Facing intense public backlash over a political crisis, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has announced his government was reversing a controversial plan to open up sections of the province’s Greenbelt to development.
The provincial Progressive Conservative government opened 3,000 hectares, or 7,400 acres, of Greenbelt land for development late last year, reversing a promise Ford made while on the campaign trail in 2018. The move triggered concerns about the ecological importance of the land that was set to be built on, sparking fallout that has reverberated in the months since.
Controversy was swirling after a bombshell Aug. 9 report from Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk and a subsequent Aug. 30 report by integrity commissioner J. David Wake. The Lysyk report revealed Ryan Amato, chief of staff to Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark, gave “preferential treatment” to a group of developers, directing public servants to unlock their lands, which has increased their property values by over $8 billion. All but one of the 22 Greenbelt sites considered for removal were brought forward by Amato instead of the team of public servants tasked with that job, Lysyk’s report found. Wake’s report singled out Clark for breaching ethics rules and failing to adequately oversee his staffer.
Clark announced his resignation on Labour Day, less than a week after Wake’s report.
Amato resigned on Aug. 22, two weeks after Lysyk released her report. Then, the next day, there was a fresh flurry of police activity on the file: on Aug. 23, the RCMP said it had begun work on an “assessment” of the Greenbelt changes to “determine whether to launch an investigation.” Ontario Provincial Police had been considering the issue since January, but referred it to the RCMP to avoid any “potential perceived conflict of interest.”
As the provincial government attempts to manage the fallout — and fight back — Ontarians organized protests, while even more investigations into the Greenbelt controversy are still playing out in the background.
Here are the details of what’s happened since Lysyk released her Greenbelt report. The Narwhal will update this list as events unfold.
Premier Doug Ford admitted making a mistake on Sept. 21 and announced the government would reverse changes to the Greenbelt and protect the area.
“I want the people to know I’m listening,” said at an announcement. “It was a mistake to open the Greenbelt. It was a mistake to establish a process that moved too fast. This process — it left too much room for some people to benefit over others.”
Ford added that even when someone does something with the best intentions, it can still be the wrong decision.
“As a first step to earn back your trust, I’ll be reversing the changes we made and won’t make any changes to the Greenbelt in the future,” he said.
After weeks of resisting calls to step down, Clark finally told Premier Ford in a Labour Day letter that he had just realized he could no longer remain in cabinet.
“I’ve always tried to fulfill the mandate of getting more homes built so that people across Ontario could realize the dream of finding a place to live, work and raise a family,” Clark wrote in the letter. “However, the crisis demands someone who is not a distraction from the important work that needs to be done. Although my initial thought was that I could stay in this role and establish a proper process so that these mistakes don’t happen again, I realize that my presence will only cause a further distraction from the important work that needs to be done and that I need to take accountability for what has transpired.”
About 15 min after Clark posted his resignation on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, Ford posted a note thanking Clark for his service and sticking to a tightly scripted message the Ontario government has repeated for months about how its goal is simply to build new homes.
Clark’s resignation triggered a shuffle of Ford’s cabinet, with Paul Calandra taking over as the new minister of municipal affairs and housing, among seven changes. Stan Cho took over Calandra’s previous role as the minister of long-term care. Prabmeet Sarkaria took over as the new transport minister, replacing Caroline Mulroney who assumed a new role as president of the Treasury Board.
In the wake of reporting by the Toronto Star showing some of the land that was removed from the Greenbelt last year has been listed for sale, Ford warned developers on Aug. 29 that he’s willing to return land to the Greenbelt if landowners don’t abide by the government’s conditions for building on it.
“This behaviour goes against everything that our government is doing to bring home ownership into reach for more people,” Ford said in a statement, adding that the landowner had not disclosed its intention to sell the land in ongoing talks with a provincial development facilitator.
“In response, our government is exploring every option available to us, including immediately starting the process to put these sites back into the Greenbelt.”
The sites in question are two addresses totalling about 100 acres, located east of Toronto in the suburban town of Ajax. A representative of the landowner told the Star the land was listed for sale to find a “joint-venture partner with the experience necessary to help us develop the property,” and that there was never an intention to sell the land outright. An ad for the listing marketed it as “future development land for sale.”
Ford has previously said he’ll return formerly protected land to the Greenbelt if developers don’t show “real progress” on their plans for the properties by the end of 2023, and get shovels in the ground by 2025. He repeated that message in his statement Aug. 29: “To the other property owners, you’re on notice,” Ford said.
Days earlier, the Star also reported that a second developer had sold a different piece of former Greenbelt land at a huge profit.
