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‘Greenbelt Files’: Doug Ford’s senior staff discussed changes months before premier’s timeline

Documents obtained by The Narwhal show a member of Ford's staff discussed Greenbelt changes long before the premier says he heard about it — while another breached a reporter’s privacy

Senior staff in the office of Ontario Premier Doug Ford discussed changes to the Greenbelt months before the province opened parts of it to development, documents show.

The Narwhal obtained the documents in response to a freedom of information request, but they were heavily redacted. They contain an email and attachment forwarded by one of Ford’s deputy chiefs of staff, Travis Kann, to two other senior staff members in the premier’s office on Aug. 23, 2022. 

Though their exact contents remain a mystery, the existence of the email and attachment casts doubt on what the Ontario government has told the public about how it decided to cut into the protected area.

Both Ford and Housing Minister Steve Clark have said they only found out about the Greenbelt proposal shortly before the public did, on Nov. 4, 2022. They allege the changes were driven by recommendations made by non-partisan public servants.

Clark told the province’s integrity commissioner he was briefed on the proposal after the selection process was done, and Ford said he saw it a few days later.

The newly released records reveal staffers in Ford’s office discussed the issue more than two months before the premier said he was briefed on recommendations from the public service.

It isn’t clear whether anyone directed public servants to identify developable land in the Greenbelt in the first place. Neither Ford nor Clark have publicly disclosed that staff so close to the premier were discussing changes to the Greenbelt so long before the changes were announced.

Months later, someone inside of the government dubbed them the “Greenbelt Files,” a name that stuck as public servants discussed how to respond to The Narwhal’s request for the records. 

Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles said the documents obtained by The Narwhal raise serious questions.

“I don’t know if they have any credibility left on this file, but this certainly challenges it,” she said.

The premier’s office did not answer detailed questions from The Narwhal about the Greenbelt Files. But after this story was published, Ivana Yelich and Cody Welton, both deputy chiefs of staff to the premier, contested The Narwhal’s findings on Twitter.

“The Narwhal asked for files referencing the Greenbelt so a specific folder was created,” Yelich tweeted, referring to the Greenbelt Files.

“If a request was made for all files referencing hot dogs then a file would be created and called Hotdog Files.”

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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.

Yelich said the documents did not include discussion of specific sites to be removed from the Greenbelt, and said the reporting was “ridiculous.”

Welton tweeted that the story “is not true,” but said in another post that the email and slideshow in question are a “broad cabinet confidential doc” — indicating that it was not just staff in the premier’s office, but also Ford’s cabinet that was discussing something related to the Greenbelt in August. 

Speaking to reporters on the afternoon of May 11, however, Ford denied that his office had talked about the plan to remove land from the Greenbelt in advance. “I want to categorically say no. It wasn’t discussed,” he said. “There is nothing wrong that happened here.”

He also said the “so-called Greenbelt” is a “fancy word” the former Liberal government made up, and the protected area is “just a big scam as far as I’m concerned.”

Ontario’s Greenbelt is a swath of protected farmland, forests and waterways that rings around the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. Development has mostly been forbidden within its boundaries since it was created in 2005 — until the Ford government announced it would remove 7,400 acres from 15 sections from the protected area to allow housing development, breaking a previous promise from the premier to never build there.

Though the province has said it aimed to remove land on the edges of the protected zone and close to urban areas, some of the areas it selected for development don’t match that description — like the vast and undeveloped Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve in Pickering, east of Toronto. And soon after the announcement, an investigation by The Narwhal and the Toronto Star revealed that many of the opened parcels are owned by developers with ties to Ford’s Progressive Conservatives, who now stand to benefit. 

An illustrated image of Ontario's Greenbelt with animals and plants
Land in Ontario’s Greenbelt has mostly been off-limits to development since it was created in 2005. Last year, however, the Ford government removed 7,400 acres from the protected area. The province also added 9,400 acres to the Greenbelt elsewhere, but that land was already protected under other mechanisms. Illustration: Jeannie Phan / The Narwhal

The fallout of the decision is continuing to reverberate: Ontario’s auditor general is probing the financial implications of the decision, the integrity commissioner is reviewing whether it followed ethics rules and the Ontario Provincial Police are mulling an investigation of its own.

Tim Gray, executive director of the charity Environmental Defence, said the Greenbelt Files emphasize the need for more investigation from the integrity commissioner and auditor general. 

“The correspondence back into the summer just underscores the involvement of the political level of government here in having these areas removed from the Greenbelt,” he said.

Ontario government originally refused to release information about the Greenbelt Files 

The Narwhal first reported on the Greenbelt Files last month after the premier’s office confirmed their existence in response to a freedom of information request. At first, in mid-March, the government refused the request entirely, declining to release even redacted pages or any other information about the records because it said they related to confidential cabinet deliberations, among other issues. 

But The Narwhal also filed a second freedom of information request last month. That second request netted documents showing how the premier’s office conducted its search in response to the original one, along with a heavily-redacted version of the Greenbelt Files, showing Kann was the one who sent them on Aug. 23, 2022. 

The Narwhal also found out more about the Greenbelt Files by appealing the government’s decision to withhold so much of them. In a phone call, a mediator from the office of Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, which handles such appeals, said Kann’s Aug. 23 email was a forward of an older email chain, which he sent to colleagues in the premier’s office. The email chain he forwarded, and the attached slideshow, were both prepared sometime before Aug. 2022, the mediator said. Only a few of the slides were about the Greenbelt. (The appeal is ongoing and hasn’t yet been resolved.) 

