Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s personal feedback made its way into a wide-ranging government policy document discussing the Greenbelt and other topics, weeks after the last provincial election, according to an internal email chain obtained by The Narwhal.

A senior aide in Ford’s office circulated the premier’s feedback about the 47-page slide deck in an email sent after midnight on June 28, 2022, according to documents released through freedom of information legislation.

Although the government redacted the entire contents of the slide deck before releasing it, The Narwhal has confirmed it includes references to the Greenbelt and comments from Ford himself – months before the premier has said he learned of plans to open parts of the protected area to development.

In a statement, the premier’s office said the document covered a “wide range of policies,” and that Ford did not weigh in on the portions of it related to the Greenbelt. But the premier’s office declined to say whether the document referenced the government’s eventual plans to allow development on some of the Greenbelt. It also did not answer, when asked, if Ford himself had seen the document. 

Ford’s government is under investigation by two provincial watchdogs for its decision to carve up the Greenbelt. The Progressive Conservatives have denied responsibility for the move, saying it was based on recommendations from non-partisan public servants, and that Ford and his cabinet only found out about the plan days before it was announced on Nov. 4, 2022. 

The email chain obtained by The Narwhal is the first set of records released by government that suggest Ford may have been privy to policy discussions about the Greenbelt as early as June 2022, weeks after the vote that saw Ford’s Progressive Conservatives re-elected.

“The more we learn, the flimsier the premier’s story gets,” Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles said in a statement responding to The Narwhal’s reporting.

“How much longer can he keep this up? It’s clear he’s only interested in helping his developer friends at the expense of regular Ontarians.”

Andrew Sidnell, the senior aide who circulated Ford’s feedback, no longer works in the premier’s office. But at the time, Sidnell was the premier’s deputy chief of staff and head of policy.

“Sorry for the late email,” wrote Sidnell in the message sent at 12:15 a.m. “Here is the turn of the [redacted] reflective of the latest premier feedback ahead of tomorrow! Thank you everyone for your patience!”

A screenshot of an email that reads: "Hi Martha and Don, Sorry for the late email - here is the turn of the [redacted] reflective of the latest Premier feedback ahead of tomorrow! Thank you everyone for your patience! Best, Andrew"
An partially-redacted email chain obtained by The Narwhal through freedom of information shows staff in Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s office circulating a policy document a few weeks after the last provincial election. A slide deck attached to the email contained discussion of the Greenbelt — and feedback from Ford. The premier’s office has said Ford’s comments were not about the Greenbelt.

It’s not clear whether by “tomorrow” Sidnell meant June 28 or June 29, 2022. A copy of Ford’s calendar for those days, obtained through freedom of information, showed he had a “return to the legislature meeting” with his senior leadership team on June 28 and a cabinet meeting on June 29, along with over six hours blocked off without an explanatory label. 

Ford had unveiled a brand new post-election cabinet a few days earlier on June 24.

Sidnell, whose LinkedIn profile says he left his government job for an advisory firm a few weeks before the Greenbelt announcement, did not respond to questions from The Narwhal.

Sidnell’s email was addressed to Don Fawcett, general counsel for the Cabinet Office, a government ministry that houses the premier’s office, and Martha Greenberg, who at the time was a deputy minister in the Cabinet Office developing government policy. Also copied on the email were Jamie Wallace, Ford’s chief of staff, and deputy chief of staff Travis Kann. 

Caitlin Clark, Ford’s press secretary, did not answer most of The Narwhal’s questions about the document. 

“The document in question touches on a wide range of policies across government,” she said in an email.

“The document did not make any references to specific lands or properties within the Greenbelt and the premier’s feedback had nothing to do with the Greenbelt.”

Last month, the premier denied that his office had discussed the plan to remove land from the Greenbelt in advance. 

“I want to categorically say no. It wasn’t discussed,” Ford said, responding to previous reporting by The Narwhal. “There is nothing wrong that happened here.”

Countdown: the months before Ontario opened the Greenbelt to development

June 2, 2022

Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives win a second term in the 2022 provincial election. During the campaign, the party made no mention of plans to alter the Greenbelt.

June 28, 2022

Ford’s head of policy sends an email showing that a broad policy document, which includes a few pages about the Greenbelt, contains feedback from Ford. The email was obtained by The Narwhal through freedom of information. The premier’s office says Ford’s feedback wasn’t about the Greenbelt.

Fall 2022

Ford, without giving a specific date, has said he first became aware of the proposal to allow Greenbelt development only a few days before the plan was made public. Under this timeline, the premier would have been informed in late October or early November.

Nov. 4, 2022

The Ontario government announces plans to open 7,400 acres of the Greenbelt for development, a proposal it would make final a month later.

