An Ontario court has found the provincial government broke the law by failing to adhere to the Environmental Bill of Rights with a controversial measure to speed up more than 40 local land developments using Ministerial Zoning Orders (MZOs).
Several environmental groups brought forth several applications for judicial reviews over the province’s alleged failure to consult with the public before enacting the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act, The Canadian Press reports.
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Late last year, the province opened up consultations to the public months after the passage of Bill 197 last summer. But the Superior Court of Justice said the minister of municipal affairs acted “unreasonably and unlawfully” by consulting with the public months after it enacted changes.
“These are amendments that manifestly could have a significant impact on the environment, and there is nothing in the record to support the reasonableness of the decision not to post,” the three-judge panel ruled. “An after-the-fact posting does not satisfy the requirements of the EBR [Environmental Bill of Rights], which is meant to give the public an opportunity to be consulted on certain types of proposals that could have a significant effect on the environment before such a proposal is enacted.”
The province did not immediately respond to CP’s request for comment.
The judges granted the judicial review in part, but dismissed numerous other challenges the environmental groups raised about other ministries.
The court said the government failed to post proposed amendments over the controversial use of MZOs on the Environmental Registry prior to implementation. The province has used the orders to fast-track land developments, especially in the environmentally sensitive Greenbelt.
Greenpeace Canada campaigner Reykia Fick put the issue in rather more stark terms in a blog post late last week.
“Maybe you’ve been following some of the front-line environmental battles in communities across Ontario: To save wetlands from being paved for a warehouse. To save protected lands from being turned into a housing development. Or to stop a high-emissions factory in a small town,” she wrote.
“These and over 40 other projects were approved by the Ford government via MZO. This tool allows the minister of municipal affairs and housing to simply declare how a piece of land will be used without following the due process. This means being able to skip local planning requirements, environmental impact assessments, and public consultation. And after the decision is made, there is no way for citizens to appeal it.”
The court decision “shows that the government cannot get away with acting like it is above the law—not even Doug Ford’s government,” Fick added. “We can and will hold our decision-makers to account, even when they try to silence our voices.”
Other environmental groups that were part of the case hailed the September 3 decision as a victory for the environment, CP writes.
“As Environmental Commissioner of Ontario for 15 years, I am heartened to see the court uphold the rights of people to participate in government decision-making affecting the environment,” said Gord Miller, chair of Earthroots, one of the organizations involved in the court battle.
“The court’s declaration is clear—the Government of Ontario broke the law in violating those rights.”
The Canadian Environmental Law Association said the decision reaffirms the public’s rights. “The Environmental Bill of Rights provides very significant tools for the people of Ontario to know about, and participate in, decisions that affect their environment,” said Executive Director Theresa McClenaghan.
Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said it was a win for the public.
“Ontarians have a right to participate in government decision-making that impacts the environment,” he said. “By violating Ontarians’ environmental rights, Doug Ford has not only broken the law but has also made it clear that he will put his pro-sprawl, pro-developer agenda above all else.”
The main body of this report was first published by The Canadian Press on September 8, 2021.