PCs want to ‘close Greenbelt chapter’ with new legislation; will public forgive and forget?
Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Paul Calandra admitted to a room full of reporters Monday he would like to put the Greenbelt scandal behind his PC government, announcing new legislation to return 15 parcels of land back to the protected greenspace after they were removed through a secretive process that violated provincial rules.
It has been called a “modest first step” by advocacy group Environmental Defence.
Interim Liberal leader John Fraser and Green Party leader Mike Schreiner both said, on first glance, the legislation looked “supportable”. But opposition parties and environmental advocacy organizations continue to caution the public that the Greenbelt fiasco was not a one-off mistake, it was just fortunate the PCs got caught.
Reports from Ontario’s auditor general and integrity commissioner exposed the disturbing misconduct and mismanagement that led to land carve outs that stood to create almost $8.3 billion of value for preferred developers, some of whom were directly involved in the secretive plan. These complementary reports exposed details to the public, but many other moves by the PC government that could have equal, if not worse, impacts on the environment, have not received the same amount of attention. Through a number of other ongoing projects and legislative proposals, the PC government has the potential to carve up protected greenspace under the guise of social and economic prosperity.
“I don’t think the government has seen the light as much as they felt the heat,” Fraser stated in a press conference following Calandra’s announcement. “I think there’s a mistake with the Greenbelt, but the real mistake is how Doug Ford thinks he can do business in this province.”
The Greenbelt Statute Law Amendment Act was presented in the House Monday after the PC government collapsed under the mounting public pressure to address the wrongdoing exposed in the Greenbelt scandal, and the decision making by PC officials that handed over $8 billion in land value to prominent developers. The new legislation is a significant about-face for Premier Doug Ford and his PC government, which for months refused to take action on the Greenbelt lands. Since August, advocates and the public have demanded that the PCs commit to all 15 of the recommendations laid out by Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s report on the Greenbelt land swap. Immediately after the release of the audit, Ford and his government were adamant they would comply with “all 14” recommendations, ignoring perhaps the most significant recommendation — Lysyk’s request to return the lands to the Greenbelt.
The location of 15 parcels originally slated for removal from the Greenbelt as dictated by legislation pushed through in December 2022.
(Government of Ontario)
The legislation will make changes to the Greenbelt Act and Oak Ridges Moraine Act, which the PCs altered in December as part of their land-swap scheme. The sole new addition is an added section of the Greenbelt Act to maintain the extra 9,400 acres of protected land that were promised last year.
"We want to make progress on building 1.5 million homes but ultimately this was not how the people of the province of Ontario wanted us to do that," Calandra said Monday. "We are listening. We are ensuring that going forward any process with respect to the Greenbelt is done in the most public and open fashion."
He shuffled into the ministerial position after former minister of municipal affairs and housing Steve Clark resigned after the Integrity Commissioner concluded he breached ethical standards in his failure to oversee the actions of his staff. Calandra said the Bill will codify the boundaries of the Greenbelt into law meaning any future attempts to change them would have to be made through the Legislature.
But just because the Ministry has a new face, does not mean it can save face. Opposition leaders and many Ontarians remain outraged over other efforts the PC government is taking to chip away at protected greenspaces with little regard for the impacts on the natural environment.
Schreiner said the government is restoring environmental legislation that should never have been removed, but is refusing to enhance any environmental protections.
“I think there’s more work to do on this bill and before giving it my stamp of approval, I’m going to be pushing amendments for strengthening of environmental protections,” he said.
The Act restores the same protection for easement of the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve — over 4,500 acres of mainly Class 1 agricultural land located north of Pickering, characterized as the “Crown Jewel” of the Greenbelt — that was present before the 2022 amendments, but Schreiner questioned why the same type of conservation easements cannot be placed on all Greenbelt lands.
Schreiner also suggested the new Bill could be strengthened by barring any new aggregate operations from breaking ground in the Greenbelt. Despite having enough aggregate for the next 10 years, new pits and quarries continue to pop up in areas like Caledon, which sit upon Greenbelt land. Schreiner tabled the No More Pits or Quarries in the Greenbelt Act in May.
The leader of the Green Party has also tabled a Bill in the legislature that would restrict the construction of highways through the Greenbelt and prohibit the expansion into areas bordering highways in the Greenbelt, with particular emphasis on the approved Highway 413 (which Ottawa is currently considering for possible intervention to ensure federal legislation is not violated if the major transportation project proceeds). The proposed mega highway is currently routed from Milton, north-east through the south end of the Greenbelt in Caledon and into Vaughan.
There is no sign the PCs intend to support any of Schreiner’s proposals.
Despite the need for more density and housing along major transit corridors, the PCs are pushing hundreds of thousands of new sprawling detached homes.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Meanwhile, Ford and Calandra continue to push the narrative that more land is needed for the construction of the 1.5 million homes by 2031 the government mandated under Bill 23. The claim runs contrary to all expert reviews, including those done by government staff.
“This government is clearly not seized on building houses because they are not doing what their own Housing Affordability Task Force told them to do. In fact, they are doing the opposite,” Schreiner said.
