Ontario Premier Doug Ford is reversing his plan to open the protected Greenbelt lands for housing development, he announced Thursday, after sustaining nearly a year of blowback over the decision that has seen two cabinet ministers and two top staffers resign.
While meeting with his caucus during a retreat this week in Niagara Falls, Ont., Ford said his caucus members shared with him what they have been hearing about the Greenbelt from people in their communities and he is listening.
"I made a promise to you that I wouldn't touch the Greenbelt. I broke that promise and for that, I’m very, very sorry," Ford said.
"It was a mistake to open the Greenbelt. It was a mistake to establish a process that moved too fast. This process, it left too much room for some people to benefit over others. It caused people to question our motives. As a first step to earn back your trust, I’ll be reversing the changes we made and won’t make any changes to the Greenbelt in the future."
Ontario created the Greenbelt in 2005 to protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area from development.
Last year, the province took 7,400 acres of land in more than a dozen sections out of the Greenbelt to build 50,000 homes, citing the housing crisis, and Ford has faced large amounts of opposition to the plan since then.
Reports from the auditor general and integrity commissioner found that the process to select lands was rushed and favoured certain developers.
The property owners with land removed from the Greenbelt stood to see their land value rise by $8.3 billion, the auditor general found in her own Greenbelt investigation.
Ford was asked Thursday if the government will now owe those developers any money, and he said Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Paul Calandra "is working through those details."
NDP Leader Marit Stiles said the reversal is a "victory for all Ontarians," particularly the ones actively fighting the Greenbelt land removals.
"But let's get real, because it never should have taken a series of scandals from this government for the premier to undo the damage that he's done," she said.
"It was clear from the beginning that this was the wrong decision and yet, Mr. Ford and the Conservative government pressed on. It was a calculated attempt by this government to benefit a few, a select few Conservative insiders, at the expense of everybody else."
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said Ontarians have to keep fighting Ford, because he is still moving forward with urban boundary expansions in some areas of the province.
"We have to keep up the pressure in places like Waterloo Region and Halton, where Ford is imposing sprawl onto farmland, even though local councils have identified enough land for housing," Schreiner said.
"We can’t let this reversal be a get-out-of-jail-free card for Premier Ford or his cabinet."
Ford has said the land in the Greenbelt was needed in order to meet the government's goal of building 1.5 million homes in 10 years, by 2031, even though his own housing affordability task force concluded that availability of land was not constraining housing supply.
The province added about 9,400 acres of land to the Greenbelt at the same time it announced the removals, but the auditor general found that 2,400 acres of it was already protected by existing policies.
More than 90 per cent of the land removed from the Greenbelt was in five sites passed on to then-housing minister Steve Clark's chief of staff, Ryan Amato, by two developers Amato met at an industry event, the auditor said.
The integrity commissioner said in his August report that he had no evidence of developers being specifically tipped off that the government was considering Greenbelt removals, but that Amato's actions and conversations with them had that effect. Clark failed to oversee his staffer, the commissioner found.
Clark and Amato have both since resigned.
A second cabinet minister, Kaleed Rasheed, resigned this week after news reports raised questions about his connections to developer Shakir Rehmatullah and a trip to Las Vegas.
Rasheed, Ford's principal secretary at the time Amin Massoudi, and Jae Truesdell – at the time in the private sector but who served as Ford's director of housing policy starting in January 2022 – told the integrity commissioner they went to Las Vegas in December 2019. Rasheed and Massoudi "briefly encountered" Rehmatullah there, they said.
Truesdell has now resigned, Ford said Thursday without offering further details.
The RCMP is reviewing information to determine whether it should investigate the Greenbelt land swap. Ford has said he is confident nothing criminal took place.
Ford said a review of the Greenbelt that he announced earlier this month will still proceed, as reviews are mandated every 10 years.
When the review was originally announced Paul Calandra, the new housing minister, said it could mean more lands get removed, but Ford said Thursday that won't happen now.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 21, 2023.
Allison Jones in Toronto and William Eltherington in Niagara Falls, Ont., The Canadian Press