After a scathing auditor general’s report that found Ontario’s decision to open up protected Greenbelt lands for housing was heavily influenced by a small group of developers who now stand to make billions, the big question is: Can anyone stop the controversial land swap from going ahead?
Parts of the Greenbelt, a vast 810,000-hectare area of farmland, forest and wetland from Niagara Falls to Peterborough were opened to development in a bid to get more housing built late last year.
The single recommendation Ford said his government won’t accept is to revisit the land swaps and possibly reverse those decisions. Ford said the land will be used to build 50,000 homes desperately needed to help ease the province’s housing crisis.
So what happens next? And is the land swap a done deal? Here’s what we know.
One watchdog and one criminal authority are already involved.
Ontario’s integrity commissioner, who has the power to recommend disciplinary measures on public servants, is considering a request to investigate if the housing minister’s chief of staff, Ryan Amato, broke any ethics rules connected to the province’s choice of Greenbelt land to open for development.
That’s on top of an ongoing investigation into the Greenbelt land swaps at the request of NDP Leader Marit Stiles, who asked the office to look into the “curious timing” of developers’ Greenbelt land purchases and whether they had been tipped off by Housing Minister Steve Clark ahead of the government’s announcement.
Both Ford and Clark have denied they had any knowledge of how Amato and his team were selecting sites for removal from the Greenbelt.
Meanwhile, the Ontario Provincial Police, which can lay criminal charges and has access to broader investigative tools the auditor general doesn’t, says it’s still reviewing whether or not there’s enough evidence to launch a full investigation.
What about other levels of government?
Municipalities can stall developments by refusing to re-zone land still largely zoned for agricultural uses. They can also refuse any development applications made to local councils, said Tim Gray, the executive director of advocacy group Environmental Defence.
Environmental Defence, part of the Alliance for a Liveable Ontario, a coalition of advocacy groups, is working with municipalities that have spoken against the Greenbelt changes, such as Hamilton, to “not cooperate in any way,” according to Gray.
The federal government could play a role in areas where it has jurisdiction.
One example is Rouge National Urban Park, which is adjacent to a swath of Greenbelt land opened for development. At a new conference on Thursday, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault said staff will be looking at the auditor general’s report and any elements that touch on the federal government’s environmental impact assessment study on development happening around the park.
“We will be looking at those very closely,” said Guilbeault.
If that doesn’t lead to any action, Gray says the federal minister can enact an emergency order under the federal Species at Risk Act that would make it so the province and developers would have “no choice” but to comply.
What about the courts?
Potential court challenges are up in the air until either the Ontario government or developers move to start construction on lands that previously belonged to the Greenbelt, says Gray.
Environmental Defence has people “on the ground” watching for the movement of trucks and heavy equipment and are ready to go to court if there’s an opportunity, he added.
When that might happen or what it might look like isn’t yet clear.
“They’re going to try and move very quickly,” said Gray.
Does the public have a role to play?
Some advocates say pushback from the public could pressure the Ford government to reverse course.
Franz Hartmann, the co-ordinator for the Alliance for a Liveable Ontario, says it’s up to residents to contact their MPPs, push them to recall legislature early and return the lands that were removed as police investigate.
“As Ontarians, residents and citizens, it’s our duty to speak up,” said Hartmann.
“Our job is to let our elected officials know we do not accept this.”
Trevor Farrow, a professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, said not only does the auditor general’s report call into question the government’s choice to remove environmental protections during a climate crisis, it shakes public trust in the way the government operates.
“People need to be able to trust choices and processes,” said Farrow.
“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?”
Ford has already admitted his government followed a flawed process in a bid to quickly get housing development off the ground. Farrow says that acknowledgement can help restore faith in the government.
The next step, he says, should be to either slow down or stop any developments until the public “can get their head around” what’s at stake — something the Ford government has said it wouldn’t do.
“It’s so important for all public figures and quite frankly for everyone to have justice and policy not only done, but be seen to be done,” said Farrow, “so we can continue to trust in the public institutions that are so important for the running of society and democracy itself.”