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Nearly three weeks after Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced he’d reverse his controversial decision to remove land from the Greenbelt, his government has started the process of making it official.
Ontario’s Greenbelt is a ring of protected forests, farmland and waterways that rings around the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. Last fall, Ford’s Progressive Conservatives opened 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of it for housing construction, much of it owned by a small group of well-connected developers. The move broke a 2018 promise from Ford and sparked controversy right away — but that escalated to a full-blown political crisis this summer after two provincial watchdogs concluded the government had given preferential treatment to developers.
The revelations in the reports by those watchdogs sparked the resignations of two ministers, including former housing minister Steve Clark, and two senior staffers. As Ontarians organized protests and public backlash reached a fever pitch, Ford apologized on Sept. 21 and promised to reverse the changes to the protected area.
New Housing Minister Paul Calandra introduced a bill on Monday to make Ford’s renewed pledge a reality. Though Calandra maintained that the government’s only goal in opening the Greenbelt was to tackle Ontario’s housing crisis, he also said the bill is designed to make it harder for future governments to do the Greenbelt what the Progressive Conservatives tried last year.
“Ultimately, this was not how the people of the province of Ontario wanted us to go about doing that,” he said. “So, we’ve listened.”
At the same time, the bill also includes clauses shielding the government, its ministers and even staffers from potential lawsuits that could come from the whole affair. And critics are questioning whether the government should go further to ensure the Greenbelt remains intact.
Here’s what we know so far about what the new bill means for the fate of the land at the centre of the scandal — even as an RCMP investigation plays out in the background.
The new legislation, if passed, will settle the question of what happens to the land the Progressive Conservatives removed from — and added to — the Greenbelt last fall.
First, the 3,000 hectares the government took out of the Greenbelt: the legislation would place that land squarely back within the protected area’s boundaries.
The government had tweaked other pieces of legislation to allow development on additional Greenbelt properties, but those moves are being undone as well. For example, one piece of the Greenbelt that the government removed protections from last year — a section of prime agricultural land east of Toronto called the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve — was also protected by conservation easements, or legal agreements that limit how land can be used. The Ford government did away with those easements last year, but the new bill would put them back in place.
A similar process would play out with land located in a particularly sensitive section of Greenbelt called the Oak Ridges Moraine, north of Toronto. The moraine is also protected by a separate law that predates the Greenbelt, which the Progressive Conservatives also altered in order to enable development. The new bill would make those changes moot as well.
One key change that will remain is the land the Progressive Conservatives added to the Greenbelt last year — 3,800 hectares (9,400 acres) of farmland and river valleys that were meant to compensate for the land slated for development.
Those 3,800 hectares of land were already protected from development through other mechanisms, leading critics to say they wouldn’t make up for the loss when the government began the now-reversed process of opening Greenbelt lands to development. But in any case, Calandra said the additions will stand, meaning once all’s said and done, the Greenbelt will be 3,800 hectares bigger than it was before the Tories formed government in 2018.
The new legislation also aims to make it harder for future governments to change the Greenbelt: if passed, it would require that any changes to the boundaries of the protected area be done through a vote of the legislature. Currently, governments can change the Greenbelt area through regulations, which don’t require a vote.
“We are ensuring that going forward, any process with respect to the Greenbelt is done in the most public and open fashion that we can provide,” Calandra said.
However, critics question whether that enhanced protection is really enough to deliver on Calandra’s promises. Phil Pothen, Ontario environment program manager at the charity Environmental Defence, said the bill is a “useful step” but should specifically mandate that future governments can only expand the Greenbelt, not remove land from it.
Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner suggested the government put conservation easements over the entire Greenbelt as well to “send a clear message to land speculators” that the Greenbelt is off limits.
“The more, stronger protections we can put on the Greenbelt, the more we can ensure something like this doesn’t happen in the future,” he said.
In short, no. The other big thing the new legislation does is shield the government from being sued over the Greenbelt flip-flop.
The government knew lawsuits were a potential risk — particularly from developers and the owners of Greenbelt land that lost and then gained protections. Many developers spent much of the last year working on plans to build housing in an effort to meet quick deadlines set by the province. Some might have other reasons to be mad after spending $173 million over the summer to buy up even more newly opened Greenbelt land, an investigation by The Narwhal and the Toronto Star found.
