Bonnie Lysyk doesn’t like leaving things undone.

That’s why the outgoing Ontario auditor general, who is wrapping up her decade in the role in early September, couldn’t walk away without releasing one last bombshell report: a scorched-earth investigation into the Ontario government’s decision to open sections of the Greenbelt to development. 

The report, released Aug. 9, was rich in the kind of revelations that seem like they belong in a Hollywood production: developers passing packages to a political staffer at a development industry dinner, secret non-disclosure agreements and even the deletion of public records. Lysyk also confirmed that the government gave “preferential treatment” to a group of well-connected developers when it decided which land to remove from the Greenbelt, something many had suspected all along. She was able to do so even though the two developers who benefitted most — to the tune of over $8 billion — went to court to avoid being forced to turn over documents and answer her questions.

To some, the Greenbelt report brings Lysyk’s term as auditor general full-circle. A decade ago, her first audit was into an aspect of the previous Liberal government’s gas plants scandal, another tale of government misdoings and deleted records, which eventually sent a former premier’s chief of staff to jail. In between, Lysyk has also caused many a ruckus with reports on everything from mining and hazardous waste to invasive species and climate targets.

Ontario reporters Emma McIntosh and Fatima Syed sat down with Lysyk — who came prepared with a list of every audit she’s worked on, a printout of the law that guides her office and an extra-large coffee — to reflect on a decade as a watchdog, what her critics say behind closed doors and the possibility of a second Greenbelt report. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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EM: How do you feel about this being your final report? It was a spicy one. 

I guess it provides a little bit more closure on something we’ve been working on for a while. There’s a sense that I was able to at least contribute to that, to this point in time. I’m sure over the next while, if there’s any additional information or any kind of related work, this office is equipped to carry on with that. But for me, it brings a bit more closure. I don’t like leaving things undone.

FS: A lot of people have said there are a lot of commonalities between your first report and your last report, and their reflections and findings on how the government works or doesn’t work. When you reflect on the first report and the last report, what comparisons and common threads do you see?

I think I would say that one of the themes between that one and this last one is: big decisions require good information and supportable information. Probably in both cases, the decisions that were made weren’t based on the best information available at the time. 

FS: Is it discouraging that the first and the last report found the same things?

We’ve done probably about 160 [audits] since I’ve been here. So a lot of the audits we do have a theme in them: to make good decisions you need information, and you need to be expedient in making decisions. But not everything requires the same sense of expediency. So sometimes I think [when we] try and do something fast, we give up basing a decision on good information. 

We also see long term planning [is another theme]. Governments are elected for four years … Sometimes decisions are made for the short term without that vision of the long term. 

Ontario Greenbelt: Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark speaks at a podium with Premier Doug Ford behind him. Ford is looking down and rubbing his forehead
Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark, left, and Premier Doug Ford, right, had already been under fire for nine months over the Greenbelt. But the backlash is intensifying even more in the wake of Lysyk’s report. Photo: Cole Burston / The Canadian Press

EM: Did you find anything in the course of your work on the Greenbelt report that you can’t tell us about? Is there anything outstanding that wasn’t in the report?

We make conscious decisions as to what we report publicly. Pretty much, it’s everything.

If after I left there was more information, there’s possibility of a part two, but that hasn’t been determined yet.

EM: You’ve previously said you talked to the Ontario Provincial Police in the course of your work on the Greenbelt report. What specifically were you referring to them?

I just needed some understanding and some advice. That was the context of it.

FS: Was that about anything in particular?

Every time you do an audit, you talk to people in areas that can offer you more specialized knowledge, and that was the context of the discussion. We were challenged in talking to the developers in particular. At that point my discussion within the office was: how do we do that? Do we go forward with that, or do we decide it’s enough to report the fact that people won’t talk to us? Do we need to go to court on this one?

The decision was not to go to court on this. It’ll be up to the legislature to determine if they leave it as it is, or whether those individuals should talk to us. So really no, going back to your original question, it really was to seek some advice and some understanding.

An illustrated image of Ontario's Greenbelt with animals and plants
The previous Ontario Liberal government created the Greenbelt in 2005 to protect a ring of farmland, forests, wetlands and waterways in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. The Progressive Conservatives opened 7,400 acres of it to development in late 2022. Illustration: Jeannie Phan / The Narwhal

FS: You mentioned the court process. There were two key interviews with developers you weren’t allowed to do, which you were seeking to do for the Greenbelt report. What outstanding questions do you have for the government, for developers and for anyone else?