When asked if he now believed all the studies and reports that concluded there is enough land within existing urban boundaries to build two million homes, Calandra deflected and reiterated his government admits it made a mistake carving up the Greenbelt and did not act in the best interest of the public.
He did not address other pieces of legislation and projects put forth by the PCs that will harm the Greenbelt.
Many observers began to question Ford’s intentions in 2018, when he quietly told a room full of developers ahead of that year’s election that he would carve up a “big chunk” of the Greenbelt for them if they helped him win. A year later, after it had been removed for consideration by the previous Liberal government, Ford pushed the 413 Highway through with his strong majority inside Queen’s Park. The Greenbelt would see a major 400-series highway run along and through it, opening up tens of thousands of residential sprawl alongside, on lands that had already been bought by powerful developers, including ones that donated to Ford’s campaign.
In 2020, the PCs amended the Places to Grow Act, requiring municipalities to create a forecasted development plan for 30 years — an unprecedented timeframe in Ontario’s urban planning history — foreshadowing an increase in sprawling subdivisions.
As a result, the Region of Peel voted to expand its urban boundary by 11,000 acres in April 2022, despite major pushback from residents citing concerns about meeting the Region’s climate targets. Despite the Regions of Waterloo and Halton, and the City of Hamilton deciding to freeze their urban boundaries, the Ford government soon overrode their smart growth decisions, forcing boundary expansions into farmland and other greenspace.
Earlier this month, NDP leader Marit Stiles shared with the public a leaked memo illustrating the provincial government knew its forced changes to boundary expansions were highly controversial, listing potential issues with the expansions in Waterloo, Wellington County, Guelph, Barrie, Belleville and Peterborough.
“It explains that the changes to many of these urban boundaries were not assessed by municipal staff,” Stiles said in a press conference, saying the document is proof the PCs were making a “conscious attempt to force sprawl on communities”.
Ontario NDP leader Marit Stiles has demanded the PC government be held accountable, calling for multiple Auditor General and Integrity Commissioner investigations and repeatedly questioning Premier Doug Ford in the Legislature.
Even before the controversy over boundary expansions, the Ford government had been chipping away at farmland and greenspace with individual Minister's Zoning Orders (MZOs). An MZO is a tool under the Planning Act used to streamline projects in rare circumstances, including emergencies and after extreme weather events. The tool was used approximately once per year in the decade preceding Ford’s tenure, but between March 2019 and 2021, his PC government issued 44 MZOs, a number that has dramatically increased in the years since, especially following the implementation of Bill 197 which expanded the Minister’s powers to issue these orders.
Many of these MZOs are being used to ram through warehouse developments in the south of Caledon, dotting the line of the proposed route of the 413. If built, the 60-kilometre GTA West Highway would cut across 400 acres of Greenbelt, tearing through more than 220 wetlands, a dozen waterways and 2,000 acres of farmland. What is perhaps more concerning than the land eaten up by the highway itself is the type of sprawling development it will trigger across entire sections of the Greenbelt. The same concern has been raised about the 16-kilometre stretch of proposed highway called the Bradford Bypass which is set to intersect the fertile Holland Marsh 50-kilometres to the northwest.
All of the aforementioned projects continue to be ramped up while Ford promises he will act in the best interest of the public and keep the Greenbelt intact. While announcing the plan to reverse the Greenbelt removals when he was in Niagara in late September, the Premier assured Ontarians he would get Highway 413 built. How he plans to hold true to two conflicting promises, has left critics wondering if the PCs are waiting for the Greenbelt scandal to blow over before continuing with the exact same agenda, under a different scheme.
The PCs will have to do so while a criminal investigation by the RCMP is carried out, and while the Auditor General probes its use of MZOs.
“We are concerned that this bill falls short of what will be required to make good on the Premier’s promise never to remove land from the Greenbelt in future, or to restore the public — and investor — certainty that Greenbelt protection is permanent,” Phil Pothen, Ontario environment program manager at Environmental Defence, said in a statement.
Calandra made note a review of the entire Greenbelt would still be completed as is required every ten years under the original Greenbelt Act. However, he provided little detail on what this review will entail, who will do it and when it will be completed.
Ford had previously stated the review would consider all 700-plus requests for Greenbelt removals that have been made to the government, spreading concern that the review would be used to make a second attempt at land removals. Others have also questioned why the government feels the need to commence the review immediately when it is not due for another few years (the last review was completed by the Liberals in 2017).
Calandra assured the review will be devoid of political influence and will be conducted by an “independent panel”, another claim met with skepticism.
“I’m not sure in the legislation in the devils in the details, how confident I am in this government to appoint an independent panel,” Fraser, interim leader of the Liberal Party, said.
The Pointer followed up with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) to inquire as to how this “independent panel” will be chosen. A spokesperson responded but provided no direct answer.
“Moving forward, this review will be led by impartial, nonpartisan experts in conservation, agriculture and environmentalism, and will include engagement with Indigenous communities and municipalities,” Alexandru Cioban, spokesperson for the MMAH, replied in an email statement. “Once final, the experts’ recommendations will be provided to the Auditor General and the Commissioner of the Environment for consultation to ensure that the review process was fair and guided by the recent recommendations to improve the process. More information on the review will be provided in the future.”
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