Galloway Housing Development Rally - April 22nd 2023

Development outcry, at-risk wildlife, political donations, a housing crisis — and we’re not just talking Greenbelt

This week, we bring you a big investigation from the small town of Fernie, B.C. And yes, we have some Ontario Greenbelt updates

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A man standing with a sign that reads "DON'T RUSH THIS DECISION." People around him have smaller signs that read "Say No Way to Galloway."
A public outcry over a development project that will cut through a corridor home to at-risk wildlife. Political donations raising eyebrows. A region in the grips of a housing crisis. Environmental reviews questioned by experts and publicly veiled by authorities. No, I’m not talking about Ontario’s Greenbelt (but wow do I have an update on that, too … in a hot second).

Back in April, managing editor Mike De Souza came across an announcement in the local newspaper when he was in Fernie, B.C.: the regional government was consulting with residents on whether a chunk of land should be used to build a gated community with 90 luxury homes over an ecologically sensitive area.

Mike watched as a 10-year-old girl, Anya Harshan, urged a community hall packed with hundreds of residents to oppose the luxe properties; other kids questioned if they’d ever be able to afford a house in the town where they grew up. Those pleas to nix the proposal were met with ferocious support from the crowd but failed to persuade decision makers, who eventually voted to approve the project later that month.

Just how big of an impact would these homes have on at least 10 sensitive or endangered species known to be in the area? The team behind it maintains the project strikes a balance between development and environmental protection, although one provincial biologist outright recommended the proposal be rejected. And the local government never actually released the developer’s full project application with its meeting agendas, instead providing only a summary of the project.
 
An aerial photograph of the land between the Fernie Alpine Resort and Mount Fernie Provincial Park, where Handshake Holdings is hoping to build up to 90 luxury homes
The Narwhal spent hundreds of dollars on a range of corporate records searches, court files and other public information requests on the track record of the developer, former Canadian Olympic skier and lawyer Reto Barrington. Eventually, details started to emerge about several companies Barrington operated, along with business dealings in Canada and the U.S. that ultimately led to his bankruptcy in 2013.

“You guys are just walking around trying to set traps with all the people you’re talking to. I’m not interested in that,” Barrington said, in a short phone conversation before hanging up on Mike last week.

While the developer declined to answer any more questions, Mike followed the money, tracing political donations made by a project consultant and a retired politician as well as Barrington’s spouse, who is a director of his company. The Narwhal’s months-long investigation is the first story to explore those details. (The politician who received the donations said there were “no strings attached” and they didn’t influence his position on the project.)

“In small towns across Canada right now, there are many real estate projects like this one that can go through a review without much scrutiny or routine questions from reporters,” Mike said. “Maybe some people don’t expect to get this much attention, as there are fewer and fewer journalists to take on these types of assignments.”
 
Photo illustration of houses in background and a green-coloured layer. Over that is a collage of Premier Doug Ford, Ryan Amato and Housing Minister Steve Clark.
Now, as promised, a bit of Greenbelt news: Ontario bureau chief Denise Balkissoon was looking forward to taking reporters Fatima Syed and Emma McIntosh out for some well-deserved ice cream on Wednesday, when a certain “Mr. X” brought their plans to a teetering halt.

Ontario’s integrity commissioner dropped the second in a series of Greenbelt post-mortems, this time an arraigning callout of Housing Minister Steve Clark, who was found to have breached ethics rules — or, in the words of the commissioner, chose to “stick his head in the sand” when he left an inexperienced staff member in charge of deciding what protected parcels to build on. 

Without Clark steering the ship, his staff was free to hobnob with developers and lobbyists — particularly an individual referred to as Mr. X, who definitely took Clark’s staff out to lunch and might have made plans with them to attend Toronto Raptors games and rounds of golf (Mr. X says staff accepted those offers, they say they didn’t). Mr. X’s developer client promised him an illegal kickback of up to $1 million if houses actually got built on once-protected land, according to the report.

With a mystery shrouding Mr. X — and a searing review of “untrained, unsupervised” staff, the report further excoriates the Doug Ford government’s flawed process of opening the Greenbelt.

One more thing the commissioner’s report confirmed? Emma’s sharp-eyed coverage from May, which suggested Ford’s government was aware of the Greenbelt changes earlier than he claimed. She and Fatima still have plenty of questions. While they work to answer them, go read a breakdown of the wild report over here.

Oh, and don’t worry, executive editor Carol Linnitt sent our Ontario trio cookies and ice cream to keep them going. It only made me a teeny bit jealous.

Whether it’s Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe or the Rocky Mountains of B.C., these stories highlight the much-needed role of reporters in keeping those in power in check. 

“It’s critical, now more than ever, that we are on the ground to ask tough questions and hold people accountable,” Mike told me. “And we can empower members of the public with information we uncover.”

Take care and don’t stick your head in the sand,

Karan Saxena
Audience engagement editor


P.S. If you’ve got story ideas you want to see The Narwhal cover, go fill out our survey. You might just win a couple of very exclusive Narwhal sweaters for you and a pal — just in time for fall.
 
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For The Walrus, Herb Mathisen writes about the naïve hope he held onto — that Yellowknife’s evacuations as the wildfire loomed would be merely precautionary — as he fled the Northwest Territories.

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With reporters at The Narwhal constantly digging for stories, you’ll never feel like you’ve got your head in the sand when it comes to news, solutions and analyses about the environment. Tell your friends to sign up for our free newsletter and stay in the know!
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