The former head of the council that advises the Ontario government about the Greenbelt resigned hours after being briefed last fall on sweeping changes to land use laws, documents show. 

The Progressive Conservatives announced plans in Nov. 2022 to cut into sections of the protected Greenbelt to allow development, part of a larger push to boost housing supply. The move touched off controversy that morphed into a political scandal this summer, prompting the resignations of two ministers and two senior staffers. Though Premier Doug Ford promised on Sept. 21 to reverse the Greenbelt changes, the RCMP are now investigating, and revelations continue about what happened inside the government in the weeks leading up to the decision to open the protected area for development.

Now, The Narwhal has obtained documents through freedom of information legislation hinting at tumult during those weeks for the Greenbelt Council, then led by former MPP Norm Sterling. The documents include a resignation letter, which shows Sterling quit “effective immediately” on Oct. 25, 2022, citing “changes to our land use laws.” It’s not clear exactly which policies Sterling was told about in the hours before he stepped down — but the same day, the Doug Ford government introduced a suite of changes aimed at boosting housing construction, many at the expense of environmental protections.

The centrepiece of the changes was Bill 23, a piece of legislation that, among other things, gutted the powers of agencies that oversee development in key watersheds, called conservation authorities, and limited Ontarians’ ability to appeal urban development decisions. One change also laid the foundation for the Greenbelt changes that were introduced soon after by stripping a layer of legal protection for the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, a sensitive section of the Greenbelt east of Toronto. At the same time, the province also weakened rules used to protect wetlands, which naturally prevent floods and sequester carbon. The plan received pushback from public servants, First Nations chiefs and even some developers.

“This morning I was briefed by your ministry on many proposed changes to our land use laws in Ontario the government considers necessary to achieve its goal of building 1.5 million homes over the next 10 years,” Sterling, a former Progressive Conservative environment minister who Ford appointed to the council in 2021, wrote in his resignation letter. 

“Radically changing the laws, procedures and the planning responsibilities of different levels of government and their agencies will invite much discussion and will be an ongoing process for some time. As chair of the Greenbelt Council, I have very limited resources to analyze what these changes will mean to the protection of this unique part of our province. Unfortunately, I am unable to commit to the necessary time or length of term to undertake this task.”

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The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.

It’s not clear whether Sterling was briefed on the contentious changes to the Greenbelt, which were made public nine days later. He did not answer questions from The Narwhal about what drove him to resign. 

The Ministry of Municipal Affairs also did not answer any questions from The Narwhal, including about Sterling’s resignation and what the former chair was briefed on the day he quit. 

The Greenbelt Council is meant to give expert advice to Ontario’s minister of municipal affairs and housing about the protected but embattled ring of farmland, forests and waterways around the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. Over the years, the council has also shared its feedback with the public, weighing in on urban development issues and provincial policies — like those affecting conservation authorities, which oversee development near key watersheds, including some in the Greenbelt.

But since 2020, unrest and turnover within the council’s ranks have been a frequent source of trouble for the Progressive Conservatives. That year, the council was rocked by a mass exodus that saw more than half of its members quit in protest of a different round of policy changes that also weakened the powers of conservation authorities. 

After Sterling stepped down, then-municipal affairs minister Steve Clark — who recently resigned himself amid public blowback over the Greenbelt scandal — replied with a letter commending Sterling for his contributions.

“Thank you so much,” read a handwritten line, placed next to Clark’s signature on the page.

Ontario muzzled Greenbelt Council after mass resignations, but turnover has continued

In early 2021, a few months after the mass resignations at the Greenbelt Council, the government appointed Sterling as chair. Ford’s government took some criticism for the appointment — as an MPP in the early 2000s, Sterling had voted against the creation of the Greenbelt, though he was the minister responsible for a pre-Greenbelt policy aimed at protecting the Niagara Escarpment. 

After Sterling’s appointment, the council mostly went quiet. Documents reported by The Narwhal earlier this year explained why: in 2021, the Ontario government gave the council a new “media relations protocol” barring members from speaking to reporters about the panel’s deliberations. The new protocol also mandated that the council’s advice to the government be kept confidential.

The government further restricted the council’s ability to speak publicly in 2022 as it moved towards announcing its contentious changes to the Greenbelt. Through edits to the group’s terms of reference, the province limited the topics members could weigh in on.

All the while, turnover has quietly continued on the council. Before the 2020 resignations, it had 13 members. More people quit in the months that followed, bringing its numbers to just four, according to archived versions of the membership list. The government appointed new people over time and the council had nine people in mid-2022. But its numbers plunged again in the months leading up to Bill 23 and the Greenbelt changes.

In total, five people left the council during that period, including Sterling. Two departed after their terms expired in summer 2022. Sterling and two others, however, left before their terms were over.

One of those was Johanna Downey, a Peel Region councillor. The freedom of information request that contained Sterling’s resignation letter also included a note from Clark to Downey. It shows the councillor quit on Nov. 2, 2022, a little over a week after Sterling stepped down and two days before the province introduced the Greenbelt changes.

The documents did not include a copy of Downey’s resignation or shed any light on why she stepped down. She did not respond to an interview request from The Narwhal.

The Greenbelt Council currently has four members and no chair. The government appointed former Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion to replace Sterling as chair, but her time on the council was brief: she released a statement supporting the province’s since-cancelled changes to the Greenbelt, but died 10 days later. The government hasn’t appointed a replacement.

The Ministry of Municipal Affairs did not answer questions from The Narwhal about the Greenbelt Council’s ability to function with so few members, and whether it has plans to appoint more people to the panel.

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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