Federal Environment Minister had warned Ottawa could use its powers to intervene to protect at-risk species
This article was written by Jeff Gray and was published in the Globe & Mail on January 28, 2023.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford says he is disappointed with comments from federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, who said Ottawa could try to block development that his province is set to allow on land it removed from its protected Greenbelt.
“I’m really disappointed when I hear that, when we work collaboratively,” Mr. Ford told reporters Friday. “This is our jurisdiction. We have 300,000 more people every year coming to our province. … I just want to build homes, because the next question you’re going to say, you know, ‘ Where are we going to put these people?’”
Mr. Guilbeault said Thursday that Ontario’s removal of 3,000 hectares from the Greenbelt – 800,000 hectares of farmland and countryside that arcs around the Greater Toronto Area – “flies in the face” of efforts to prepare for climate change. (Ontario is compensating for the removals by adding 3,800 hectares elsewhere to the protected area.)
The Environment Minister warned he could use federal powers to protect at-risk species if future proposed developments on the former Greenbelt lands were shown to harm their habitats, as his government did in the case of a subdivision outside Montreal.
“You can imagine that if similar projects were to be proposed on lands that were part of the Greenbelt, then I have a legislative obligation to intervene,” Mr. Guilbeault said, according to the online environmental publication, The Narwhal.
He also mentioned Ottawa’s Impact Assessment Act, which is already being used to scrutinize Mr. Ford’s Highway 413, a proposed expressway that would carve through Greenbelt land. The minister said Ottawa “will be looking at the potential use of federal tools to stop some of these projects.”
The back-and-forth has taken place just days before a Feb. 7 meeting between Canada’s premiers and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to hash out a health care funding deal.
Kaitlin Power, a spokesperson for Mr. Guilbeault, said in a statement Thursday that the federal government “looks forward to continued collaboration with counterparts in Ontario” on environmental issues. The Environment Minister would not repeat his comments about potentially blocking projects on former Greenbelt lands outside a caucus meeting Friday in Ottawa.
It’s not the first time Mr. Guilbeault has weighed on Mr. Ford’s recent policies. In December, he suggested that Ontario could allow homes on floodplains and that Ottawa would not compensate homeowners in the event of flooding. Parks Canada has also said the opening of Greenbelt lands east of Toronto could harm nearby Rouge National Urban Park.
Opposition critics and environmentalists say Greenbelt land isn’t needed to address the housing crisis, even with the increasing immigration numbers often cited by Mr. Ford. They say enough land has already been earmarked to accommodate three decades of population growth. Ontario also recently forced municipalities to designate thousands of hectares of additional non-Greenbelt farmland for housing.
The Progressive Conservative government says its Greenbelt changes will result in 50,000 new homes, as it seeks to facilitate the construction of 1.5 million homes over the next decade. But even the province’s handpicked industry advisory panel concluded last year that building on the Greenbelt was unnecessary.
On Friday, Mr. Ford suggested that his plan – a reversal of his promises not to touch the Greenbelt – was being criticized unfairly, as the previous Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne took land out of the protected area 17 times.
However, those changes in 2017 followed the rejection of more than 650 requests from developers and municipalities for carveouts during a public review of the Greenbelt, and consisted mostly of minor boundary adjustments that only removed 148 hectares. Environmentalists did raise concerns about some of the Liberal measures at the time, but they are dwarfed by the current government’s removals – drawn up away from public view.
Under Ms. Wynne, Ontario had also added another 10,000 hectares to the Greenbelt, which the Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty created in 2005.
The Globe and Mail and other news outlets have reported that some of the land taken out of the Greenbelt changed hands as recently as September, 2022. Both Mr. Ford and his Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Steve Clark, have said they did not tip developers off before the decision was announced in November. But Ontario’s Auditor-General and its Integrity Commissioner have since launched investigations. The Ontario Provincial Police have said they are also considering launching an investigation.
Ahead of the 2018 provincial election campaign, Mr. Ford was forced to backtrack after the Liberals unearthed video of him promising to hand over a “big chunk” of the Greenbelt to developers. After initially promising to replace any removed land only to face more backlash, he vowed not to touch the protected area at all.
But this did not stop his newly elected government from proposing a bill, just months later, that would have allowed municipalities to request exemptions from Greenbelt protections. The government scrapped the legislation in 2019 after an outcry, and Mr. Ford and Mr. Clark repeated their pledges not to touch the protected area.