Flato Upper Markham Village Inc., a company run by Shakir Rehmatullah — a developer who attended Ford’s daughter’s wedding last year — originally bought the 102-acre lot in Markham, northeast of Toronto, for $15 million in 2017. A slice of it was part of the Greenbelt until the province removed protections from it last year. In April, the company sold a portion of the property for $62 million, according to sale records obtained by the Star. Flato told the Star it retains ownership of the land and will be involved in developing it, but did not provide details.
Ontario Provincial Police had been looking into the Greenbelt changes since January, trying to decide whether to launch a full investigation. But on Aug. 23, the provincial police service said it would refer the review to the RCMP to avoid any “potential perceived conflict of interest.” Provincial police didn’t answer questions about what that potential conflict of interest could be, but the service is funded by the provincial government, which also appoints provincial police commissioners.
The RCMP originally told media outlets it would “review and assess” the referral to “investigate irregularities in the deposition of the Greenbelt surrounding Toronto.” But it quickly backtracked in a subsequent statement, saying it was merely “beginning our evaluation of the available information.”
“After we have conducted a full assessment, we will determine whether to launch an investigation,” the RCMP said. It’s not clear how long that process might take.
Before the new statements from police, Lysyk’s findings had reignited calls for a criminal investigation. Liberal MP Yasir Naqvi, a former attorney general who is running to become the leader of the Ontario Liberal Party, said the police should look into whether anyone in the government committed a crime. Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner also called on the provincial police to step in, as did the charity Environmental Defence and Democracy Watch, a non-profit that advocates for government accountability.
In an Aug. 22 statement, the premier’s office “accepted” Amato’s resignation “effective immediately.” Amato is a longtime Progressive Conservative who has held senior positions in the Ford government. He has been Clark’s chief of staff since July 2022. Before that, he worked closely with Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney as her director of stakeholder relations, and before that, when she was attorney general, as her director of operations.
In his resignation letter obtained by the Globe and Mail, Amato said he has been “unfairly depicted” in recent public statements.
“I am confident that I have acted appropriately, and that a fair and complete investigation would reach the same conclusion,” Amato’s resignation letter said. “However, these public statements have made it impossible, as a practical matter, for me to continue in my present role.”
“I do not wish to be a distraction from the Government of Ontario’s important work in getting More Homes Built Faster. I hereby resign effective immediately from my role as Chief of Staff to Minister Clark. I would like to thank Minister Clark and Premier Ford for the opportunity to serve the people of Ontario in this role, for their confidence that they have shown in me.”
Up until his resignation, Ford and Clark had stood behind Amato. Responding to the auditor general’s report, Clark told reporters the premier had “confidence … in me and my staff.”
“I appreciate the support that the premier has given to us,” Clark said when asked on Aug. 9 if Amato was remaining in his position.
On Aug. 11, when asked if Amato was being set up as the “fall guy” for the fallout of the Greenbelt policy, Ford said he would wait for the integrity commissioner’s report before making any decision. Later, the Toronto Star reported sources had said Ford personally intervened to save Amato’s job, although some in the premier’s inner circle had pushed to let the staffer go.
Amato and the premier’s office did not answer questions from The Narwhal about the resignation.
Lysyk’s audit alleged political staff in the government were “regularly” deleting emails, contrary to provincial record-keeping rules. The auditor general also found political staff had used personal email accounts for government business, using them to exchange messages with development lobbyists and even forwarding messages between personal and government accounts. That, too, would go against government guidelines.
Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner, a watchdog tasked with ensuring public institutions in the province follow record-keeping rules, is now taking a closer look at those findings. The commissioner’s office told The Narwhal is considering “potential next steps” and meeting with Lysyk to discuss what she found in “greater detail.”
The statement comes after the Ontario NDP wrote to commissioner Patricia Kosseim to ask her to ensure the government “recovers and retains” records related to the Greenbelt decision. It’s not clear if any of the allegedly deleted records are recoverable, but if Kosseim does decide to investigate, that could be a further problem for the Ford government.
In the wake of Amato’s resignation, opposition leaders had been calling for further investigations and accountability — and reiterating calls for Clark to resign.
The NDP in particular pointed to a section of the auditor general’s report that noted a second political staff member in Clark’s office was involved in selecting Greenbelt sites in Hamilton and Grimsby that were eventually opened to development. This person was working on the ministry’s consultations and review of municipal land use policies, called official plans: in November, on the same day the Greenbelt decision was released, the City of Hamilton was ordered to expand beyond its urban boundaries into surrounding farmland and protected greenspace, despite the municipality’s desire not to sprawl outward.
