Greenbelt scandal far from over; RCMP investigation continues, Integrity Commissioner review underway as community opposition grows
(Correction: A previous version of the article misstated the Ontario Integrity Commissioner's recommendation regarding the conduct of former housing minister Steve Clark. The IC recommended he be reprimanded, not removed from office.)
In September, Premier Doug Ford remorsefully announced his government would return the 14 remaining parcels removed from the Greenbelt. But the scandal was far from over.
His act of contrition, voicing regret for the shocking behaviour of his government, while simultaneously denying any involvement in the worst of the conduct, came almost a year after the original legislation removed 15 pieces of land (one was returned before September) totalling 7,400 acres from the beloved Greenbelt so developers could build houses.
Following separate investigations by Ontario’s Auditor General and Integrity Commissioner the already spiralling scandal grew like a tropical storm, pounding away at Ford’s popularity across the province. An ongoing RCMP investigation was launched and a review of the Integrity Commissioner’s investigation work is set to unfold, in full public view.
Earlier this month, the Ontario NDP received a series of emails, through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, that contradict information provided by the Premier’s office for the IC’s investigation into the scandal.
Ford, who signed off on the removal of the 7,400 acres in December 2022, told Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake, under oath that he was not involved in the selection process when the parcels were removed. Patrick Sackville, who at the time was working as the principal secretary to Ford and is now his chief of staff, also swore to Wake that he was not part of the Greenbelt discussion until October 27, 2022, when he was given a briefing before the lands were legislated for removal. But an email found in Sackville’s personal account dated October 17, 2022, with the subject line “special project - GB”, contained a “list of criteria for removals” including the types of location under consideration, infrastructure on the parcels and what offsets should look like. The email ended with a suggestion that Ford’s office could influence the impact and scale of the proposal: “Options to go larger depending on Executive Interest,” was written in the email.
It was sent by former chief of staff to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Ryan Amato, who resigned following the Auditor General investigation into the scandal which identified him as a central player in the carve outs, which involved developers who stood to have more than $8 billion of land value created by the scheme.
Marit Stiles, Leader of the Ontario NDP, has peppered Ford and his PC colleagues with questions about their involvement since the beginning of the Greenbelt scandal.
“This e-mail shows that the Premier’s office was far more involved in the Greenbelt land removals than Mr. Ford claimed,” NDP leader Marit Stiles wrote in a press release on January 22. “The Conservatives are trying desperately to make this scandal go away, but it is becoming increasingly clear that they cannot hide from their corruption.”
On October 17, 2022, Amato sent another email to Sackville and other senior staff in the Premier’s office, this time on his government email account. He asked for a time to “review a project he has been working on”. According to the IC report, Sackville responded by setting a date in the days ahead, noting the importance of the discussion.
The email from his personal account was only disclosed by Sackville in December 2023, a full year after the NDP requested a disclosure of all documents and communications related to the Greenbelt. He said the email was only found after a deeper search through his personal inbox. The use of personal emails for government business is something the PC government has been repeatedly reprimanded for throughout the scandal.
“Only the work email account (e.g., @Ontario.ca) should be used for government work,” the OPS (Ontario Public Service) Acceptable Use I&IT Guidelines, prominently highlighted by the Auditor General (AG) report, states. The AG also mandated in her recommendations that personal emails and cellphones be prohibited for government matters.
The continued use of personal communication has been addressed by opposition leaders and the public who have questioned if the tactic was meant to keep key information out of the public eye.
Stiles requested the IC complete a review of his investigation given the discrepancy between what PC officials claimed and what the newly unearthed information reveals.
“I am deeply concerned by the apparent contradiction between the information in this October 17, 2022 email and Mr. Sackville’s statements under oath, as described in your report, concerning his knowledge of and involvement with the Greenbelt project prior to October 27, 2022,” Stiles said in a letter to Wake.
Wake responded that he will complete a review of the documents and that time will be needed to review the evidence “not only of Mr. Sackville, but other witnesses to determine whether there was an inconsistency in the evidence.”
“The Integrity Commissioner can issue an opinion on whether an MPP has contravened a specific section of the Members’ Integrity Act or Ontario parliamentary convention but cannot investigate whether an MPP has contravened any other law,” a spokesperson for the Office of the Integrity Commissioner told The Pointer in an email. Penalties the IC can recommend if a contravention is found include reprimands, a suspension, or a declaration of vacancy of a seat — in the initial IC report, Wake recommended that former housing minister Steve Clark be reprimanded, and he resigned shortly after.
