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opinion

Ontario Premier Doug Ford returns to his office after a news conference at the legislature in Toronto on Nov. 8.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Many Canadians are no doubt gripped by the public inquiry in Ottawa into the Trudeau government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act.

It’s riveting stuff. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself will face questions later this week; some of his chief advisers and top cabinet ministers have already appeared, or will shortly. Next February, the independent commission holding the inquiry will tell us whether the government’s use of extraordinary powers to end the trucker protests was appropriate and effective.

The people of Ontario might hope for a similar inquiry into the undeclared invocation of what could be called Premier Doug Ford’s Personal Housing Emergencies Act, 2022.

Under the cover of Canada’s housing crunch, Mr. Ford’s Progressive Conservative government is taking extreme measures that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in the sort of temporary emergencies defined by the Emergencies Act.

The Ford measures include: tabling a bill that would allow the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa to adopt bylaws related with just one-third of the council vote; opening the protected Ontario Greenbelt to development; curtailing the ability of provincial Conservation Authorities to comment on projects; and dramatically reducing the development charges collected by municipalities to cover the cost of infrastructure, such as new parks and transit.

All this is being done by a Premier who has long been pro-sprawl. He is pushing ahead with yet another Ontario superhighway north and west of Toronto that will encourage developers to lay out ever more far-flung subdivisions. And in 2018 he said he would open up “a big chunk” of the Greenbelt to development in order to create more affordable housing – an idea he said came from developers themselves.

That promise lay dormant for four years, after a public backlash forced Mr. Ford to vow repeatedly that he would never lay a finger on the Greenbelt. But now his government is opening up 11 parcels of Greenbelt land that happen to be owned by some of his party’s most generous donors, as an investigation by The Narwhal and Toronto Star found.

All this, of course, because “crisis” – the same excuse Mr. Ford and his ministers are using to justify their plan to violate the fundamental democratic tenet that laws and bylaws should be adopted by a 50-per-cent-plus-one majority of legislators.

Stripping municipal voters of effective representation, removing once and for all the barrier to development in the Greenbelt, sidelining Conservation Authorities, transferring more infrastructure costs from developers to municipal taxpayers, and encouraging endless sprawl are not what any reasonable person had in mind when they called for a fix to the nation’s housing shortage.

It certainly was not on the mind of the Ontario Housing Affordability Task Force, an expert government panel that examined the issue and reported back last February. It concluded, in black and white, that “a shortage of land isn’t the cause of the problem.”

The task force said the real issue is that 70 per cent of land zoned for housing in Toronto, and 50 per cent across the province, is restricted to single-detached or semi-detached homes – the lowest density that exists.

It called on the Ford government to use its omnipotent power over municipalities to force them to allow, “as of right,” residential housing of up to four units and four storeys on a single residential lot.

That would not be a popular move with some voters. But it is the right move. It would slow sprawl, render city neighbourhoods more vibrant and accessible, make better use of existing infrastructure and result in more housing built more quickly, the task force said.

The Ford government is instead offering half-measures; it plans to allow owners to carve their homes into three units as a right. But rather than follow the task force’s main recommendations, Mr. Ford and his team prefer to reward land speculation in the Greenbelt, usurp municipal democracy, muzzle conservationists and increase sprawl.

Mr. Ford ought to be answering questions about all of this – especially about how and why his government selected the 11 parcels of land in the Greenbelt that will be opened to development.

He doesn’t think he has to, though, as long as he keeps muttering the word “crisis.”