Key environmental takeaways from the Auditor General’s report on changes to the Greenbelt

Bonnie Lysyk Photo from Ontario Parliament livestream

Today, Ontario’s Auditor General, Bonnie Lysyk released her long-awaited report investigating the changes made by the Ontario government to remove 7,400 acres of land from the Greenbelt. The Greenbelt was introduced in 2005 to permanently protect farmland and from urban sprawl. The report was initially sparked by a letter from all three Ontario opposition parties requesting a value-for-money audit and assessment of the environmental and financial impacts of the government’s decision to remove lands from the Greenbelt. 

In the report, Lysyk acknowledges that a comprehensive environmental assessment of the impacts of this decision is not in the report because it fell outside the scope of this audit. However, in her conclusions, Lysyk says the 2022 Greenbelt amendments were made without regard for environmental and agricultural risks and may lead to adverse impacts. In spite of the Auditor General’s recommendation that the province re-evaluate the decision to remove the Greenbelt lands, Premier Doug Ford said today in a press conference that they are planning to proceed with the development of the lands. “A lot of people, including Environmental Defence, are calling for the government to return that property to the Greenbelt, although the Premier has recently confirmed that they don’t intend to do that,” says Keith Brooks, the associate director of Environmental Defence, in response to the Premier’s assertion that they will ignore the AG’s recommendation.

Here are some of the key environmental takeaways from the 95-page report. 

  1. The provincial government’s actions in 2022 to open parts of the Greenbelt for development failed to consider environmental, agricultural, and financial risks and impacts and proceeded with little input from experts or affected parties. It excluded substantive input from land-use planning experts in provincial ministries, municipalities, conservation authorities, and First Nations leaders. “The report from the auditor general shows that the removal of those lands cannot be justified—it’s indefensible. Given that the process cannot be justified, it makes logical sense that the lands should be returned,” says Keith Brooks, the associate director of Environmental Defence.
  2. Nineteen of the 22 proposed sites for removal from the Greenbelt did not meet the one initial environmental/agricultural criteria such as a Natural Heritage System or Speciality Crop designation. When that was communicated to Ryan Amato, Housing Minister Steve Clark’s chief of staff, that environmental criteria was dropped before those sites for removal were proposed to Cabinet. 
  3. Public consultation required by the Environmental Bill of Rights 1993, was undermined by incomplete and inaccurate environmental registry notices because it limited the public’s ability to fully understand and comment on the proposed changes and their potential impacts. 
  4. Eighty-three per cent of the land that was removed is classified as Class 1–3 prime agricultural land and Agriculture ministry staff determined that this is likely to lead to significant adverse impacts on agriculture.
  5. Fourteen per cent or 1,000 acres of the Greenbelt lands that were removed are wetlands and woodlands. The report states that these natural features are at increased risk of damage or degradation, which can lead to increased flooding, water quality impairment, climate change, and a reduction in biodiversity. 
  6. Twenty-nine species at risk live or are likely to live in the removed sites, according to the federal department of Environment and Climate Change Canada. For example, the endangered red-headed woodpecker and threatened Blanding’s turtle have been reported within one kilometre of Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve (DRAP) according to Parks Canada. The main concern is that development in the DRAP would result in habitat fragmentation, pollution, and reduced biodiversity. The federal government has initiated a study of that land and may move to block development in that land because of the environmental and agricultural impacts. If a province’s laws do not effectively protect the critical habitat of a federally listed species at-risk, the federal government can issue orders under its own Species at Risk Act


To read the report in full, click here.

With files from Zenith Wolfe.

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