political override through the use of MZOs.

Premier Doug Ford has defended MZOs as a necessary tool for building urgently needed long-term care homes, affordable housing and other public goods. But that’s a red-herring argument for giving the Environment Minister the power to force conservation authorities to issue permits for commercial projects in protected wetlands.

It’s the kind of myopic politics that comes home to roost. The current pandemic provides sobering examples of this.

After the SARS scare in 2003-04, Ontario filled a warehouse with $45-million worth of personal protection equipment and other vital materiel. But successive governments never budgeted money to keep the contents up to date and, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, most of it was unusable.

The Trudeau government likewise ignored the long term when it interfered with the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, the Canada Public Health Agency’s system for monitoring disease outbreaks around the world. In May, 2019, just months before the novel coronavirus appeared in China, Ottawa quietly shuttered the early warning system.

It’s not self-evident that, had the government not done so, the GPHIN’s work could have helped limit the current crisis. On the other hand, Ottawa has since seen reason to reverse itself. In August, the GPHIN began issuing international outbreak alerts again.

Politicians can do harm when they fail to think past the next election. The Ford government has done just that with its neutering of conservation authorities at a time when there is growing development pressure on the Greenbelt, and across the province. By undermining institutions created to allow for long-term planning and preservation, the Ford government is selling out the future.

Editor’s note: (Jan. 11, 2021): Steve Clark is the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing not Environment as published in an earlier version. This version has been corrected.

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