A “truly unprecedented” report by Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk shows that the Doug Ford government’s “Greenbelt land grab” was never about building affordable housing on a treasured expanse that 83% of Ontarians and 76% of Progressive Conservative voters want to see protected, veteran Greenbelt advocate Burkhard Mausberg writes, in a blistering analysis piece for the Toronto Star.
“Never has so much wealth been transferred through a land use policy in this country: with the stroke of a pen, a few privileged developers gained C$8.3 billion,” Mausberg says. “All this without any due process, without any consideration of the impact on the environment and farming. And all done in secrecy, knowing full well that there is enough land for housing already.”
Lysyk’s Special Report on Changes to the Greenbelt [pdf], released August 8, showed that “the Ontario government’s process for choosing protected Greenbelt land to open up for housing development was heavily influenced by a small group of well-connected developers who now stand to make billions of dollars,” CBC reports. The 95-page report “offered a damning assessment of how the province selected sites last year for removal from the Greenbelt—a vast 810,000-hectare area of farmland, forest, and wetland stretching from Niagara Falls to Peterborough that was meant to be off limits to development.”
The report concludes that the selection process for the land grab “was largely controlled by Housing Minister Steve Clark’s chief of staff—not non-partisan public servants—and that many of the sites were chosen after specific suggestions from developers,” CBC adds. “The process didn’t consider the agricultural, environmental, and financial impacts of the decision, and involved little input from planning experts or other stakeholders, including the general public and Indigenous communities, according to the report.”
The review “raises serious concerns about the exercises used, the way in which standard information gathering and decision protocols were sidelined and abandoned, and how changes to the Greenbelt were unnecessarily rushed through,” Lysyk told media last Wednesday. “The process was biased in favour of certain developers and landowners who had timely access to the housing minister’s chief of staff.”
The findings had opposition parties at Queen’s Park calling for Clark’s resignation. Later Wednesday, Ford accepted 14 of Lysyk’s 15 recommendations—all except the call for his government to revisit and consider reversing the land swaps.
Progressive Conservative Ties
CBC traces the story back to December, 2022, when the Ford government took about 2,995 hectares of protected land out of the Greenbelt—ostensibly to build 50,000 new homes—and added more land elsewhere. “Shortly after the proposal was announced, media reporting, including by CBC Toronto, revealed that several well-established developers with ties to the Progressive Conservative government were among the owners of the land that was removed and that several of the properties were purchased in recent years when they were fully or partially off-limits to development.”
To plan the land swaps, the housing ministry assigned a small group of officials to a “Greenbelt Project Team”, gave them only three weeks to complete their work, and swore them to confidentiality, Lysyk found. Then Clark Chief of Staff Ryan Amato chose 21 of the 22 sites for the team to consider, before settling on the final 15. Twelve of the 15 had been suggested by developers.
Now, those developers “will have to provide billions in infrastructure and must get shovels in the ground by the end of 2025, or the lands will be returned to protection,” the Globe and Mail writes, citing remarks by Ford and Clark.
“Amato told the auditor general he received packages from two prominent developers at a conference dinner last September that included proposals to build homes on protected Greenbelt land owned by those developers,” The Canadian Press adds. While Amato said he never told them the province would be opening up new land, “Lysyk said the developers who had access to Amato at the dinner ended up with 92% of the land that was removed from the Greenbelt.”
No Need to Build on Greenbelt Land
Lysyk identified specific instructions from Amato to the Greenbelt Project Team that were based on the packages he received from the developers, CP writes. That was after a provincial housing task force found that Greenbelt land wasn’t needed to meet the government’s goal of building 1.5 million homes over 10 years.
“Land is available, both inside the existing built-up areas and on undeveloped lands outside the Greenbelt,” the task force wrote in February, 2022. Later, when Lysyk and her team contacted the chief planners in Hamilton, Durham, and York, where all the 15 sites are located, they “informed us that sufficiently serviced (or more easily serviceable) land is already available to meet the housing targets assigned to them by the housing minister,” last week’s report stated.
“The Chief Planners we spoke to also highlighted that the land sites removed from the Greenbelt in December 2022 were largely not serviced, were not in their servicing plans, and that many of the land sites would be challenging to prioritize and service in the near future, with some taking potentially 10 or more years to accomplish,” the AG’s office wrote.
Ford and Clark both told Lysyk they were unaware of the way Amato was running the land selection process. But that’s hard to believe, said Myer Siemiatycki, a professor emeritus of politics at Toronto Metropolitan University.
