Ontario government staffers working on contentious changes to the Greenbelt in 2022 edited email chains to remove mentions of the protected area and replace it with a code word: “G*.” 

Different versions of a number of email chains between senior bureaucrats and political staff in the Housing Ministry were released through freedom of information legislation to the opposition NDP, which provided them to The Narwhal. The records shed more light on the secrecy measures used by the Doug Ford government in fall 2022 as political staff and bureaucrats worked to allow housing development in Ontario’s Greenbelt. 

Had they not been reversed, the Greenbelt changes would have meant the loss of protection for 3,000 hectares, or 7,400 acres, of farmland, wetlands, endangered species habitat and green space in highly urbanized southern Ontario. Ford walked the decision back last fall after two watchdogs found his government had given preferential treatment to a small group of well-connected land developers, who could have profited by more than $8 billion, according to the province’s auditor general

Other details about the secrecy measures at play were revealed by those watchdog reports and previous sets of internal government documents. A report from the province’s integrity commissioner last summer revealed another code word: government staff referred to a “special project” rather than the “Greenbelt” as they discussed the changes. 

Public servants who worked on the carveouts did so under non-disclosure agreements, the auditor general found. A different set of freedom of information documents released in the fall also showed the government took several steps to minimize its paper trail. For the documents they did create, staff worked with hard copies as much as possible, using unique watermarks so sources could be traced if documents leaked. 

The internal emails obtained by the NDP add another layer. They show that in at least two cases, as emails about the Greenbelt project were forwarded between senior bureaucrats and the political staffer who was leading the project, Ryan Amato, references to the “Greenbelt” were edited out and replaced with “G*.” Amato, who was the chief of staff to then-municipal affairs minister Steve Clark, resigned in the fall. Clark resigned shortly afterwards.

It’s not clear why public servants used the code word. It’s also not clear who might have edited the emails to remove references to the Greenbelt — the documents don’t contain every version of the email chains, but show they passed through several high-ranking staffers’ inboxes. 

The NDP says the emails demonstrate a deliberate attempt by the government to hide what it was doing. 

“What this looks like is intent to conceal,” party leader Marit Stiles said in a statement. “People covering their tracks because they know what they’re doing is wrong.”

Ford’s office and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing did not respond to questions from The Narwhal about why staff used the code word and whether anyone in the government directed them to do so. 

Amato also did not answer questions from The Narwhal about why he used the code word and who might have edited references to the Greenbelt out of email chains.

A housing development in Waterdown, Ont., seen from above.
In the fallout of the Greenbelt scandal, the auditor general recommended the Progressive Conservatives stop using personal emails for government business. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Emails also show discussion with lobbyist on Amato’s personal email account

Last year, the auditor general documented other issues with government recordkeeping around the Greenbelt scandal. Political staff used personal email accounts to talk to lobbyists about the Greenbelt and conduct government business, the auditor’s report found. It also concluded political staff had deleted emails they were supposed to keep. Both practices run counter to government guidelines. 

The documents obtained by the NDP also show one example of personal email use, in a fall 2022 exchange between Amato and lobbyist Peter Van Loan, a former Progressive Conservative Party president. 

Van Loan had heard rumours the government might be looking at taking land out of the protected Greenbelt area. On Oct. 6, 2022, he reached out to Amato to ask about it — an exchange documented in the integrity commissioner’s report. According to the report, Amato told Van Loan no decisions had been made, and Van Loan offered to email Amato information about previous municipal requests to take land out of the Greenbelt. 

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Van Loan then sent the information to Amato’s personal email address, the records show. Amato thanked him and forwarded the email to his Housing Ministry email address. Then, emails show, he copied Van Loan’s message and forwarded it to ministry staff, without making it clear the message originated from a lobbyist.

“We know from the auditor general’s report that a lot of the Greenbelt funny business was happening through personal accounts,” Stiles said. 

“Here’s further evidence of that, and again, it sure looks like they were trying to cover their tracks.”

When asked why he sent the email to Amato’s personal email instead of his government account, Van Loan told The Narwhal he “did not take note at the time of the email used.”

“It was not part of any file on which I was lobbying,” Van Loan said in an email. 

“I do observe, in passing, that Mr. Amato forwarded them to his official email, ensuring that they were included in government records.”

In the fallout of the Greenbelt scandal, the auditor general recommended the Progressive Conservatives clean up practices around records retention and stop using personal emails for government business. The government agreed to do so, and sent a memo instructing staff to “ensure adherence to records retention requirements, including the documentation of materials received by third parties and only use government emails for work related matters.”

The premier’s office didn’t answer questions from The Narwhal about what it has done since to address the problem.

Separately, Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Patricia Kosseim has said her office is looking into the issue of deleted records. The information and privacy commissioner is a watchdog that investigates potential breaches of recordkeeping rules. The office also hears appeals of freedom of information requests — if people requesting records disagree with the government’s decision not to release them, or someone affected by the release wants to block it, they can ask the commissioner to take a second look. Deleted records were involved in several appeals for freedom of information requests about the Greenbelt, and that issue will be dealt with through the appeal process, Kosseim said last year.

In a statement to The Narwhal, Kosseim’s office said it’s continuing to process those appeals and “cannot provide additional details at this time.” 

In October 2023, the commissioner’s office issued an “urgent” order to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing to preserve and recover any records related to the Greenbelt changes. The order included emails from the personal accounts of political staff. 

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