Green space protection groups are gearing up for even bigger fights ahead after Premier Doug Ford’s stunning reversal and apology over plans to hand over 3,000 hectares of Ontario Greenbelt lands to a small group of politically connected developers.
“Sadly, the Greenbelt land grab was only the most visible tip of the iceberg,” Franz Hartmann, coordinator of the Alliance for a Liveable Ontario, told The Energy Mix in the days after Ford’s announcement. “A whole bunch of other bad policy has come out of this government, and the damage these other policies will do if they continue is significantly greater than the damage that would have happened had they gone ahead and put development on the Greenbelt lands,” with thousands if not tens of thousands of acres of farmland and wetlands still at risk.
Those lands are “poised to be used for sprawl” due to a collection of legislative bills and policy statements the Ford government has introduced, he warned. “Every acre of sprawl takes away precious resources that are badly needed to build housing in existing towns and cities,” while exacerbating climate change.
Just a day after Ford’s Thursday announcement, Environmental Defence Canada was out with a release announcing weekend rallies in Richmond Hill and Scarborough, Ontario, aimed at curtailing the province’s plan to build Highway 413, a controversial plan to pave over parts of the Greenbelt, promote “auto-dependent sprawl”, and increase greenhouse gas emissions in the area. That proposal has been under federal environmental review since May, 2021, with three-quarters of “905” suburbanites declaring themselves opposed. (The “905” refers to the telephone area code for suburban areas surrounding the City of Toronto.)
“Throughout the past year over 100,000 Ontarians sent emails, signed petitions, made phone calls to their MPPs, with thousands more attending an unprecedented wave of rallies to voice their concerns on the provincial government’s $8.3 billion gift to developers,” Environmental Defence said in response to Ford’s decision. “Mobilization like this has never been seen in Ontario before.”
But while “the attack on the Greenbelt was a flagrant example of bad policy designed to benefit well-connected developers at the expense of our environment,” added Executive Director Tim Gray, “this was just one of many poor policies, including the proposed Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass, both of which would pass through the Greenbelt. Although returning the Greenbelt lands is a great first step, there is still much work to be done to restore the many environmental protections that we have lost in recent years.”
For weeks, Ford had resisted calls to reconsider the Greenbelt plan, even after separate reports by the provincial Auditor General and Integrity Commissioner triggered the resignations of Housing Minister Steve Clark, his chief of staff Ryan Amato, and Jae Truesdell, Ford’s own director of housing policy. While the premier shuffled his cabinet, while committing to “re-evaluate” the land swaps and force each of the development sites to “stand on their own merit”, Hartmann and others warned three weeks ago that the land grab could still continue “full steam ahead”.
But the scene began to shift last week after the scandal claimed a second cabinet member, forcing Minister of Public and Business Service Delivery Kaleed Rasheed to resign his post and give up his seat in the Progressive Conservative caucus. Ford apologized a day later, in what Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee declared a win for democracy in Ontario.
“It was a mistake to open the Greenbelt,” the premier admitted. “I made a promise to you that I wouldn’t touch the Greenbelt. I broke that promise. And for that I am very, very sorry.”
With support from urban planners, affordable housing groups, tenants, farmers, nature advocates, labour, health professionals, climate and environment hawks, and many others, the months-long effort to reverse the Greenbelt land grab was “an excellent example of distributed organizing, where people from all across the province got really upset with what was happening and got the word out,” Hartmann told The Mix. “This led to an overwhelming number of people talking to their local MPPs, and the message got to the premier that this is not acceptable…. It shows what happens when people keep organizing and don’t give up.”
He called the coordinated effort by multiple different coalitions an example of democracy in action, “and by democracy, I mean democracy beyond voting. These were people who said our government can’t do this one bad thing, and it has to stop. Enough people talked to their MPPs and to their friends, and it stopped. Four months ago, I don’t think anyone would have said the premier would reverse his decision on this. And he did.”
“A political reversal of this magnitude doesn’t just happen out of nowhere,” wrote The Narwhal’s Ontario Bureau Chief Denise Balkissoon. And “we wouldn’t have arrived at this moment—four high-level political resignations and now a full reversal of the Greenbelt decision—without independent, investigative journalism.”
Reporter Emma McIntosh remembered digging through property records to track down the story. “Back then, we were working long into the night, figuring out how to best serve this critical information to the public—and to do it quickly, before the decision was final,” she said. “I never could have imagined where this reporting would take us.”
The timing of the announcement was also auspicious for a reason that Ford’s office could scarcely have imagined: As we reported in Saturday’s Energy Mix Weekender, September 21 was the second anniversary of The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau.