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We were right about the Greenbelt changes — now what?

In this week’s newsletter, our Ontario team talks about a scathing audit into the Ford government’s Greenbelt changes — which has been all the buzz this week — and what the future could hold for the province’s protected spaces

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Image of Fatima Syed, Denise Balkissoon and Emma McIntosh standing (left to right) with their arms folded.
“I do want to say kudos and congratulations to really great investigative reporting,” auditor general Bonnie Lysyk said Wednesday, in recognition of The Narwhal’s fierce, member-supported coverage of Ontario’s Greenbelt. 

Lysyk’s praise followed the release of her scathing report into the Doug Ford government’s decision to scratch decades-old protections on 3,000 hectares of farmland and wetlands owned by prominent developers — a story our Ontario reporters, Emma McIntosh and Fatima Syed, have been doggedly investigating for the past nine months (though it has felt more like nine years). 

Over 95 pages, Lysyk outlined how the government’s process, in her words, was “biased and lacked transparency” with developers given “preferential treatment” by an unelected political staffer: the chief of staff for Housing Minister Steve Clark.
 
Illustration of Housing Minister Steve Clark, auditor general Bonnie Lysyk and Premier Doug Ford
One takeaway our bureau had poring over Lysyk’s report was, well, we were right. About many things, including that the process was more political than prudent: as Emma reported with our friends at the Toronto Star last November, many of the developers have deep connections to Ford or the Progressive Conservatives. Now, those that own the majority of the land that lost protections are set to see their property values increase by, according to Lysyk, about $8.3 billion. Meanwhile, there’s no guarantee housing actually gets built on the sites, many of which lack services such as sewers and are far from the amenities communities need.

Judging from emails and social media conversations, Ontarians are hopping mad about this. Lysyk’s report is the latest, greatest Greenbelt bombshell — an investigation that began in large part due to mounting public pressure after journalists at The Narwhal and elsewhere uncovered details about the Ontario government’s cuts to long-standing environmental protections.

To hear Ontario’s auditor general praise The Narwhal confirmed one thing: this is the kind of people-powered reporting that holds power to account.
 
Screenshot of a Tweet that says: I honestly don’t know if this story would have lept into the consciousness of Ontarians without the incredible reporting done by @EmmaMci @fatimabsyed and @balkissoon. Thank you all and thanks to @thenarwhalca for fighting to hold people in power to account.
If you want to see more public-interest stories on Ontario’s protected spaces and environmental policies, sign up as a member by giving what you can today.

So what’s next? Emma is away enjoying Lake Huron this week, but she couldn’t help herself from tuning into the buzz. Read on below for an excerpt of a call she and Fatima had after the report was released, as they discussed all the things they were right about (no, they don’t get tired of saying it) and where to go from here.

Take care and don’t trigger a 95-page audit,

Denise Balkissoon
Ontario bureau chief
Denise Balkissoon headshot

P.S. Join a growing chorus of Narwhal members who support ad- and paywall-free environmental reporting — and we’ll send you a copy of our limited-edition 2023 print magazine!
 
Photo of Fatima Syed and Emma McIntosh
Fatima: Okay, first reactions … go!

Emma: Let me tell you how this went yesterday. I woke up at 8:45 a.m. and was like, “Okay I gotta go.” I hopped on my bike and went into town to download the report. There’s no Wi-Fi here but there’s a new dock master that has StarLink Wi-Fi. So I downloaded the report to save myself a treat when I got home. I wasn’t going to read it on the dock … but I couldn’t resist. So I just opened it up to the introduction and I literally gasped the loudest I’ve ever gasped, jumped up and down twice and then spun in a circle and ran home as fast as I could.

Fatima: I opened the first document and, like you, read the introduction, and I literally yelped — I don’t think I’ve ever yelped in my life. And then I looked up to find you and you weren’t there!

Emma: I’m sorry buddy! It was definitely weird to experience it without you. But oh my goodness, there were so many times where I kept thinking the shocking stuff had to be over. But when I got to the part about the chief of staff dining with the developers — with packages containing information about two Greenbelt land sites passed to him — I stood up in my chair and yelped as well.

Fatima: Cinematic right?! Total made-for-TV movie. 

Emma: It totally is. And the first words that popped into my head after reading that intro, and honestly over and over again the more I read: we were right. We were right!

Fatima: It’s a nice confirmation that we were sniffing and fishing in the right places and our sources, the information they were giving us was right on the money. It was such a “hell yeah” moment.

Emma: All along we’ve been wondering if the government tipped off developers. It never occurred to us that the developers were the ones that tipped off the government. That it was their demands, their asks that drove policy, not the other way around. 

Fatima: Never, in my wildest dreams, did I imagine this particular scenario: that there would be a covert team set up by a chief of staff. Like that’s House of Cards- or West Wing-level scripting. And all this happened without the knowledge of the housing minister and the premier?
 
Illustration of details related, or not, to the Ontario government's announcement that it would cut into the protected Greenbelt.
Emma: Here’s the thing about the report, it’s a 95-page debunk of every single thing Ford has said about the Greenbelt. And at the press conference yesterday, Ford and Clark just went up there and repeated all those same untruths. And so if they’re being repeatedly dishonest with the public about what happened over and over again, it’s very hard, I think, for any credible person, to trust that their explanation now is truthful. It really goes back to what we’ve been saying since Day 1, right? That every piece of this story just falls apart under the slightest bit of scrutiny. It crumbles into dust. 

Fatima: I think what concerns me most is this is Bonnie Lysyk’s last report. As of Sept. 2, we’re not going to have an auditor general anymore. I wonder who will replace her, if anyone, and what files she has on deck that we’ll likely never see. There have been so many changes made in the dark in Ontario over the last several months that we’re still trying to figure out through freedom of information requests; if we don’t have a watchdog in place, how will we learn what’s going on? 

Emma: This freaks me out too. Especially because there’s such a pattern of this: first the government got rid of the environmental commissioner and folded it into the auditor general. Then they unceremoniously dumped the financial accountability officer who was quite a thorn in their side. And now the auditor general’s term is expiring. It’s definitely worrying, especially when we can literally see in Lysyk’s report that the premier’s office staff tried to obscure the truth. She documented cases of them deleting emails that should be subject to freedom of information — we will never know what was in those. 

Fatima: I think the auditor general’s report makes clear there’s no internal accountability happening over the way decisions are made by this government. And there’s no external accountability to ensure that government policy decisions are doing what they are set out to do. And now we’re losing another pillar of accountability. How are we meant to know what the government is up to and whether they are acting in the best interests of Ontarians? Because that is in serious doubt after this report.

Emma: The fact that everyone involved has so far kept their jobs is a stronger statement than anything they could’ve said yesterday.
 
A row of Single family homes in Halton, Ont.
Emma: I still want to understand why. We kind of get a timeline here. We know they were already looking at opening the Greenbelt. … I want to understand why it was these two developers at this dinner that changed the trajectory of everything. Was it just lucky timing? I don’t know if we’ll ever know that. And I think the big outstanding question, like the number one blinking-lights flashing-red item: what are the consequences? … I want to know what the integrity commissioner is going to find. 

Fatima: I think the question in my mind is: who is making the decisions at Queen’s Park right now? And are they making it in a way that is fully informed, transparent and in the interest of the public, first and foremost? I am very worried both as a journalist and Ontarian. 

Emma: Also, are these homes gonna get built? This is going to play out for years and years and years and it is going to be a mess at every single stage. And I guess they really weren’t thinking about that when they did this. You can see it in the report, but *big exhale* it’s gonna be rough.
 
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