Ontario reversing controversial Greenbelt land swap, premier says

Premier Doug Ford announced Thursday that the province is reversing the Greenbelt land swap. (Mike Crawley/CBC - image credit)
Premier Doug Ford announced Thursday that the province is reversing the Greenbelt land swap. (Mike Crawley/CBC - image credit)

The Ontario government is changing course and reversing a contentious land swap for the province's protected Greenbelt, following weeks of pressure and two ministers' resignations.

Premier Doug Ford made the announcement at a news conference in Niagara Falls, Ont. Thursday afternoon.

"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."

Ford said the decision came after two days of meetings with his caucus and cabinet, where ministers told him what they were hearing from constituents in their ridings.

"I want the people of Ontario to know that I'm listening," the premier said.

Opposition NDP Leader Marit Stiles called the reversal a "victory for Ontarians" in a statement Thursday afternoon.

"It was clear from the beginning that this was the wrong decision, and yet Ford's Conservatives pressed on," she said. "It was a calculated attempt by this government to benefit a select few of their insiders at the expense of everyone else.

"And Mr. Ford continues to dodge responsibility as the Premier of this province, especially as this whole scandal has pulled back the curtain on a government all too comfortable making backroom deals. This reversal won't clear the air on a government that Ontarians know stinks."

Rushed process favoured certain developers

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.

Recent reports from the auditor general and integrity commissioner found that the process to select lands was rushed and favoured certain developers.

More than 90 per cent of the land removed 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.

Province focused on building homes, Ford says

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.

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.

When asked if he had any concerns about facing legal action from developers over the land reversal decision, Ford said he couldn't predict the future, but his goal remains to work with builders.

"That's a decision we had to make and I can't determine what the builders are gonna do," he said.

Ford said the province's intention was to build homes in the face of Ontario's housing crisis — and said the government would continue to build in areas that are open for development.

"We're going to focus on transit-oriented communities, we're going to focus on modular homes that will be starter homes, that will be affordable and attainable and we're going to make sure we hit our targets," he said.