Calandra, however, has said the government won’t be compensating Greenbelt landowners affected by the changes.
So the bill includes a few clauses aimed at heading off any potential court cases. A few similar lines were included in the original law protecting the Greenbelt, which was penned in 2005. But the new bill strengthens those immunity provisions, specifically shielding current and former ministers and staff.
Calandra said the government hasn’t received any pushback from developers on the Greenbelt flip-flop so far, and he thinks homebuilders are looking towards the province to take other steps to boost housing construction.
“They want us to move quickly on that to provide certainty,” he said. “We also hear from municipalities, frankly, that they’re saying, ‘Alright, let’s move on.’ ”
Speaking to reporters on Oct. 16, Calandra said the government will wait at least a month before passing the legislation. That’s meant to give the government time to comply with Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights, which requires the government to consult with the public for 30 days about changes to provincial rules involving the environment. (The auditor general has repeatedly reprimanded the government for violating the Environmental Bill of Rights during its tenure.)
The government has also posted the proposed bill to the province’s environmental registry for public feedback. That posting says the public consultation will last 45 days, closing on Nov. 30.
Calandra said the government will be engaging with affected municipalities and Indigenous communities. Some First Nations, like Mississaugas of Scugog and Mississaugas of the Credit, have vocally opposed removing land from the Greenbelt. In August, the leadership of the Chiefs of Ontario, an organization representing 133 First Nations, also called on the province to restore protections on former Greenbelt land.
As backlash over the Greenbelt scandal intensified in early September, Ford announced the government would embark on a “Greenbelt review”: while the law protecting the Greenbelt mandates such a review of the protected zone every 10 years, this exercise was two years early. But as reporters pressed him for details, the premier said the process could place new Greenbelt lands on the chopping block.
The Greenbelt review is still happening, Calandra told reporters on Oct. 16, which leaves room for some uncertainty. Last month, Ford promised the government wouldn’t cut into the Greenbelt again. But speaking to reporters, Calandra wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the government would entertain requests from developers to open protected land through the Greenbelt review, though he did say the process would be put to an “impartial, non-partisan group of experts in conservation, agricultural and environmentalism.”
“It will be focused on the preservation of our water resources, protecting natural heritage and preservation of farmlands,” Calandra said.
“What we’re trying to do will ensure that the politics are taken out of the review process.”
Calandra also said the government would consult Ontario’s auditor general to ensure the review is fair, and that he’ll announce more details about the review before it begins.
Pothen, from Environmental Defence, said Calandra’s “ambiguous comments” mean it’s not clear yet that the Greenbelt is completely secure.
“There is cause for concern that the 10-year annual review process will be manipulated to create a pretext for future attempts to remove Greenbelt land,” Pothen’s statement said.
The Ford government is still pursuing other projects that would be built on the Greenbelt.
A big one is Highway 413, which would run through slices of the protected area north of Toronto. The project has been in a holding pattern since 2021, when the federal government decided to subject it to an impact assessment. That review is now up in the air after the Supreme Court of Canada largely struck down the federal government’s impact assessment law last week.
Another Ontario highway project, the Bradford Bypass, is also slated to run through the Greenbelt.
Asked about Highway 413 in particular, Calandra said the law that protects the Greenbelt allows infrastructure to be built in the protected zone.
When asked by reporters if he hopes the new legislation puts the scandal to rest, Calandra responded, “I’d be lying if I said no.”
“I’m hoping that through the passage of this we can [build housing] while at the same time understanding just how important the Greenbelt is to many, many people across the province of Ontario,” Calandra said.
But that doesn’t mean the consequences of the Greenbelt scandal are entirely behind the Ford government. On Oct. 10, the RCMP’s sensitive and international investigations unit launched a criminal investigation into “allegations associated to the decision from the province of Ontario to open parts of the Greenbelt for development.”
The RCMP have not named any people of interest and have not answered questions about what allegations, specifically, investigators are probing. It’s also not clear how long an investigation might take or what the outcome could be.
Calandra said no one from his office or ministry has been contacted by the RCMP so far.
“If they do,” he said, “we will stand ready to assist in any way.”
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