NDP Leader Marit Stiles said in light of the second staffer’s involvement, Amato’s departure was the “bare minimum” and “doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of accountability.” Stiles has said the situation “smells of corruption.”
The NDP has also made a formal request for the government to recall the legislature to deal with the fallout from the Greenbelt report. The legislature usually isn’t in session during the summer, and is not expected to resume until late September. The Progressive Conservatives haven’t agreed to the ask.
Clark previously said he wouldn’t step down. Asked by the Globe and Mail if the premier would be asking for Clark’s resignation, a spokesperson said “No.”
The premier’s office gave Global News the same two-letter response when asked if a public inquiry would be considered, a move requested by Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner. “People want transparency, they want accountability and they want to know the truth, and the only way that we’re going to get that level of transparency and accountability is through an independent public inquiry,” he said at an Aug. 24 press conference.
The Ontario Liberals, too, are asking for a deeper examination of what happened. “Mr. Amato’s resignation does not resolve this situation … Premier Ford must open the books to a full investigation,” interim Liberal Party Leader John Fraser said in a statement.
On Aug. 17, the leadership council of the Chiefs of Ontario, an organization that represents 133 First Nations, came together to demand “the immediate resignation” of both Minister Clark and Amato, his top advisor.
The Chiefs have been vocal in their opposition to the Ford government’s recent land-use policy changes. Last December, they asked the government to repeal Bill 23. The Chiefs said the bill was unconstitutional as it did not involve any consultation with First Nations.
After the auditor general’s report, the Chiefs repeated this call, and asked for “an immediate reinstatement of environmental protections for the Greenbelt.” They asked for more time to properly consult on all land-use policy changes and demanded that the government provide “a written commitment to seek consent from First Nations before any further changes are made to the Greenbelt.
The Chiefs also said they would “cease any current relationships with Minister Clark until an adequate resolution” to these issues was reached.
The First Nations leaders said they too would be asking the Ontario Provincial Police and integrity commission to formally investigate the government’s actions, as “the processes in which these events took place were not transparent or fully informed, nor did they consider the need for consultation with First Nations before taking actions that directly affect First Nations inherent, treaty, and constitutionally protected rights.”
Responding to Lysyk’s report on the day it was released, Ford said he takes “full responsibility” for the issues documented in the report and did not contest what the audit found. “The buck stops with me,” he said.
The very next day, however, Ford flip-flopped and began doubling down.
“No one had preferential treatment,” Ford said, despite the fact the auditor general found the opposite. The governing Progressive Conservatives also bought a flood of ads online and on the radio to tout their housing plans, going on the offensive as Ford insisted his only aim was “making sure that we build homes as quickly as possible.”
Even as Ford contested Lysyk’s findings, the premier’s office began moving to respond to recommendations from her report. In a memo to ministers’ chiefs of staff and deputy ministers, which was shared with journalists, the premier’s office reminded public servants to follow ethics rules, specifically those that govern disclosing potential conflicts of interest. It also said the government is working on a comprehensive response to Lysyk’s findings and creating a working group to implement them.
Ford has refused to accept the report’s key recommendation: that he revisit the decision to open parcels of Greenbelt land. That means the developers who benefitted will be allowed to go ahead with plans to build.
— GASP4Change (@Gasp4Change) August 13, 2023
In the days following the release of Lysyk’s report, protests erupted in two cities just outside of Toronto.
The largest so far was east of Toronto in Pickering on Aug. 13, where the largest chunk of former Greenbelt land that saw protections removed — the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve — is located. According to the Toronto Star, hundreds of people rallied outside the office of Pickering MPP and Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy, waving signs with slogans including “save our Greenbelt” and “hands off the Greenbelt” as people driving by honked their horns in support.
Another hundred people protested the next evening in Orillia, north of Toronto, outside the office of Progressive Conservative MPP and Minister of Colleges and Universities Jill Dunlop.
“There were 30 MPPs across Ontario who signed off on this deal,” Margaret Prophet, the executive director of the Simcoe County Greenbelt coalition, told local publication Orillia Matters at the protest. “One of them was Jill Dunlop.”
More rallies are being planned for other cities in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area for August and September, and a number of online petitions calling for Ford’s resignation, including one with over 20,000 signatures and one run by the NDP.
One of Lysyk’s recommendations was that the premier’s office ask Ontario’s integrity commissioner, J. David Wake, to investigate whether Amato may have violated ethics rules. The government followed through with that request, and Wake’s office confirmed it was considering whether to launch a probe.
