Environmental, farming and Indigenous groups are welcoming the news that the Ontario government will leave the Greenbelt alone but say they are still concerned about the province's "misguided" planning policies.
One group says a public inquiry and a police investigation are still needed into the controversy and two groups say they want Ontario to cancel its plans for Highway 413.
The proposed highway would run for some 60 kilometres across the northwestern part of the Greater Toronto Area, from Highway 400 at the northern edge of Vaughan to the interchange of highways 401 and 407 at the western limits of Brampton and Mississauga. Advocates have raised concerns about the highway's path through Greenbelt land.
Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, said the decision not to open the Greenbelt to housing development is a win for everyone who has fought hard to protect the environment in Ontario and for people who want to see homes built in cities rather than on farmland, in forests and on wetlands.
"It's a great day for the people of Ontario. You know we've had tens of thousands of people trying to make this day happen. And finally it's come to pass," Gray told CBC News on Thursday.
But, he said, more needs to be done to investigate what the government had planned to do. He said a public inquiry is needed to find why the original decisions on the Greenbelt were made and who exactly was going to benefit. He also wants to see a police investigation to determine if there was any criminal activity.
The RCMP has said it is reviewing information to determine whether it should investigate the Greenbelt land swap. Ford has said he is confident nothing criminal took place.
Hundreds of people protested outside the office of Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy in Pickering to demand permanent protection for the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, a parcel of land that was slated to be removed from the Greenbelt. (Vanessa Balintec/CBC)
In a statement on Thursday, Environmental Defence said: "We hope this change marks the beginning of a broader shift away from the government's current misguided policies, including: forced boundary expansions in Hamilton and Halton, Waterloo and elsewhere; its lowering of growth plan density requirements; its gutting of conservation authorities; and its dismantling of regional land use planning.
"These damaging decisions, along with attempts to repeal laws which promote efficient land use and construction, must also be reversed."
'A mistake to open the Greenbelt'
On Thursday, Ford told reporters in Niagara Falls, Ont. that the government shouldn't have decided to open the Greenbelt.
"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 Premier Doug Ford tells reporters on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2024 in Niagara Falls that he will reverse his government’s decision to open the Greenbelt to developers. The announcement comes after two cabinet ministers and two senior government officials resigned over the decision. (Tara Walton/The Canadian Press)
Laura Bowman, lawyer for Ecojustice, said in a statement on Thursday that the reversal of the decision to remove land from the Greenbelt is a "key victory" for environmentalists, community activists, environmental groups, farmers and Indigenous peoples.
"Greenbelt giveaways were never going to meet our affordable housing needs. Finally, today the Ontario government put the brakes on one key part of a biased process that is undermining plans to develop in urban areas," she said.
"Developing on the Greenbelt would have resulted in large, unsustainable, and unaffordable homes. Destroying environmentally sensitive land, and destroying Ontario's future food security, is not the answer to Ontario's housing crisis."
But she said Ecojustice is concerned about the province's "poor planning policies" that includes the building of Highway 413 and that will force communities to expand onto green space.
"It is time for this provincial government to stop treating our greenspace like a windfall to be granted to whoever comes begging and return to balanced planning to protect the environment, health and people," she said in the statement.
Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare says: 'I don't think the announcement we just heard today fixes everything.' The Chiefs of Ontario had voted unanimously to demand that the province return land to the Greenbelt it removed for housing. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
The Ontario Federation of Agriculture, which represents 38,000 farm families, said in a statement on Thursday that it appreciates the "new direction" that the premier is taking on the Greenbelt. It said preserving agricultural lands for the purposes of food production and processing is a top priority for its organization.
"We remain supportive of the government's plan to address this by building within existing urban boundaries, utilizing underdeveloped areas, reclaiming abandoned industrial lands and building up instead of out," Peggy Brekveld, OFA president, said in the statement.
Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare, who is from the M'Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island, said the announcement on Thursday is welcome but said it doesn't reverse the fact that First Nations were not adequately consulted when the government made its original decision to open the Greenbelt. He said the government needs to "sit down with us" when it makes decisions.
"I don't think the announcement we just heard today fixes everything," he said.