Turmoil continues for PCs as RCMP launch investigation into Greenbelt scandal; AG reviewing use of MZOs
Premier Doug Ford and his PC government are trying to climb out of the hole they dug for themselves when a series of backroom deals helped remove lands from the province’s protected Greenbelt. But after finally issuing an apology, another probe, this one by the RCMP, could expose more of the secretive process behind a scandal that stood to add $8.3 billion in property value for developers pushing to get their hands on protected lands.
The RCMP announced Tuesday that a criminal investigation into the $8.3 billion Greenbelt land swap has been launched. The scandal has already led to multiple resignations including the former housing minister Steve Clark, his former chief of staff and the former minister of business service delivery, Kaleed Rasheed.
“Following a referral from the Ontario Provincial Police, the RCMP ‘O’ Division’s Sensitive and International Investigations (SII) unit has now launched an investigation into allegations associated with the decision from the province of Ontario to open parts of the Greenbelt for development,” the RCMP said in a statement Tuesday.
Despite the matter being of particular interest to Ontarians, the RCMP will not be providing updates throughout the process in order to “protect the integrity of the investigations that it carries out, in order to ensure that the process leads to a fair and proper outcome.”
While the announcement of an RCMP investigation is welcomed by many Ontarians, the process is vastly different from the investigations undertaken by the Auditor General and Integrity Commissioner, both of which exposed disturbing mismanagement and wrongdoing by government officials. A criminal probe will require much more stringent evidence to prove criminal activity beyond a reasonable doubt.
A statement from the Premier’s Office states Ford expects all MPPs and staff involved to cooperate with the investigation.
The RCMP did not respond to The Pointer’s request on how long the investigation is expected to take.
After repeatedly refusing to do so, Steve Clark resigned as housing minister last month during the fallout from the Greenbelt scandal.
(Government of Ontario)
The potential for a criminal investigation was handed off to the RCMP by the OPP in August, after Ontario’s policing organization recused itself from conducting the probe in order to avoid any potential perceived conflict of interest — the provincial police force is funded by Queen’s Park and also provides security for the premier.
“The general public is aware that there are a lot of unanswered questions as to what the hell happened, that there's this corruption that now encircles the government and they don't believe that all the facts have been uncovered,” Victor Doyle, best known as the architect of the Greenbelt, told The Pointer. “So I think that the whole corruption angle as opposed to impacts on the Greenbelt is certainly not over for a lot of people.”
The public and opposition leaders have been asking questions ever since it was announced in November 2022 that 15 parcels of land totalling 7,400 acres would be removed from the Greenbelt and replaced with 9,400 acres elsewhere.
Leader of the Ontario NDP, Marit Stiles, who originally called for investigations by the Auditor General and Integrity Commissioner, called it “shameful” that Ontario has a government under criminal investigation.
“For over a year, sign after sign pointed towards a cash-for-access culture of corruption and collusion at the heart of how this government makes decisions, putting private interests of a select few of their insiders ahead of everyone else. I hope that this investigation will get us even more answers,” she said.
At the beginning of August, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk released her scathing report which assigned the minimum value of $8.28 billion that would be transferred to the hands of some of the nation’s most wealthy developers through the removal of Greenbelt lands. Her audit placed much of the onus on the former Chief of Staff for Steve Clark, then minister of municipal affairs and housing, Ryan Amato. Both have since resigned their posts following the release of the report.
Many were not satisfied with this outcome, stating disbelief that Clark and Ford were unaware of the process that was unfolding behind the scenes, as they both claimed. An Integrity Commissioner’s investigation later concluded former minister Clark broke ethics laws in his failure to monitor staff under his control which allowed for such shady dealings to occur. In the wake of this damning revelation, Clark resigned.
During the month that followed, more government employees and elected officials resigned from prominent positions. Mississauga MPP Kaleed Rasheed, former Minister of Public and Business Service Delivery, and Jae Truesdell, former director of housing policy, both resigned from these roles after it was revealed they misled the integrity commissioner about trips to Las Vegas with a particular developer in 2020, whose lands were then chosen for removal last November.
But the RCMP investigation turns up the heat on Ford who has, to this point, evaded most of the responsibility for the scandal, despite being the party leader and the face of the government.
“The people of this province put their trust in the Premier, and he chose deals for developers over everyday Ontarians,” Green Party leader Mike Schreiner said in a statement following the announcement of the investigation.
The locations of the 15 land parcels previously planned for removal from the Greenbelt before backlash and investigations by the AG and integrity commissioner forced the PCs to backtrack.
(Government of Ontario)
While Ontario moves closer to a resolution of the Greenbelt scandal, people of the province are increasingly skeptical of Ford’s handling of Ontario’s assets and other alleged attempts to satisfy his developer connections.