We would have liked to meet with the developers to hear their perspectives on the land, how they came to request their land being removed, and why that timing. And to also give their viewpoint to us on removing the land from the Greenbelt.

I do know they had spoken with the integrity commissioner, so I thought it was just reasonable that we speak with them as well. So, you know, that’s a little bit disappointing, but at the end of the day I think there’s still another report to come from the integrity commissioner, and he did have the benefit of that discussion. That’s another reason for not pursuing it further at this point. Let’s see what the integrity commissioner has to say.

We’ve left the door open. If the developers want to talk to us, they’re more than welcome to reach out. Having said that, if there’s any new information that we become aware of, we might do more work. We don’t have anything planned at this point.

EM: What do you say to critics who have questioned whether the Greenbelt report was within your scope?

It’s actually going back to: what is this office? It’s the Office of the Auditor General. The key word is ‘audit.’ We are an accountability function, an oversight function. Our [legislation] asks us to do this type of work. If you look at the definition, an audit is looking at everything.

We audit compliance with legislation, we audit whether processes are appropriate, whether services are delivered in the time they should be delivered. The breadth of audit is wide, but we’re always operating within our legislative mandate, and everything we do we report to the legislature. When we’re auditing and issuing reports, they’re for the government but they’re also for all other [MPPs] and backbenchers and through them, the citizens. It’s all about transparency. It’s all about holding the government to account. We have not done anything outside of our scope. We’ve been right down the middle of our lane.

You know, I think there has been a [similar] comment about the work we did on money laundering … that’s creative auditing. The point of it was, none of what we found was supposed to be happening, and it was happening. You would assume the response to that would be ‘OK, we’ll fix it.’

I think when you get the responses pushing back, to me, it’s an attempt to deflect … Or it’s just pointing out a different sort of view on a particular issue … The majority of people would say if you have a problem, it should be fixed.

Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk speaks to the media during a press conference regarding her Special Report on Changes to the Greenbelt, at Queens Park, in Toronto, Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023.
Lysyk’s report on changes to the Greenbelt concluded the Ontario government gave “preferential treatment” to a group of well-connected developers whose lands were opened for housing construction. Photo: Arlyn McAdorey / The Canadian Press

FS: Is that the measure of successful audit? That something is fixed based on your findings? Or is there another measure, like public outrage?

Everything we work on, those reports are vetted for factual accuracy with the audit team. So every time we publish a report, feel comfortable knowing that the people that are involved have signed off that they agree with the content. We also give them an opportunity to do responses to recommendations, and so it is a real collaborative process. We’ll get comments back [from people who say] ‘Jeez, your team gave us some ideas on how to improve.’ That doesn’t make it in the report.

In the report, the team will have recommendations that are more official, and we’ll get responses. If we get implementation of those recommendations and buy-in, that is success for the office. 

EM: I feel like a lot of the time the environmental audits are pretty bleak, but have you seen anything that has turned around in your time here?

We were doing some environmental audits before the government made the change with the [environmental commissioner’s office, which was folded into the Office of the Auditor General in 2019] … and we were seeing there was a lot of room for improvement. 

We began to sort of merge our teams together. We saw how we could benefit from having people who had that science background working on audits that didn’t have an environmental component. And then people who were auditors working on the science in environmental audits. So we did a lot of switch-ups there. One of the first ones … was when we looked at the Bereavement Authority [in 2020], and we noticed that the crematoriums didn’t have emissions controls. It got fixed. 

In terms of the trend, it’s a little bit sad to say, but I think we’ve seen a bit of a deterioration in the focus on the environment [in the government] over the last number of reports we’ve done.

Farmland and protected wetlands looking south from Fourth Concession Rd., west of Altona Rd., in the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, Pickering, Ont
Lysyk published her report on the Greenbelt without two key interviews with the developers who benefitted the most from the decision to remove land from the protected area. Though she said that was a “little bit disappointing,” she also said it’s possible the next auditor general could do a second report if more information comes to light. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

FS: I reported on the environmental commissioner’s office closing down. I remember at that time, a lot of people were saying, ‘Oh, no, there’s going to be no more environmental oversight in this province, what are we going to do?’ And it’s interesting now hearing you reflect on how perhaps it doesn’t have to be boxed in. Reading the Greenbelt report, I remember thinking, ‘Hey, we somehow brought together the environment and the economy in this one report,’ which is kind of cool to think about.