“It’s inconceivable that such a key issue as the future of the Greenbelt would have simply been assigned to someone as low down the scale in the power or pay grade of the Ontario government as a chief of staff,” Siemiatycki told CP. “It strains credulity to believe that a chief of staff was given full reign on which of the thousands of acres of Greenbelt land should be converted into residential housing.”
That version of events “is mind-boggling,” agrees the Globe and Mail’s Campbell Clark. “Ontarians are being told that one political staffer was able to take over the machinery of government to make important determinations that increased the value of certain developers’ private property by billions of dollars. And neither the minister nor the Premier knew.”
Minister Clark and Ford came up with two excuses in their media remarks Monday, reporter Clark writes: that “a lightning process to swap land out of the Greenbelt was necessary to meet housing needs,” and that Amato kept his bosses in the dark. But “even in an “era of political shamelessness,” he adds, “neither of those excuses matter when it comes to Mr. Clark’s future as a minister. Even if both are 100% true, there is no question that he should resign. Or be fired.” Whether or not Clark knew what he was up to, the Globe reporter added, he was acting on the minister’s authority.
On Thursday, Ford followed through on Lysyk’s recommendation that he ask Integrity Commissioner David Wake, a former associate chief justice of the Ontario Court of Justice, to review whether Amato’s actions broke provincial ethics rules, CBC reports. A spokesperson for Wake said the request was “under review”.
But on Friday, Ford maintained that no one received preferential treatment in the land swaps and refused to back down on the plan, CBC writes. “We need to make sure they build those homes and that’s a message to the people, the landowners that have these properties,” he told media. “You don’t get shovels in the ground, we don’t see progression rapidly, that land’s going back in the Greenbelt.”
‘Playing Ontarians for Fools’
Reaction to the Lysyk report has been flowing thick and fast, with the Globe and Mail editorializing that the deal “exposes Ford government favouritism” and the Star accusing the PCs of “playing Ontarians for fools” on Greenbelt development. “The more we learn about this affair, the more we think a judicial inquiry may be needed to get the facts about the Tories’ dealings with developers,” the Star editorial board writes.
Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic echoes Mausberg’s assertion that the Ford government’s actions have nothing to do with housing.
“None of this followed standard procedure. None of it is defensible. It’s the kind of scandal that ought to bring down a government. But Ms. Lysyk makes another point that’s nearly as important: Opening up the Greenbelt wasn’t needed in the first place. Solving the province’s housing crisis does not require more sprawl,” he writes.
“Ontario does, in fact, need to build much more housing very quickly,” Bozikovic acknowledges. But the province “already has more than 350 square kilometres of unbuilt ‘greenfield’ land approved for development,” based on a February, 2023 review by Registered Professional Planner Kevin Eby for Environmental Defence Canada.
“But the province shouldn’t even be building much on those suburban spaces, either,” Bozikovic writes. “Instead, it should be encouraging new housing on built-up areas in cities. This means replacing existing strip malls or houses with apartment buildings,” following the housing task force’s recommendation that the province legalize four-storey apartment buildings everywhere rather than mostly banning them.
“If Mr. Ford really cares so much about the housing crisis, he should be pushing aggressively to make sure that cities, especially Toronto and Mississauga, are rapidly increasing their rate of growth,” Bozikovic adds. “These places have wide swaths of low-density neighbourhoods that could easily absorb more people in a manner that is cost-effective, convenient, and reduces the province’s carbon emissions.”
A Scandal that Haunts
Every aspect of the saga makes the Ford government’s “damage control” the kind of scandal that comes back to haunt governments, writes Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn. He traces the roots of the story back to 2018, while Ford was still a candidate for the provincial Progressive Conservative leadership. That was when the then-future premier “confided behind closed doors that he would ‘open a big chunk’ of the Greenbelt if he became premier in the election later that year.”
“I’ve already talked to some of the biggest developers in the country, and, again, I wish I could say it’s my idea, but it was their idea as well,” Ford said at the time.
“When his candid comments leaked out, a panicky Ford publicly retreated,” Regg Cohn recounts, “vowing to leave those protected lands untouched.”
“The people have spoken,” Ford famously promised, before winning the 2018 provincial election. “I’m going to listen to them, they don’t want me to touch the Greenbelt. We won’t touch the Greenbelt. Simple as that.”