The ongoing controversy has caused support for the Premier to crater. The Angus Reid Institute’s latest poll, released the day following the publishing of the Integrity Commissioner report, showed Ford's approval rating had plummeted to 28 percent, from 45 percent when he was reelected in June of last year, a loss of support largely due to Ontarians who had voted for him now reporting they could no longer do so.
The results of the poll showed that Ontarians are increasingly dissatisfied with the way Ford handled the Greenbelt scandal and has led some to question the integrity of other planning decisions made at Queen’s Park.
In August, following the release of Lysyk’s audit, the Alliance for a Liveable Ontario (ALO), an advocacy super group made up of prominent organizations focussing on the environment, housing and labour, called on Lysyk for a broader investigation into the PC’s entire development agenda.
Stiles has also asked for a probe into the PC’s use of Minister’s Zoning Orders, a request acting Auditor General Nick Stravropoulos’s office confirmed it was accepting and looking into on Tuesday.
In her 2021 annual report, Lysyk found that the Ontario government was disrupting land use planning by exponentially increasing the use of MZOs to fast track development. The audit found that, between March 2019 and March 2021, the province had issued 44 MZOs, 17 of which were issued to the same seven prominent development groups.
The number came as a shock to those who, before the election of Ford in 2018, had little knowledge on what an MZO was or what it was used for. Before the PCs took office, the powerful tool, which is used to expedite planning and development in extraordinary circumstances, was used approximately once per year.
“The willingness of the province to make decisions that do not align with municipal plans has upended the certainty that both the municipal and development communities need,” Lysyk said at the time of the audit. “Municipal land-use plans and the infrastructure required to support these decisions can take years to design, fund and consult with the community. The rationale behind the increased use of MZOs should be transparent to the public.”
But it seems the PCs have learned little from Lysyk’s investigation and her 12 recommendations as the government continues to force a certain type of development on communities who often stand in opposition.
Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie previously told The Pointer that the Ontario government had “pull[ed] the rug from underneath them” when it handed down an MZO for Lakeview Village wiping out almost two decades of planning. Councilors, city staff and residents were outraged when the decision from the Province allowed the developer to double the number of units from 8,000 to 16,000 without considering the construction of vital infrastructure to service the community.
“We can’t just plan an entire city on the back of a napkin, but that’s exactly what this government is doing,” Mississauga Councillor Alvin Tedjo said in regards to the Lakeview MZO. “It’s just completely irresponsible.”
Brookvalley Property Management requested an amendment to a 2020 MZO that would include an additional 141 hectares of land, 41 hectares of which were located within the Greenbelt.
(Town of Caledon)
The Town of Caledon has been hit particularly hard with MZOs — currently working with four separate orders issued since 2020 — for lands that border the route of the proposed Highway 413. In 2020, the province issued an MZO for a housing development in the Mayfield West area. In 2022, Brookvalley Property Management, one of the developers which owns part of the land, submitted a proposal to build adjacent to the lot. After the Town rejected the proposal, the Province expanded the 2020 MZO to include an additional 141 hectares — including 41 hectares of Greenbelt land.
Amidst the controversy of the entire Greenbelt scandal, the PCs backtracked on the decision and again modified the MZO, this time to only include an additional 100 hectares, and no Greenbelt lands.
Other municipalities have seemed to take advantage of the Province’s loose hold on MZOs, pushing through requests for developments they desire. In less than a month in 2021, Brampton City Council and Mayor Patrick Brown made six requests for MZOs to the Province. These requests were made largely without the support of the public and while misleading his fellow council members whom he told there was an impending deadline for these requests. In four out of the six MZOs, the request was added to the council agenda after the meeting began. The requests included two 48 storey towers with over 1,100 units in downtown; a complete community spanning 31 hectares; a not-for-profit long term care home (a valid reason cited by the Province to request an MZO); a school and place of worship; a headquarters and training centre; and an entire multi-tower community that could house over 12,000 people in Bramalea.
“With Ford’s Greenbelt grab, we’ve seen a troubling pattern of corruption and preferential treatment for well-connected land speculators. People have questions about whether that pattern extends to other decisions – such as urban boundaries and this government’s frequent use of MZOs,” Stiles wrote in a statement. “The Ontario NDP are committed to answering these questions and bringing ethics and transparency back to Queen’s Park.”
Acting AG Stravropoulos stated in a letter addressed to Stiles that the audit commenced on August 31, but it remains unclear when any report will be made public.
Email: [email protected]
At a time when vital public information is needed by everyone, The Pointer has taken down our paywall on all stories to ensure every resident of Brampton and Mississauga has access to the facts. For those who are able, we encourage you to consider a subscription. This will help us report on important public interest issues the community needs to know about now more than ever. You can register for a 30-day free trial HERE. Thereafter, The Pointer will charge $10 a month and you can cancel any time right on the website. Thank you
Submit a correction about this story