Ontario Green Party leader calls for public inquiry into Greenbelt land removals

Ontario Green Party leader calls for public inquiry into Greenbelt land removals

TORONTO — Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner called Thursday for a public inquiry into Greenbelt land removals, saying the resignation of a top political staffer is a start, but it's far from the end.

A report this month from the auditor general found that developers who owned 15 sites of land that the Progressive Conservative government removed from the protected Greenbelt area last year now stand to see those properties rise in value by $8.3 billion.

Bonnie Lysyk found that developers who had access to Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark's chief of staff at an industry event wound up with 92 per cent of the land that was removed from the Greenbelt for housing.

Schreiner said Thursday that the report answered some questions, but raised even more.

"People want transparency, they want accountability, and they want to know the truth, and the only way that we're going to get that level of transparency and accountability is through an independent public inquiry, so the public can see the evidence themselves, so they can hear the testimony directly from those involved," Schreiner said at a press conference.

"The people of Ontario deserve to know how wealthy insiders could hand over an envelope that led to government policy decisions with windfall profits of $8.3 billion going to a handful of wealthy elite speculators."

But Premier Doug Ford's office quickly shot down the idea of a public inquiry.

"No," a spokesperson wrote when asked if the premier would consider calling one.

Meanwhile, the RCMP said Wednesday they have started to look into the matter, weighing whether to launch an investigation by evaluating information sent over by the Ontario Provincial Police. The provincial force had been assessing information for months and turned the potential case over to the Mounties to avoid any perceived conflicts of interest.

News of the potential police probe came a day after Ryan Amato resigned as Clark's chief of staff, saying he is confident he acted appropriately but that he didn't want to be a distraction to the government's work of getting housing built.

But the NDP pointed Thursday to a reference in the auditor general's report to a second staffer, saying it raises more questions and makes Clark's assertions that he did not know the process was being controlled by Amato even more unbelievable.

All but one of the 22 Greenbelt sites considered for removal — 15 were ultimately selected — were brought forward by Amato instead of the team of civil servants he struck for that purpose, Lysyk found.

Of those 22 sites, Amato said nine were brought to his attention by developers or their representatives and five were identified by a deputy chief of staff who was working on a review of municipal official plans, Lysyk wrote.

NDP municipal affairs critic Jeff Burch said Ontarians need more information.

“Who was this staffer that had a role in carving up five parcels of the Greenbelt?" he wrote in a statement. "What was their role?"

Ivana Yelich, Ford's deputy chief of staff of stakeholder relations, media relations and forward planning, said in a statement that Clark's deputy chief of staff wasn't involved in any decision making on Greenbelt changes.

Some of the public submissions received in the official plan review the staffer was working on included requests for removal of lands from the Greenbelt, so the staffer sent them to the civil servants working on the Greenbelt project, Yelich said.

Lysyk's report also found that political staff received emails from lobbyists on their personal accounts, sometimes forwarded emails from their government accounts to personal ones, contrary to public service guidelines, and were regularly deleting emails, contrary to the rules.

The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario said Thursday that retention of government records is a key component of ensuring transparency and accountability of government decisions.

"The IPC is gathering relevant information and considering next steps," the office said in a statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 24, 2023.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press