TORONTO — Ontario's legislature resumed sitting Monday after a summer recess, with a controversy about Greenbelt land removals looming large, despite Premier Doug Ford saying last week that he is reversing the decision.
Ford said in question period that he admitted he made a mistake with the move to open up the protected area for development, and he is moving forward.
"My message on Thursday to the people of Ontario, that's what you call it leadership," he said. "That's not going to deter us from building 1.5 million homes."
Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Paul Calandra said the government members wouldn't support an NDP private member's bill to return lands to the Greenbelt because the government will soon be introducing its own bill to do that. That legislation will also codify the boundaries of the Greenbelt, so that future changes would have to come through the legislature, and not just done by regulation.
"It is an added extra layer of protection that doesn't currently exist," he said after question period.
The government in November 2022, through regulation, removed 7,400 acres of land from the Greenbelt to build housing and added 9,400 acres elsewhere – though the auditor general later found that more than 2,000 of those acres were already protected through other means.
The Greenbelt land removals were in service of Ford's target of building 1.5 million homes by 2031.
The government's new legislation will ensure the lands that were removed from the protected area in the Greater Golden Horseshoe are returned, as well as the 9,400 acres enshrined, Calandra said.
Ford's major backtrack comes nearly a year and two scathing investigations later. Both the auditor general and the integrity commissioner found that the process to select which sites were removed from the Greenbelt favoured certain developers.
The property owners stood to see their land value rise by $8.3 billion, the auditor general found. More than 90 per cent of the land removed was in five sites passed on to the then-housing minister's chief of staff by two developers he met at an industry event, the auditor said.
The integrity commissioner said in his August report that he had no evidence of developers being specifically tipped off that the government was considering Greenbelt removals, though "it is more likely than not" that someone gave one developer a head's up. Largely, the actions of the housing minister's chief of staff had the effect of alerting developers that a policy change was afoot, the integrity commissioner found.
NDP Leader Marit Stiles said she is wary of the "giant legal loopholes" that may be in Calandra's bill.
"I don't trust this government at all to fix a mess of their own making," she said.
Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said he sees parallels between the Greenbelt controversy and the moves the Ford government is making to expand private delivery of public health care.
"We know that the Greenbelt was not about housing and immigration," he said. "It was about a handful of people getting an $8.3-billion payday, all of who were friends of the premier, donors to the party, wealthy people already. (The) same thing's happening in health care. It's going to happen with the privatization and more for-profit clinics."
Outside the legislature, people attending a protest organized by the Ontario Health Coalition advocacy group criticized the government's plan to deliver more surgeries, such as for cataracts, and diagnostic procedures in for-profit clinics.
The legislature also resumed Monday with a very different-looking cabinet than when it rose in June, with Steve Clark resigning earlier this month as municipal affairs and housing minister and Kaleed Rasheed resigning as minister of public and business service delivery, both connected to Greenbelt-related revelations.
Monte McNaughton left his labour minister job last week for the private sector, with the three cabinet departures prompting two separate shuffles, resulting in new faces in the housing, long-term care, treasury, transportation, public and business service delivery and environment portfolios.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 25, 2023.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press