Fast forward five years, and “the Tories insist they are doing this for the greater good, not for the benefit of those well-connected developers who never stopped lobbying and litigating to be liberated from the Greenbelt’s constraints,” Regg Cohn writes. And in the wake of the Lysyk report, “the premier remains unrepentant. Five years after Ford tried to talk his way out of a Greenbelt imbroglio, he is once again digging himself out with talking points.”
With billions in profits on the table for developers and “incalculable cost to Ontario in overall agricultural, environmental, sprawl, social, and economic terms,” Regg Cohn compares the Greenbelt deal to the gas plant scandal that helped bring down the province’s previous Liberal government.
“The Tories imagine they can get out from under the Greenbelt by telling people one thing, doing another thing, and then insisting they did the right thing,” he writes. “But just as the Liberals were burdened by the billion-dollar boondoggle, the Tories are being tarred by this eight-billion-dollar bonanza. If you doubt the damage, behold the damage control.”
How to Stop a Land Grab
While the fallout from the Lysyk report continues, some of the news coverage and commentary is turning to Ontarians’ options for reversing a decision that Ford is so far refusing to revisit.
“Greenbelt champions have been fighting the removal of these Greenbelt lands since November,” writes Mausberg, a former CEO of the Greenbelt Foundation and executive director of Environmental Defence now serving as president of the Small Change Fund. “The report from the auditor general provides essential fuel to reignite our fight to keep the Greenbelt whole with new strategies and new conviction. We now know the size and scale—and audacity—of the machine we are up against. And we need more help than ever to fight it.”
Mausberg adds that “now is the time to act to recover and safeguard Greenbelt lands, while the light of the report is shining on the bias, hastiness, and political manipulation of the Greenbelt annexation and the population is united in its opposition.”
He vows that “it’s not over, not by a long shot. We have a ton of fight left in us.”
[Disclosure: Energy Mix Productions is a proud partner of the Small Change Fund.]
On Sunday, hundreds of people in Pickering demonstrated outside the constituency office of Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy, demanding permanent protection for the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, CBC reports.
“They’ve said they’re going to adopt 14 out of the 15 recommendations of the auditor general’s report. The only consequential one, they’re not adopting,” said Abdullah Mir, co-chair of Stop Sprawl Durham. “I want them to adopt it, which [would] return the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve lands to their rightful owners—the people of Pickering.”
“I am disgusted by what Doug Ford has been doing,” added 17-year-old Jonah Brooker-Nulman of Toronto. “This is also coming at a time when we are having things like the fires in Hawai’i, the fires right here in Canada, lots of climate change-related disasters. We’re starting to see what Mother Nature can do when we don’t listen.”
On Friday, a CBC news report looked at some of the available options for stopping the land grab in its tracks. “Advocates say pushback from other governments, residents could push Ontario to reverse course,” the national broadcaster headlines.
“Municipalities can stall developments by refusing to rezone land still largely zoned for agricultural uses,” CBC writes, citing Environmental Defence Executive Director Tim Gray. “They can also refuse any development applications made to local councils.”
The federal government may also have a role to play. In January, Environment and Climate Minister Steven Guilbeault has said he might have grounds to challenge parts of Ford’s Greenbelt plan under the federal Species At Risk Act, or to scrutinize it under the Impact Assessment Act (IAA). A couple of months later, he announced a study of the Toronto-area Rouge National Urban Park, a move that could give Ottawa the authority to block development on once-protected areas of forests, wetlands, and farmlands in the Greenbelt.
Gray said potential court action would have to wait until either the province or developers tried to start construction. “They’re going to try and move very quickly,” he told CBC, adding that ED is working with people “on the ground” who are keeping watch for trucks or other heavy equipment.
Franz Hartmann, coordinator the Alliance for a Liveable Ontario (and also a member of the volunteer sounding board for Energy Mix’s Cities & Communities digest), told CBC it’s time for citizens to push their provincial MPPs to recall the legislature early and return the lands that were removed. “As Ontarians, residents and citizens, it’s our duty to speak up,” he said. “Our job is to let our elected officials know we do not accept this.”
It’s also the job of elected officials not to squander public trust in the operation of government by removing environmental protections in the midst of a climate crisis, added Trevor Farrow, a professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School.
“People need to be able to trust choices and processes,” Farrow told CBC. “If the auditor general is calling into serious question how any government makes choices around zoning, planning, and bylaws, what’s to say that everyone else will still play by the rules?”