The spokesperson stressed that because Stiles’ request is not a complaint under the relevant legislation, no recommendation of reprimands can be made through the review process.
The Premier’s Office did not respond to The Pointer’s request for comment on the apparent discrepancy between what officials said during the initial investigation and what the recently disclosed emails show.
The IC review comes as Ford’s PC government is still under scrutiny while the RCMP continues with its investigation into possible criminality during the Greenbelt removals. Due to the sensitivity of the topic, Canada’s national police force, which was handed the case by the Ontario Provincial Police to avoid any potential conflict of interest, is keeping a lid on its investigation.
One of the potential crimes is breach of public trust.
“It’s time for the Conservatives to come clean about how they deceived Ontarians with this Greenbelt fiasco. If they don’t, I’m confident the RCMP will,” Stiles said in the press release.
Polls showed Doug Ford lost significant support after the Greenbelt scandal.
(The Pointer files)
If the Premier did in fact know about the process and plans used to select the 15 pieces of land from the Greenbelt earlier than when he has claimed, he could be held accountable for lying to the IC, but it’s unclear if this would rise to the level of breach of public trust.
But in the court of public opinion, if the recent emails lead to evidence that Ford lied, it could damage him at the polls.
“Given the high level of public interest that any change to the Greenbelt’s boundary was expected to carry, the Housing Minister ought to have known the process used that would lead to the removal of land from the Greenbelt, and ensure that Cabinet and the Premier were also made aware of these details,” the AG report stated.
“I'm not shying away from it because I think this report makes it pretty clear,” Stiles said following the release of the audit in August 2023. “And again, if the premier wants to come out and say, Oh, no, I'm just really incompetent. Man, am I incompetent, I had no idea what my minister was up to or any of my staff. And my goodness, at very least over the last number of months since we're in the official opposition, I've been raising question after question after question after question. Somewhere along the line, you didn't think to ask what's going on?”
The Premier remains in a difficult position. Either he knew what was happening, and is guilty of misleading the public, or he was clueless, raising serious questions about his leadership. Two years from now, he will have to face Stiles and Liberal leader Bonnie Crombie when the Greenbelt scandal will be a key issue in the next election campaign.
“If you don't trust the government, you're in trouble,” former Toronto mayor David Crombie said at a community meeting on the Greenbelt. “This is an untrustworthy government.”
According to polling by Angus Reid, Ford’s approval rating sat around 45 percent following the 2022 election. A poll released the day after the IC investigation report was released found his approval rating had dropped to around 28 percent. Just over one in three (36 percent) of those who voted for Ford in 2022, reported they would not support him, shortly after the scandal unfolded.
“Last year, with the Greenbelt, we proved that people power really can make a difference. In 2026, we’re going to prove it again,” Stiles told The Pointer in an email.
Ontario Green Party leader Mike Schreiner addressed the recently revealed emails last week. “Ontarians have had enough of broken promises and empty apologies. Distraction and denial won’t deliver the accountability they deserve.”
Former minister of municipal affairs and housing Steve Clark was the first minister to resign amid the Greenbelt scandal.
(Government of Ontario)
In the almost year and a half since the scandal began, the PCs have lost four MPPs and cabinet ministers, including Steve Clark, the former Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing; Khaleed Rasheed, the former Minister of Public and Business Services; Monte McNaughton, former Minister of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development; and Parm Gill, former Minister of Red Tape Reduction. While the first three former ministers resigned around the height of the scandal, Gill’s announcement late last week, tendering his resignation and making public his plan to run for the federal Conservatives, suggests concerns about Ford’s future are still reverberating within his party.
“Under criminal investigation by the RCMP, Ford’s corrupt Conservatives are down yet another cabinet minister – the fourth to either resign in disgrace or run for the exit since September,” Ontario NDP Provincial Director Kevin Beaulieu said in a statement.
“This is clearly another sign that Ford’s team is abandoning a sinking ship,” Carter Brownlee, press secretary for the Ontario Liberal Party said last week.
Before his resignation, former minister Clark repeatedly stated that the buck stopped with him. Stiles does not see it that way.
“The Conservatives’ Greenbelt scandal wasn’t just one broken promise to not touch the Greenbelt,” the Official Opposition Leader told The Pointer. “It was a repeated pattern of denials, distractions, and coverups that went on for an entire year. Mr. Ford and the Conservatives are now under RCMP criminal investigation for their actions, and each new piece of information seems to bring us closer to the Premier’s office.”
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