Can the federal government intervene in Doug Ford’s Greenbelt development plan?

Steven Guilbeault in 2014 Asclepias, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault has said he may intervene in the Ford government’s plan to develop sections of the Greenbelt. During an interview with The Narwhal, he said it was possible the federal government could use the Species at Risk Act to halt planned development near the Rouge National Urban Park in Toronto—a known corridor for Blanding’s turtles, an at-risk species. Or, he said, the government could use the Impact Assessment Act, which the feds used in 2021 to determine whether Ontario’s Highway 413, needed additional federal oversight.

While the statement from Guilbeault is the first time that he’s publicly stated the federal government could attempt to intervene, he has been voicing concerns over Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s intention to build 50,000 homes on sections of protected Greenbelt land.

During a press conference in Toronto in January, the minister said that the provincial government’s plan to remove 7,400 acres of land from the Greenbelt for development, “flies in the face of everything we’re trying to do in terms of being better prepared for the impacts of climate change.”

At a press conference in Brampton, Ford told reporters he was disappointed to hear Guilbeault’s comments, “This is our jurisdiction,” he said. “You can’t complain about not having enough housing for years and then complain when we come up with a solution to do it. We’re going to continue building the 50,000 homes on those pieces of property.”

Despite Ford’s confidence, the Greenbelt development hit a snag in late January when Ontario’s integrity commissioner and auditor general announced they would be separately investigating the project to see whether the Ford government colluded with developers when opening the land for homebuilding.

Ford has denied any wrongdoing.

Can the federal government legally intervene?

Assuming the project does move forward, there are no guarantees that the federal government will intervene in the Greenbelt development. “There’s a certain amount of signaling communication, of sending messages, sending hard messages, sending soft messages that are public. And then there’s, of course, what the governments are saying to each other privately,” says Patrick Fafard, a professor in the University of Ottawa’s department of public and international affairs. “The minister’s comment was not accidental. It was very deliberate. But it’s really hard, based on the limited information we have, to know what their ultimate goal is. I would leave open the possibility that there’s a range of goals of which actually going and using federal legislation to frustrate the build may not actually be the only goal or may not even be the goal. There could be other things going on.”

In regards to using the Species at Risk Act to stop development, Fafard says the act doesn’t give the federal government authority over private land or Crown land, which make up much of the areas set to be developed. It does, however, give the federal government authority over national parks, such as the Rouge National Urban Park, and adjacent land where species-at-risk may move through.

The Impact Assessment Act is more ambiguous. Fafard says it’s unclear whether the federal or provincial government’s environmental assessment takes precedence over a given project. “[Guilbeault’s comments] may be the federal government taking advantage of that ambiguity,” he says.

If the federal government decided to use legislation to intervene with the Greenbelt development, it is possible that the provincial government could push back by taking the feds to court.

“Canadian history is littered with examples, where for all sorts of reasons, good, bad, and indifferent, the government of Canada takes an action and says, ‘We’re going to use our authority to do this.’ And one or more provincial governments say, ‘No, we don’t like that.’ So, it goes to the Supreme Court,” Fafard says. “The Supreme Court for 150 years has been in the business of issuing rulings that say, ‘Well, we look at these two pieces of legislation, we look at the Constitution Act, and for the following reasons, we agree that the federal government has the authority or we don’t agree that the federal government has the authority.’”

Will the federal government intervene?

Julie Simmons, a political science professor at the University of Guelph, says she wonders if the federal government has started to shy away from intervening with the Greenbelt development. “The fact that the Environment Minister has not repeated what he said suggests to me that this is not a strategy that the Prime Minister’s Office is supporting at this time.”

She speculates that it could be because the federal government is in the midst of negotiating health care agreements with each province. If a problem, like the Greenbelt development, rears its head elsewhere, it could have ripple effects on the negotiations.

“The federal government isn’t likely to want to be micromanaging what’s happening in Ontario in this instance,” Simmons says. “If there’s a media spotlight on something that’s not what the federal government is focusing on currently with the provinces, then there is political capital to be lost or gained.”

Simmons does add, however, that Guilbeault and Ford butting heads over the Greenbelt could be beneficial.

“There is a train of thought that the environment benefits when there is friction between the two governments because there is a little bit more overlap of care for the environment,” she says, “rather than streamlining of care for the environment, which sometimes means streamlining for the benefit of industry.”

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