Kann is a member of the premier’s inner circle who joined the government in April 2019 as the director of communications to then-health minister Christine Elliott. He moved into the premier’s office the following year, and in 2021 was promoted to Ford’s deputy chief of staff for strategic communications. Last year, Toronto Life called Kann the government’s “spin doctor.” He didn’t respond to questions from The Narwhal. 

In question period May 11, Stiles asked Ford for the exact date he first learned about the proposal to remove land from the Greenbelt. Ford did not answer, but Government House Leader Paul Calandra responded on his behalf and avoided the question.

“I think the premier and the minister of municipal affairs and housing have been very clear on that,” Calandra said. 

Premier’s staff breached reporter’s privacy while processing freedom of information request

Documents released after the second request show that while processing The Narwhal’s first freedom of information request on the Greenbelt Files, a staff member in the premier’s office breached this reporter’s privacy.

Government staff that process freedom of information requests must keep information about the people who file them confidential, according to provincial rules. The system is structured that way for a reason: “Anyone should be entitled to make a request without being unnecessarily identified and without fear of negative repercussions,” the manual says. 

An email that reads: "Hello all, Our office has received a new Freedom of Information request from The Narwhal. The exact language of the request is as follows: Any files (transmitted by email, USB drives, SharePoints, or any other file transfer service) prepared by Premier's Office staff for MMAH (the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing) that reference Ontario's Greenbelt." *Please note the wording of this request. Responsive records should include only files. Please be sure to conduct a complete search of all record types specified in the language above and upload a copy of any records that might fit the criteria to the link identified below by Wednesday, March 1. If you have records: Please upload them to the subfolder labelled PO 23-23 (Greenbelt Files)" linked below. Please ensure any records are saved to an appropriate and openable format (EML for emails, word, excel, PPT are all fine etc.) and uploaded to SharePoint under the subfolder titled with your name. The Upload Link is: PO 23-23 (Greenbelt Files)"
An excerpt of a Feb. 23, 2023 email sent by premier’s office staffer Matthew Grainger, which breached the privacy of a Narwhal reporter who made a freedom of information request. The Narwhal obtained the email through a second freedom of information request.

Matthew Grainger, a junior staffer in the premier’s office, broke that rule in a Feb. 23, 2023 email sent to 13 colleagues.

“Hello all,” Grainger wrote. “Our office has received a new freedom of information request from The Narwhal.”

Grainger did not answer questions from The Narwhal about how he learned who requested the documents, whether he was aware that he was committing a privacy breach and whether he had been trained in how to handle personal information. 

The Narwhal also reached out to other staff in the premier’s office to ask if anyone flagged the potential breach. Only one responded: Yelich, who said a “new junior staffer erred in sharing the requester’s identity.”

“The breach has been addressed with the staffer and the process has since been corrected to ensure it does not happen again,” Yelich said. 

“The unintentional sharing of the requester’s information had no impact on the collection of records and the requester received all records entitled to them under Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.”

Yelich also said the premier’s office addressed the issue with Grainger “immediately after” he sent the email. The premier’s office did not disclose that the breach had happened until The Narwhal asked questions about it, nor did it apologize.

After this story was published, however, Welton denied that a breach had taken place. “We have since confirmed it was not a ‘privacy breach’ as you claim but rather a mistake from a junior staffer who shared your organizations [sic] name in error,” he wrote on Twitter. “Still wasn’t proper but not a privacy breach.”

Stiles said the breach is “shocking.”

“It only shows once again that this government has a real problem with transparency and accountability,” she said. “Ontarians deserve to be able to ask questions.”

The Narwhal has filed a complaint against the premier’s office for the privacy breach. 

Updated May 11, 2023 at 3:11 p.m. ET: This story was updated to include comments made after publication by the premier’s office, and to include details from question period.

Threats to our environment are often hidden from public view.
So we embarked on a little experiment at The Narwhal: letting our investigative journalists loose to file as many freedom of information requests as their hearts desired.

In just six months, they filed a whopping 233 requests — and with those, they unearthed a veritable mountain of government documents to share with readers across Canada.

But the reality is this kind of digging takes lots of time and no small amount of money.

As many newsrooms cut staff, The Narwhal has doubled down on hiring reporters to do hard-hitting journalism — and we do it all as an independent, non-profit news organization that doesn’t run any advertising.

Will you join the growing chorus of readers who have stepped up to hold the powerful accountable?
Threats to our environment are often hidden from public view.
So we embarked on a little experiment at The Narwhal: letting our investigative journalists loose to file as many freedom of information requests as their hearts desired.

In just six months, they filed a whopping 233 requests — and with those, they unearthed a veritable mountain of government documents to share with readers across Canada.

But the reality is this kind of digging takes lots of time and no small amount of money.

As many newsrooms cut staff, The Narwhal has doubled down on hiring reporters to do hard-hitting journalism — and we do it all as an independent, non-profit news organization that doesn’t run any advertising.

Will you join the growing chorus of readers who have stepped up to hold the powerful accountable?

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We’re investigating Ontario’s environmental cuts
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.
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As The Narwhal turns five, I’m thinking about the momentous outpouring of public generosity — a miracle of sorts — that’s allowed us to prove the critics wrong. More than 6,000 people just like you donate whatever they can afford to make independent, high-stakes journalism about the natural world in Canada free for everyone to read. Help us keep the dream alive for another five years by becoming a member today and we’ll mail you a copy of our beautiful 2023 print magazine. — Carol Linnitt, co-founder
Keep the dream alive.