'I govern through the people': Doug Ford faces scrutiny over Greenbelt kerfuffle

A great blue heron is seen in Toronto’s Terraview Park on August 21, 2014. This bird can be commonly found in the many wetlands across Ontario’s Greenbelt. Photo from Getty Images.

A comment about Ontario’s protected green space has forced the frontrunner in the province’s upcoming election campaign to change course after receiving backlash from citizens.

“The people have spoken — we won’t touch the Greenbelt,” PC Leader Doug Ford said Tuesday. “I govern through the people, I don’t govern through government.”

Ontario’s Greenbelt is a 7,200-square-kilometre area of protected land containing farmland, forests, wetlands and watersheds that surrounds the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. It covers the Niagara Escarpment and the Oak Ridges Moraine, spanning from the Niagara River to Rice Lake.

With more than two million acres of land, it is larger than Prince Edward Island. Currently, it is the world’s largest protected green space.

The area entered the news cycle this week after a video, which is believed to have been filmed during the Tory leadership race earlier this year, emerged showing Ford suggesting part of it could be opened up for housing development.

“We’re going to open a big chunk of it up and we’re going to start building,” Ford said in the video.

A recent poll of nearly 8,000 Yahoo Canada readers suggested only 2 per cent considered the environment to be a key priority leading into the election, but the comment was still met with fervent opposition online and the PC leader was forced to walk back his initial position.

“We’ll figure out how to clean up this housing mess and this housing crisis that we’re facing in a different fashion,” Ford said. 

The Greenbelt was established in 2005 and it serves to protect environmentally-sensitive land from urban sprawl. But with housing prices rising and becoming increasingly unaffordable, developers are exploring ways to build more homes in order to increase supply.

However, recent polling suggests Ford is leader to beat heading into the June 7 provincial election. And leaders from the other three major parties were quick to leap on the about-face.

Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne slammed Ford’s previous position.

“When that land is gone, it’s gone forever. You cannot get that land back,” the Liberal leader told reporters, adding that Ford’s plan would make the map of the area look like “Swiss cheese.”

And if the Liberals win re-election on June 7, they would expand the Greenbelt even further, Wynne revealed.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath also took aim at Ford’s initial remarks.

“Newsflash: farms feed cities,” she said. “There is no reason whatsoever to even contemplate paving over the Greenbelt unless you’re trying to make a good buck for your friends in the development industry.”

“Doug Ford’s plan to pave over the Greenbelt puts his wealthy developer friends and donors before the people of Ontario,” Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said in a statement.

“I am so sick and tired of politicians who will say one thing to their wealthy donors in the back rooms, and another thing when called out publicly,” he tweeted.

Others took to Twitter to share their thoughts on the idea.

Kevin Thomason called Ford’s initial remarks “horrifying to hear,” adding “we need more environmental protect … not less!”

Breeyn McCarney referred to the PC leader’s comments as “atrociously out of touch.”

Even if you don’t believe in access to clean drinking water, or farm fresh food locally grown, or flood prevention in our built up areas, then at least support our Greenbelt because of the unbearable traffic congestion more sprawl will cause,” said Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s former chief planner.

“Really? What’s your plan for growing food? ‘Cause you can’t eat your house,” Kerry K. Taylor wrote.

Members of the PC team defended the party’s position after Ford made it clear he would not be touching the protected area. Former leadership candidate Caroline Mulroney said the party and Ford “are committed to maintaining the #Greenbelt in its entirety.”

Tory MPP Sam Oosterhoff said the PCs “believe in protecting the Greenbelt” and “anything we look at to allow for much needed housing development, we will do in a measured and sustainable way: we will add the equivalent land to the Greenbelt.”

Others came to Ford’s defence online, suggesting he’s a leader who is willing to accept feedback.

For example, a man named Francis gave Ford credit for changing his position after hearing the outcry from Ontarians.

“Doug Ford listened and retracted very quickly to his planned #Greenbelt projects as opposed to an economic destruction which the #Liberals have taken,” he commented on Twitter.

In response to Wynne’s comment, a Twitter user named Peter said expanding the Greenbelt would cause housing prices to “explode again.”

And Alex Pierson remarked that Wynne opened part of the Greenbelt in 2017, providing maps of changes made in the protected green space.

What do you think of Ford’s about-face on developing parts of the Greenbelt? Was this a case of a politician listening to the will of the people or caught making a mistake? Let us know by voting in the poll at the top of the story and sharing your opinion in the comment section.

With files from The Canadian Press