Earlier today the CBC’s Metro Morning broadcast a piece about the removal of the Bathurst lands from the Greenbelt. 

You can listen to the first segment here. The second segment, featuring Sarah Kellington who lives with her tenant farmer husband and four young children on the Bathurst lands, aired on 17 August 2023. You can listen here.

Supine Enablers

I showed the CBC reporter, Mary Wiens, around the huge 2.78 sq km tract of land next door to us in King Municipality. This prized agricultural land was removed from the Greenbelt on 21 December 2022 thanks to Doug Ford and his supine enablers who include our local MPP Dawn Gallagher Murphy.

I had a lump in my throat as I listened to the reporter talking to Sarah whose husband is a tenant farmer on the lands now owned by Michael Rice. 

There will be real consequences for Sarah, her husband and their four young children. They will have to leave the farm which has been their home for years. They haven't had their notice to quit yet. But it could come at any time.

Real consequences

The removal of land from the Greenbelt is not an abstraction. It has real consequences for farmers and those who live on the land as leaseholders.

There are ten households renting on Rice’s Bathurst lands. Nine of the ten have been told they’ve got to move. Two must leave by the end of this year and seven by next Spring.

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Update on 22 August 2023: Editorial from the Globe and Mail. "The Greenbelt Saga is far from over". Click "read more" below

The Greenbelt saga is far from over

The Ontario government’s defence of its indefensible deal to hand over thousands of hectares of protected land to favoured developers is one of the more disingenuous bits of political theatre in recent history.

The Progressive Conservatives’ damage control is positively avant-garde in its contempt for voters’ intelligence. Sure, they say, a flawed process was used to select 15 lots for development in the Greenbelt, but Ontario desperately needs housing because of a crisis in supply exacerbated by increased immigration, so that makes it okay.

That was the lame justification proffered by Premier Doug Ford after the province’s Auditor-General exposed a process that was, in her words, “not transparent, fair, objective, or fully informed,” and which led to “certain prominent developers receiving preferential treatment.”

“We have two choices,” Mr. Ford rebutted in an op-ed piece. “We can build more homes or we can sit back and let the crisis get worse.”

What utter rot. Even if Mr. Ford is incapable of doing so himself, it’s easy to imagine a third choice; that is, spurring construction without shamelessly using the cover of the housing crisis to reward land speculation by favoured political supporters and donors.

As Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk reported, what should have been an independent, apolitical decision about which parcels of land would be removed from the Greenbelt was “undermined” by “non-elected political staff, and developers and their lobbyists.”

Ms. Lysyk said the short list of sites considered for removal was hand-fed to a cloistered team of public servants by Ryan Amato, the chief of staff to Housing Minister Steve Clark, and that 92 per cent of the land that ultimately benefited was recommended by two developers who had access to Mr. Amato.

Mr. Amato made the team sign a confidentiality agreement that prohibited them from speaking to anyone about their work. If a chosen site didn’t meet certain criteria, the criteria were changed or dropped, Ms. Lysyk found.

All told, the developers whose lots were removed from the Greenbelt could see the value of their holdings increase by $8.3-billion.

This gerrymandering is completely unacceptable. The ends – quickly building more homes in a housing crisis – aren’t justified by their anti-democratic and unfair means. 

Even Mr. Ford agrees with that – up to a point. He says his government will implement 14 of Ms. Lysyk’s recommendations about shoring up the neutrality of Ontario’s civil service and increasing ministerial responsibility. But he won’t agree to a recommendation that he re-evaluate the outcome.

Which means we may be stuck with it.

There is still an investigation into the matter to come from the province’s integrity commissioner; Ms. Lysyk outlined potential violations of the province’s lobbying rules and the Public Service of Ontario Act in her report. And the Ontario Green Party and some environmental groups have called for a police investigation.

But there is little reason to believe Mr. Ford will reverse his government’s decision.

So what now? There are things Mr. Ford needs to do if he wants to restore his credibility.

He needs to live up to his government’s commitment that “significant progress on approvals and implementation must be achieved by the end of 2023,” and that “new home construction will begin on these lands by no later than 2025,” or the land will be returned to the Greenbelt.

His government has also promised that “local infrastructure upgrades needed to service the projects [are] to be funded entirely by the proponents.”

It’s these things that will reveal Mr. Ford’s true agenda.

Ms. Lysyk said in her report that the cost of adding the needed infrastructure would likely be in the billions of dollars, and could take up to 10 years.

If the land in question is flipped this year or next, and if the government’s deadlines around progress come and go without consequence, it will be clear what the purpose of the exercise really was. The same thing goes if the public gets stuck with the bill for the infrastructure needed for the 50,000 new homes Mr. Ford says will be built in the Greenbelt.

Mr. Ford may think he has put the matter behind him, but he has yet to show Ontario voters that his government’s actions were in the public interest.