Wake’s office is also working on two other investigations involving ties between the Ford government and developers. One is aimed at whether Clark himself breached ethics rules. Another is examining whether Ford used his influence to improperly further the interests of his friends, stemming from the revelation that prominent developers who have benefitted from government decisions — including the decision to open Greenbelt lands — attended a pre-wedding stag-and-doe party for the premier’s daughter. The latter investigation is on hold, pending the outcome of the first.
On Aug. 16, the NDP asked the integrity commissioner to expand his Greenbelt investigation to include the premier’s personal cellphone, which he is known to use for professional duties. In her report, Lysyk highlighted the use of personal devices and email addresses — as well as the deletion of relevant emails — by government staff as one of many worrying issues with how the process of choosing which Greenbelt parcels to open unfolded.
On Aug. 10, the Ontario branch of the National Farmers Union called on the province to return land to the Greenbelt, saying it was “unjustly and irresponsibly stolen.”
The Ontario local, which represents thousands of family farmers in the province, pointed to Lysyk’s finding that the government didn’t consider environmental and agricultural risks when it picked land to remove from the protected area.
The government’s promises to do better moving forward are “cold comfort for farmers and the general public who were depending on their government to uphold farmland and natural heritage protections,” the union said in a statement.
Though the provincial government writes the rules for how land in the province can be used, it’s cities that are tasked with actually approving development and making it work. And in the wake of Lysyk’s report, municipalities — including some that oversee lands removed from the Greenbelt — joined farmers, environmentalists and opposition politicians in asking the government to reverse its Greenbelt decision.
Hamilton Mayor Andrea Horwath said the decision to remove protections from the Greenbelt, including a few parcels in her city, is “an unnecessary, ineffective and misguided measure that will not contribute to meeting Hamilton’s housing needs.”
Pickering Mayor Kevin Ashe, who has been supportive of the move to take land in his city out of the Greenbelt, also raised red flags. He said Lysyk’s report raised a “number of concerns,” and he doesn’t want Pickering to “subsidize private interests.”
While not directly related to the auditor general’s report, an announcement by the federal Impact Assessment Agency this week presents another potential hurdle to developing the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve. Last spring, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault asked the agency to study how development there could affect Rouge National Urban Park, including potential effects on species at risk: Parks Canada has said building on the preserve could interfere with the last intact corridor used by wildlife to travel between Lake Ontario and the Oak Ridges Moraine.
Now the terms of the study have been set. The agency will consider the effects of past, present and potential future development on not just on the agricultural preserve and the national park, but other federal lands in the area. Along with species at risk, the agency will consider potential effects on migratory birds, forests, wetlands and farms.
The terms outlined by the agency include consultation with multiple First Nations and Indigenous groups as well as the public at large: in her report, Lysyk found Ontario had failed to meet its duty to consult First Nations, or to adequately consider public objection to Greenbelt development.
The agency’s study isn’t as serious a federal intervention as a full assessment. But Guilbeault has said repeatedly he would not hesitate to use the tools available to him to stop any development that may have “a profound impact on species at risk in Canada.”
— With files from Denise Balkissoon
Updated on Aug. 22, 2023 at 5:57 p.m. ET: This article was updated to add news of Ryan Amato’s resignation.
Updated on Aug. 22, 2023 at 6:45 p.m. ET: This article was updated to include comments from the Chiefs of Ontario.
Updated on Aug. 23, 2023 at 9:09 a.m. ET: This article was updated to add new comments from the RCMP and the OPP
Updated on Aug. 23, 2023 at 10:59 a.m. ET: This article was updated to add new comments from the RCMP.
Updated on Aug. 25, 2023 at 2:40 p.m ET: This story was updated to include a section about the RCMP, new reaction from opposition politicians, a statement from the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner and details from the Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference. It was also updated to correct a subheadline that listed an incorrect city name.
Updated on Aug. 29, 2023 at 3:43 p.m ET: This story was updated to include Premier Ford’s statements about former Greenbelt landed being listed for sale.
Updated on Sept. 4, 2023 at 12:55 p.m. ET: This story was updated to include new statements by Steve Clark, announcing his resignation and a new statement by Premier Ford.
Updated on Sept. 4, 2023 at 6:40 p.m. ET: This story was updated to include new details about changes to Premier Ford’s cabinet.
Updated on Sept. 21, 2023 at 3:08 p.m. ET: This story was updated to include Doug Ford’s announcement that he is reversing changes to the Greenbelt
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