By: Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Following Steve Clark’s resignation Monday as Ontario’s housing minister, opposition parties and environmental advocacy organizations sounded the alarm: The move, they warn, should not distract from Doug Ford’s behaviour and his failure to protect the Greenbelt.
The embattled premier on Tuesday said his government will review all Greenbelt land proposals, but simultaneously refused to stop development processes from moving forward. His latest reaction to the province-wide backlash over his decision to open 7,400 acres of the Greenbelt for sprawling subdivisions has left critics questioning the value of the promised review, if Ford won’t halt all work that would lead to the bulldozing of formerly protected Greenbelt lands. He continues to fail, they say, to take any concrete action on the dubious process that led to the removal of 15 parcels of land from the Greenbelt, creating an estimated $8.3 billion of value for prominent developers.
Ford said a thorough review of all Greenbelt lands would be undertaken under new Housing Minister Paul Calandra, but made no promise that the 14 remaining parcels removed under Clark’s watch would be returned to protected status.
“We’re following the recommendations of the Auditor General and we’ll continue to follow the recommendations, but there’s going to be a complete review from top to bottom, and they’re gonna have to stand on their own merit. And it’s not just the 14 lands, it is going to be the 700 or 800 lands right across the board,” Ford told a room full of reporters Tuesday morning.
Despite the promised review, which is part of a process Ford said has to take place every ten years anyway, and the assigning of a land facilitator to examine all parcels, even the 14 already removed for future home construction, development work will be allowed to continue in the meantime.
“While many of his comments today were clearly mis-information, his mis-characterization of the original creation of the Greenbelt as stealing land from landowners, rather than simply re-designating the use of those lands, constitutes a ‘big lie’ that cannot go unchallenged,” Andrew McCammon, executive director of the Ontario Headwaters Institute, said. “Rather than calming vast waters of discontent by agreeing to convene the legislature to discuss both restoring the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act and repealing Bill 23, Mr. Ford has doubled down on the same behaviour that forced the resignation of Minister Clark.”
The Pointer sent an email to the Premier’s Office to clarify how development can continue, while a process of review is now being undertaken. Ford was asked if the review might lead to the reversal of his decision to open 7,400 acres of Greenbelt land. No response was immediately provided.
On Tuesday, Ford insisted his government is serious about implementing “all 14” recommendations stemming from Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s scathing audit last month. The comment was blatantly misleading, as there were 15 recommendations. He failed to address the key one, which called for the possible reversal of Ford’s controversial Greenbelt development plan, a recommendation he continues to ignore.
Before his resignation, Clark accepted responsibility for the scandal, but Ford, despite his close ties to developers and previous promises to them that he would open up the Greenbelt for residential construction, has refused to acknowledge his own role in the heavily criticized scheme.
The Greenbelt was created in 2005 under Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government in order to establish protection for lands that were facing pressures from a rapacious residential development industry that was gobbling up forests, wetlands and farmlands at an alarming rate. The Greenbelt Act was passed to provide protection to these precious ecosystems and their functions and habitats for the benefit of the natural environment, but also for the protection of Ontarians — their drinking water, air, farmland and access to vital greenspaces.
Victor Doyle, a former senior planner with the Ontario government, widely known as the architect of the Greenbelt plan, previously told The Pointer the boundaries of the protected greenspace were not arbitrarily decided. The landscape was carved out by the retraction of the Laurentide ice sheet approximately 10,000 years ago, leaving with it deposits of nutrients creating rich soil ideal for agriculture.
“Things are where they are for a reason,” Doyle said. “If you keep removing land along the south side of the Greenbelt, for instance, and adding land on the north or west, eventually the Greenbelt is going to be in a far different location than it was. And that makes no sense in terms of protecting the value of the landscape.”
The Greenbelt Act that a comprehensive review of protected lands must be undertaken every 10 years. In 2017, the previous Liberal government under Kathleen Wynne undertook an extensive review of lands which assessed requests for removal and made moderate changes to boundaries, overall leading to an increase in Greenbelt lands. While The Ford government’s entire Greenbelt Plan did result in a net benefit of land, the lack of transparency on the process and speed of removals, overall benefitting some of the wealthiest developers with ties to the Ford government, leaves the PCs under serious scrutiny. Compared to the previous government, Ford removed almost 20 times the lands in acres compared to the Liberal government, in just 11 weeks. Wynne’s review process took 27 months.
