Ontario’s integrity commissioner and auditor general investigating Greenbelt development

Ontario's Greenbelt Photo by Shutterstock/NelzTabcharani316

On Wednesday, Ontario’s integrity commissioner and auditor general announced that they would both be launching separate investigations into the provincial government’s Greenbelt development plan.

In December 2022, Premier Doug Ford’s government finalized a plan that would remove 7,400 acres of land from the province’s protected Greenbelt to build 50,000 homes. While examining the plan, a team of journalists from the Toronto Star and The Narwhal discovered that eight of the 15 Greenbelt parcels selected for development had been purchased by developers after 2018, when Ford was elected. Opening the land to development made the parcels extremely valuable, leading some to believe that the Ford government had tipped off developers before the November 4 announcement.

On November 28, Mike Schreiner, Ontario’s Green party leader, sent a letter and an affidavit to J. David Wake, the province’s integrity commissioner in charge of enforcing ethical conduct among Ontario’s members of parliament. In the letter, Schreiner asked him to investigate whether Ford and Steve Clark, the province’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, had contravened the Members’ Integrity Act by providing insider information and engaged in a conflict of interest regarding the Greenbelt development.

When Wake asked Ford and Clark about the accusation, both denied it, claiming that “the selection of the affected lands was made by public servants who were subject to an enhanced confidentiality protocol and that the minister was briefed and accepted their proposal only a few days before he presented it to Cabinet.”

After assessing Schreiner’s request, Wake determined that there were insufficient grounds to investigate as the majority of supporting material were media articles, which don’t qualify as evidence in an inquiry.

On December 8, newly appointed Ontario NDP leader, Marit Stiles, provided an affidavit and “direct evidence” to convince Wake to launch an investigation into whether Clark had contravened the Members’ Integrity Act. Stiles did not ask Wake to investigate Ford.

A spokesperson for Clark responded to a request for comment in an email, stating the minister is confident that the integrity commissioner will find “there is no evidence that either the premier or the minister advanced their private interest through the recent changes to the Greenbelt.”

Stiles, Schreiner, and Ontario’s Liberal party leader, John Fraser, next wrote a joint letter to auditor general Bonnie Lysyk, who ensures public money is being spent responsibly, on January 11, asking her to conduct a “value-for-money audit and an assessment of the financial and environmental impacts of the government’s decision to remove land from the Greenbelt and repeal the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act.”

In response, Lysyk wrote a letter back to the MPPs on January 18, saying: “I would like to confirm that my office will be conducting certain audit work on this issue commencing within the next few weeks.”

In a statement responding to the investigations, Schreiner said: “I am pleased that both the integrity commissioner and the auditor general have agreed to investigate Ford’s decision to break his often-repeated promise not to open up areas of protected Greenbelt land for development. There are serious unanswered questions about how certain Conservative-connected land speculators knew to buy the parcels in question—some of these transactions occurring mere months before the government’s announcement. This whole affair does not pass the smell test.”

Stiles responded with a similar statement: “I am relieved to see that this matter is being treated with the seriousness that it deserves and pleased to see this response from the integrity commissioner and the auditor general. Ontarians are owed answers about the Greenbelt, and I am confident that today is a step in the right direction to understanding what happened.”

On top of the integrity commissioner and the auditor general’s investigations, non-profit organizations Environmental Defence and Democracy Watch are pushing the Ontario Provincial Police’s (OPP) anti-rackets branch to investigate whether the government did provide insider information to developers about the Greenbelt, amounting to a criminal breach of trust by a public officer.

“Removal of thousands of acres of legally protected farmland, forests, and wetlands from the Greenbelt threatens us all. A government doing so in a manner shrouded in secrecy that appears to benefit a select group of property owners, including recent purchasers, needs to be thoroughly investigated by the OPP,” said Tim Gray, Environmental Defence’s executive director, in a statement.

The OPP has yet to confirm whether it will press charges.

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