That’s the struggle, right? Economy, environment; economy, environment. I think they can’t be looked at separately, they have to be looked at together. Bringing it together is the way forward. You have to be real: there’s climate change, then there’s the money coming from industries that pay taxes that are counter to the climate. 

But yeah, what we’ve tried to do is make it broader.

EM: Since the government merged the role of the environmental commissioner into your office, your team has been overseeing Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights, which includes public consultation requirements for environmental changes. We’ve noticed that over and over, your annual report on the bill documents so many cases where the law was not followed. Do you see a remedy for that?

We can’t do anything other than publicly report what we see. It really is then up to the government to take the next step, or the public to understand this is how this bill is being received. 

We have a recommendation out there — the [Environmental Bill of Rights] is supposed to be reviewed every so many years. We’re suggesting that is a good thing because maybe it’s time to update it. The risk is that it [is changed to be not] as strong, right? So it’s kind of one of those catch-22s. You want to review it, but it might be negatively impacted. 

Housing Minister Steve Clark's chief of staff “substantially controlled and directed” the process of removing protected areas from Ontario’s Greenbelt, giving “preferential treatment” to a group of developers, says a new report from outgoing Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk.
Lysyk’s report on the Greenbelt found Clark’s chief of staff “substantially controlled and directed” the process of choosing what protected Ontario Greenbelt land to open to development. Photos: The Canadian Press. Photo illustration: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal

FS: Over the years, your methods and your reports have been criticized by both Progressive Conservatives and Liberals — and often by the media as well. I’m wondering if you’ve seen governments become more resistant to oversight over the last 10 years, and if so, has that informed your approach?

Under both governments I would say that we have had a really strong and good relationship with the entities we audit. It’s not adversarial — it’s collegial.

It’ll be the odd report that will have something in it that has some political sensitivity out there. And perhaps at the time we release it, there may be a public response, but that public response would not necessarily be consistent with the way our reports have been received inside [the government]. When we’re clearing the reports, all the deputy ministers and CEOs [of provincial agencies] have copies of the reports, they know what’s in it, they’ve given us the responses. I actually have always met with each of the ministers and their chiefs of staff before the report goes public. So there’s no surprises.

Sometimes I think it’s also a diversion, right? Something will come out and the government, just to divert from the content of the report, makes the issue more about the auditor or the Office of the Auditor General or methods or techniques.

FS: So do you think they’re still receptive to oversight? 

I know they have been because if you meet with them, there’s always copies on their desks or in your cabinets of our reports. I’ve been told when a minister is appointed, they’re asked to read our reports. Sometimes they ask questions like, ‘What do you think about this? What do you think about that, auditor?’ 

I started with a minority government in Ontario. I was hired by all parties and I’m really proud of that. What I see in Ontario is, I think in minority [governments] people work together more. 

Ring of Fire: Ontario Premier Doug Ford stares straight ahead inside Queen's Park
Politicians from different parties, including Premier Doug Ford, have accused Lysyk of straying from the scope of her job. Lysyk told The Narwhal she often feels criticism from politicians is “an attempt to deflect.” Photo: Carlos Osorio / The Narwhal

When you do get a big majority, there’s more boldness to government. They feel they’re entitled. They won the election. But sometimes, being too bold can get you in trouble, right? And so it’s a matter of being humble too in a majority, because you still need people to accept what you do. After you’re not a majority, you still need to work with people in the legislature. You’re still accountable. 

It may be easy to point to us and say we’re not doing our thing … If you have a majority, you may think you don’t have to be held to account by an Office of the Auditor General. But I think we all think you still need accountability.

FS: How do you hope to be remembered?

I’d like to be known as an effective auditor general. But also that I cared. I do care. I do care that we put out good work. And I do believe in accountability.

EM: What’s next for you?

I still have a lot to do before I wind down … Then I’ll take some time and then I’ll figure it out.

Inside I still feel young, so I still have energy to do something. I’m just not sure what yet … The energy industry interests me … I hope there’s something I’ll be asked to do.

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
We’ve got big plans for 2024
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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