"I made a promise to you that I wouldn't touch the Greenbelt. I broke that promise and 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. This process, it left too much room for some people to benefit over others. It caused 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 make any changes to the Greenbelt in the future."
— Ontario Premier Doug Ford, September 21, 2023
In late September, Premier Ford reversed his decision, announcing plans to return the 7,400 acres of land removed from the Greenbelt in 2022 and promising not to open the Greenbelt to development in the future. Premier Ford’s statement came after months of growing scandal and public anger over his decision to open the Greenbelt to development and his government’s unethical behaviour and shady dealings that increased the value of lands removed from the Greenbelt for a select group of connected developers by a staggering $8.28 billion.
The Greenbelt is a 2-million acre band of green space which includes farmland, forests, lakes, rivers, and wetlands located around the Greater Golden Horseshoe. Established in 2005, the Greenbelt was created to permanently protect those lands from development, to preserve prime farmland, protect our air, water, and environmentally-sensitive areas, prevent sprawl, and advance climate resilience goals. For all these reasons, there is strong public support for safeguarding the Greenbelt from development.
Doug Ford has vacillated on this issue. In the lead up to the 2018 provincial election, as the Conservative Party leader, Mr. Ford was recorded at a private function telling developers that, as Premier, he would open parts of the Greenbelt to development for the creation of single-family homes. Met with fierce public opposition, he reversed his position within days, stating, “the people have spoken. I'm going to listen to them, they don't want me to touch the Greenbelt, we won't touch the Greenbelt.”
Then in November 2022, he broke that promise, removing 15 parcels of land from the Greenbelt for the development of 50,000 new homes. Premier Ford claimed there was no choice; parts of the Greenbelt had to be opened to development to build needed homes and address affordability — a claim that has been widely rejected. In fact, the Province’s own Housing Affordability Task Force found there was sufficient land outside the Greenbelt to meet the provincial goal of building 1.5 million new homes by 2031 and called for the Greenbelt to be protected.
This past May, Premier Ford doubled down on his ill-conceived strategy, calling the Greenbelt “a big scam” and “a failed policy”. Frankly, the real scam was the Premier’s decision to open the Greenbelt to development under the falsehood that it was essential to meet housing targets and address housing affordability. The failed policy was the decision to compromise the Greenbelt amidst a climate emergency.
In late August 2023, the Auditor General and Integrity Commissioner released scathing reports on the Greenbelt scandal. These reports documented a “madcap”, secret scheme that favoured and enriched connected developers, an absence of open, transparent, accountable, and coherent processes of decision-making, a failure to properly consult with Indigenous communities and Ontarians, the discarding of environmental and agricultural considerations in the selection process, a complete disregard for land-use planning processes and expertise, the misleading of non-political public servants, and numerous ethics violations, to name a few of the findings.
By early September, then-Housing Minister Steve Clark and his chief of staff had both resigned and Paul Calandra was appointed as the new Housing Minister. The appointment created an opportunity to change course, but the government didn’t make use of it. In his first press conference as Housing Minister, Mr. Calandra announced plans to carry out a review of the Greenbelt which would consider removing even more lands for development. It was not a winning strategy; vocal public opposition persisted.
Then a second Cabinet minister resigned over false information he provided to the Integrity Commissioner in connection with the Greenbelt scandal. Finally, the Premier attempted to stem the tide, announcing the reversal of his position on the Greenbelt, apologizing for his actions, and making another promise to do the right thing and preserve the Greenbelt, free from development. No doubt, Premier Ford is hoping this will be sufficient to put an end to the public fallout and improve the government’s plummeting poll numbers. That may be a faint hope as the RCMP decided this week to launch an investigation into criminal wrongdoing regarding the government’s opening of the Greenbelt and calls for an independent public inquiry intensify.
Meanwhile, Ontario residents, especially the most marginalized, continue to struggle with the housing affordability crisis. If only the Ontario government was genuinely committed to addressing the crisis — and millions of Ontarians desperately need a government that is.
Imagine, a provincial government that would double down on:
investing in co-op, non-profit, social and supportive housing and community land trusts to address housing affordability;
prioritizing government lands to build non-market affordable housing;
creating a housing acquisition plan to facilitate community land trusts and social housing providers to acquire and maintain affordable housing in perpetuity;
implementing rent control on all rental housing and closing above-the-guideline rent increase loopholes; and
providing provincial approvals, without further delay, that would allow the City of Toronto to finally implement its inclusionary zoning bylaw to create affordable housing in new residential developments.
Imagine a government that was committed to proven solutions to address the affordable housing crisis, to climate action in the face of an ever-worsening climate emergency, and to open, transparent, and democratic processes in decision-making.
Ontarians are looking for leadership on the housing affordability crisis and the climate emergency; our communities deserve a government that defends democracy and acts in the open in the public interest. Ontarians know what the Premier’s promises are worth. Premier Ford and his government would best heed the public anger and offer more than assurances not to do the wrong thing again.