“We’re putting together a process, a process through government officials that we’re going to make sure the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted. We’re gonna make sure that there’s merit to every application that comes forward,” Ford said, failing to describe in more detail what criteria each land parcel would be assessed on.
Some remain hopeful that the 14 remaining lands might be returned to the Greenbelt, following the review.
But the resignation of Clark’s former chief of staff Ryan Amato two weeks ago and now the housing minister himself, and the promise of a comprehensive review are doing little to satisfy many Ontarians.
“The resignation of Minister Clark is a predictable attempt at damage control but that is no substitute for reversing the $8.3 billion Greenbelt giveaways in their entirety,” Phil Pothen, Ontario Environment Program Manager at Environmental Defence, said in a statement following Clark’s resignation.
“Given the findings of the Auditor General and the Integrity Commissioner and the vast 350 square kilometres supply of designated development land we had in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area alone (before this government took office), sprawling further outwards, let alone into the Greenbelt, cannot be justified and will only make things worse. Any Minister who persists in claiming otherwise, will only be implicating her or himself in what, going forward, they will know is a false story and disreputable, harmful policy initiative.”
The Ford government has been implementing controversial policies since 2018 under the guise of building more homes.
Doyle previously told The Pointer the development industry has made no secret of its ultimate goal.
“What we are witnessing is the culmination of a multi-faceted, heavily resourced strategic development industry campaign stretching back well over 10 years— setting the stage for when a careless, uninformed and/or ideologically wreckless government came to power which lacked integrity and honesty and was more than willing to simply accept whatever industry positions were given to it —as the Auditor General clearly revealed when documenting developers writing content and lands to be removed from the Greenbelt which was simply cut and pasted into Ontario legislation and policy.”
Evidence of the development industry’s strategy is not only seen in the Greenbelt removals, but throughout various ministries under Ford. While Clark has received the most scrutiny for his role in the Greenbelt Plan, Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney has been pushing Highway 413 which will rip through the southern part of the Greenbelt, triggering large scale development along its route, harming countless species at risk and sensitive habitats. The Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks has repeatedly stripped the mandate of conservation authorities in order to streamline development applications and allow builders to bypass many environmental regulations. All of these actions have been directed and amplified by Ford. Speaking to reporters Tuesday, he claimed the environmental assessment for the 413 was one of the most thorough worldwide and claimed it is absolutely unnecessary for the federal government to undertake another one, defending the position of developers critical of any federal interference.
Organizations such as Environmental Defence are stressing that while they are relieved to see Clark gone, his departure has no impact on the reversal of the Greenbelt scheme.
While Ford expressed his gratitude to Clark for accepting responsibility in the scandal, the Premier is failing to hold himself to the same standard. The Premier has made no effort to check the work of his ministries, claiming there is no need to “micromanage” them. But NDP leader Marit Stiles said this is nothing but an excuse, and accused Ford of using Clark as a scapegoat for a corrupt government led by Ford himself.
“Mr. Ford can rearrange the deck chairs all he likes, but it’s not going to change the fact that Ontarians are fed up with a corrupt government rigging the system to help a select few of their insiders get even richer at everyone else’s expense,” Stiles wrote in a statement. “With his slapdash team in place, he has even less of a reason not to recall the Legislature and face the music at Queen’s Park.”
“The Cabinet shuffle is irrelevant. Despite the changes, all the same people who approved this $8.3 billion Greenbelt Giveaway are still at the Cabinet table,” interim Ontario Liberal leader John Fraser wrote following Ford’s remarks. “The Premier’s future land review is irrelevant. It’s not even looking at the land that has already been taken out. The Premier must do what the Auditor General told him to do – return the people’s Greenbelt back to the people.”
As the scandal grows and more Ontarians learn of the flawed process that led to these lands being removed, prominent advocates believe Ford is ultimately responsible and the scandal will inevitably sway voters in three years.
“My sense is that, if the government does not implement that recommendation (to reverse the Greenbelt land swaps) they have no chance in winning the next election,” McCammon, from the Headwaters Institute, told The Pointer.
“Is there any recourse for the public?” Stiles asked rhetorically. “No, I mean, the easy answer is, in 2026, vote and send a hell of a clear message.”