EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.
After losing two cabinet ministers, two senior staffers, and untold points in the polls, Premier Doug Ford announced his government would walk back its Greenbelt land removals on Thursday.
He also promised once again to not touch the protected area — the same pledge he broke in 2018 that led to his government’s biggest scandal to date.
Speaking at a press conference, Ford said he was “very, very sorry,” and acknowledged the firestorm of public opinion that’s surrounded the removal of Greenbelt land and the ”terrible” process that led to them.
The controversy around the removal of 7,400 acres from the Greenbelt last year has been the predominant issue in Ontario politics since almost immediately after the government first revealed its plans last Nov. 4.
Within weeks, journalists — including, notably, those of the Narwhal and Toronto Star — uncovered eyebrow-raising purchases by many of the developers owning the removed land, plus connections and, in some cases, lengthy and large donation histories to the Progressive Conservatives, including to Ford himself.
The scandal bubbled up again a couple of months later when reporters revealed that multiple lobbyists and developers had attended Ford’s daughter’s wedding festivities, including the infamous $150-a-ticket stag and doe (which Ford corrected to “stag” on Thursday).
Last month, two provincial watchdogs — Ontario’s auditor general and integrity commissioner — released reports detailing a deeply unusual and flawed process that was behind how specific lands were chosen for removal.
Each report spotlighted Ryan Amato, the top staffer of now-former housing minister Steve Clark at the time of the Greenbelt changes, as steering this process, which was significantly dictated by developers who had access to him.
Amato resigned on Aug. 22, between the release of the two reports. Clark resigned from Ford’s cabinet on Sept. 4, days after the second of the reports, from Ontario’s integrity commissioner, who found he had broken MPP ethics law by failing to properly oversee the process that his chief of staff led. Clark remains a PC MPP.
This week, MPP Kaleed Rasheed resigned from Ford’s cabinet and the PC caucus, while Jae Truesdell, formerly housing policy director in the premier’s office, left his job as well. The Trillium reported over the summer that each of them had gone on a trip to Las Vegas with developer Shakir Rehmatullah, who owns land removed from the Greenbelt, in early 2020.
Rasheed, along with Amin Massoudi, Ford’s second-ranked staffer until a year ago who also went on the trip, went back to Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake with new information to correct testimonies they’d given the commissioner about the Vegas trip during his Greenbelt investigation.
Ford didn’t budge on the Greenbelt changes up until Thursday — with his government planning to launch a review of the entirety of the protected area as well. The government had planned for 50,000 homes to be built on the former Greenbelt lands. It’s working towards a goal of having 1.5 million homes built by 2031, a target its Housing Affordability Task Force set for it in early 2022.
He announced a complete reversal in Niagara Falls on Thursday, following a getaway by his caucus ahead of the return of the legislature.
“We … talked a lot about what we’ve been hearing from the people in our ridings about our decision to open the Greenbelt,” Ford told reporters on Thursday, with his cabinet standing as his backdrop.
“Our caucus, they shared with me what they’ve heard in their communities. I want the people of Ontario to know: I’m listening.”
Ford reflected on breaking the promise he made in 2018 not “to touch the Greenbelt,” saying, “for that, I’m very, very sorry.”
“It was a mistake to open the Greenbelt. It was a mistake to establish a process that moved too fast,” Ford said. “This process, it left too much room for some people to benefit over others. It caused some people to question our motives.”
“As a first step to earn back your trust, I’ll be reversing the changes we made, and won’t be making any changes to the Greenbelt in the future.”
While responding to a question on whether developers owning land that’ll be re-protected against development will receive any compensation, Ford said his new Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Paul Calandra “is working through those details.” He also said developers will have to decide themselves whether they want to take legal action against the government.
The government will continue with its review of the 2 million acre protected area, which is required by law, to “look through the process — but we won’t touch the Greenbelt,” Ford said.
Wake, the integrity commissioner, announced through a short report on Thursday that he wouldn’t be launching a full-fledged inquiry into Ford over his daughter’s wedding festivities that developers and lobbyists attended.
Over the last few weeks, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have been considering launching a criminal investigation into the government’s Greenbelt changes, after being referred responsibility for it by the Ontario Provincial Police.
The opposition parties at Queen’s Park claimed victory on Thursday.
NDP Leader Marit Stiles offered “congratulations to everyone who's been fighting for our vital farmland and green space, who said no cronyism and corruption in government.”
Interim Liberal leader John Fraser said the decision is “a good one,” but that the government owes the public many more answers about the scandal — something Stiles and Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner also raised.
“It’s thanks to the millions of Ontarians who raised their voices – who held rallies, signed petitions, wrote to their MPPs, and talked with friends and family – that we won the fight for our Greenbelt,” Schreiner also said.
—With files from Sneh Duggal
Editor's note: This story was updated from an earlier version to clarify that the premier reversed course on Greenbelt land removals. An earlier version mentioned land swaps.