Ontario government refused to release the email chain twice 

Ontario’s Greenbelt is a large slice of farmland, forests and waterways encircling the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. Development there has mostly been off limits since it was created in 2005. But last year, months after an election campaign in which Ford’s Progressive Conservatives made no mention of plans to alter the Greenbelt, the province removed 7,400 acres from 15 sections of the protected area — reneging on years of promises to leave it intact.

Controversy over the decision has simmered ever since. Ontario’s auditor general is probing the financial and environmental implications of the Greenbelt land swap, while the integrity commissioner is reviewing whether Ontario Housing Minister Steve Clark, whose portfolio includes the Greenbelt, followed ethics rules. The Ontario Provincial Police have said they are still considering whether to launch an investigation. All three entities declined to comment on whether they’ve seen the email chain obtained by The Narwhal.

The newly released email from Sidnell is from a set of documents The Narwhal reported on last month. The Narwhal filed three separate freedom of information requests in order to access it.

After the first request, the government confirmed that an email chain with an attached slide deck existed, but declined to release any records, saying everything in them was related to confidential cabinet deliberations, among other issues. 

The second request resulted in the release of a small portion of the chain: it showed Kann, had forwarded an email and the slide deck — which contained a few pages related to the Greenbelt — to two colleagues in the premier’s office on Aug. 23, 2022. At the time, the government completely redacted the contents of what Kann had forwarded, saying it wasn’t relevant to what The Narwhal had asked for.

Ontario Greenbelt: Ontario Premier Doug Ford stares straight ahead inside Queen's Park
Ontario Premier Doug Ford has denied that his office discussed changes to the Greenbelt in advance. Instead, he’s said he found out about the proposal a few days before it was made public, and that it was based on recommendations from public servants. Photo: Carlos Osorio / The Narwhal

In the third request, The Narwhal asked the government to release what it had deemed irrelevant. It was only then that the government revealed Kann had forwarded Sidnell’s email about Ford’s apparent “feedback” from June 2022. But the government continues to censor parts of the chain, including the attachment.

Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Privacy rules require the government to release records upon request and for a fee, unless it has a valid reason to refuse. One of those valid reasons could be protecting internal cabinet discussions so that ministers can be free to debate issues before announcing decisions.

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The government has used a total of five exceptions under Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Privacy Act to justify censoring the slides attached to Sidnell’s email. Apart from describing them as confidential cabinet material, it also said the records contained advice to government from public employees or consultants; they involve a law enforcement matter; they could affect Ontario’s economic and other interests; and they are subject to solicitor-client privilege.

The Narwhal has appealed the government’s decision to withhold the 47-page deck. The Office of Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner is handling the appeal and confirmed three pages of the attachment included content about the Greenbelt.

Questions remain about how the Ontario government decided to remove land from the Greenbelt 

So far, the Ontario government has refused to explain exactly how it decided to open the Greenbelt for housing development.

The Progressive Conservatives, for example, said the aim was to open land on the edges of the Greenbelt that could easily be connected to existing urban infrastructure. But the largest piece that it removed protections from, the ecologically sensitive Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve east of Toronto, doesn’t fit that description: it’s a vast tract of unserviced farmland that sits next to Rouge National Urban Park

The Ontario government has defended its changes to the Greenbelt by noting it also added 9,400 acres to the Greenbelt in other areas, but those lands were already protected.

Ford and Clark have also said the decision was necessary to build 50,000 homes, a small fraction of the 1.5 million the government has pledged to build to address Ontario’s housing crisis. But the government’s handpicked Housing Affordability Task Force came to the opposite conclusion last year, saying Ontario has no shortage of available land to build on. If the province has evidence contradicting that conclusion, it has not made it public.

A sign that reads "entering the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, part of the Greenbelt. A second sign is attached to one corner, reading: "Doug Ford: keep your Greenbelt promise!"
Since the Ontario government decided to remove protections from 15 sections of the Greenbelt, questions have swirled about what happened behind closed doors leading up to the announcement. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Questions have also swirled about whether developers had any advance notice that the Greenbelt decision was coming. Soon after the government announced the move in November, a joint investigation by The Narwhal and the Toronto Star revealed many of the parcels of Greenbelt land that saw protections removed are owned by developers with ties to Ford’s Progressive Conservatives, who now stand to benefit. Following revelations in reports by Global News and The Star, Ford admitted that developers — including one who benefited from the Greenbelt decision — were among the “personal friends” who were invited to his daughter’s wedding in September 2022.  

Ford and Clark have both denied tipping anyone off. 

Tim Gray, executive director of the charity Environmental Defence, said in light of The Narwhal’s reporting, it’s worth asking what happened behind closed doors in the months leading up to the Greenbelt land swap. 

“We know that they didn’t need the land for housing,” Gray said. “It really begs the question. What was the premier’s office talking about, just a couple of weeks after the election, to do with the Greenbelt?

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Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

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