ON-development-Duffins-Rouge-Preserve-farmland-CKL

Hot dog! It’s the Greenbelt Files

When I filed a freedom of information request about Ontario’s Greenbelt, I had a hunch it might lead to some pretty interesting details. But I couldn’t have anticipated what was to come

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Farmland in the Duffins Rouge Agricultural  Preserve, Pickering, Ont.
Sometimes, when I file a freedom of information request, my heart flutters as I hit that send button. 

It’s a nerdy thing to get excited about, I know. But in special cases, like when I wrote a request earlier this year for records about Ontario’s Greenbelt, I just know things are going to get spicy.  

I’m Emma McIntosh, an Ontario reporter for The Narwhal. This week, I’m taking you behind the scenes of my push to obtain documents we now know as the Greenbelt Files — a Narwhal scoop that prompted Premier Doug Ford to describe the two-million-acre protected area as “a big scam.”

Ever since the Ontario government announced plans last November to cut into the Greenbelt for housing construction, I’ve been trying to understand how such a significant decision materialized.

Ford and the minister responsible for the Greenbelt, Steve Clark, have said the land removed from the protected area was picked by public servants. They’ve said politicians only found out about the plan days before the public. 

But that doesn’t answer all my questions, including some raised by an investigation I worked on with the Toronto Star. For example, what prompted the province to remove protections from so many parcels of land owned by well-connected developers? So I turned to freedom of information. At first, the government denied us access to the Greenbelt Files. But after I filed a second request about my first request — a little bit of FOI-ception, stick with me here — we got something.

The documents were heavily redacted, but they did show senior staff in the premier’s office emailed about changes involving the Greenbelt months before that public timeline. They also showed a staffer breached my privacy while processing the first request: asking others how to respond to a request from The Narwhal, even though all details about who filed a request are meant to be kept confidential. And they showed that the digital folder where staffers were sending info about the request was called the Greenbelt Files, a name too good not to use in my story
 
A tweet by Narwhal reporter Emma McIntosh, reading : “As for this… I’d love to read the hot dog files! And the context of the phrase ‘Greenbelt Files’ is in a screenshot in the story, readers are welcome to see it for themselves and draw their own conclusions.” She is quoting another tweet by Ivana Yelich, deputy chief of staff to the premier, which reads: “The suggestion that staff nicknamed files the “Greenbelt Files” is ridiculous. The Narwhal asked for files referencing the Greenbelt so a specific folder was created. If a request was made for all files referencing hot dogs then a file would be created and called Hotdog Files.”
When we published what we knew last week it caused, ahem, a bit of a stir. First, the premier’s office went on the attack online. Then they denied the privacy breach, even though they’d already admitted to it. Finally, Ford himself took a swing at our reporting — and at the Greenbelt itself.

Denying that he had any advance knowledge of the protections being dropped, Ford said the “so-called Greenbelt” is “just a big scam,” a “fancy word” created by the previous Liberal government. He also said his government has a stellar environmental record. (We invite you to read our list of his government’s environmental changes during its second term and decide for yourself.)

The premier’s comments do not match the actual history of the Greenbelt, or his own previous promises to protect it. But they revealed something really important about how Ford sees the Greenbelt, which could have enormous implications for its future.

This all happened because public records helped us open a window into decisions made behind closed doors — and because our members support us in fighting to access them. That’s a battle we don’t intend to drop anytime soon.

Take care and get your story straight,

Emma McIntosh
Ontario reporter 
 
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What we’re reading


In The Globe and Mail, photojournalist Amber Bracken reports from the Inuit hamlet of Gjoa Haven, where a greenhouse powered by renewable energy is providing local produce to the community north of the Arctic Circle.

The New Republic dives into the increasing prevalence of mass animal mortality events — and how we understand very little about the repercussions.
 
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