The Ontario government has appointed a former environment minister to chair the Greenbelt Council in a move that has some environmentalists shaking their heads.
Retired MPP Norm Sterling replaces David Crombie, who resigned as chair with six other members of the council in December to protest proposed government rules that they said would gut environmental protections in Ontario.
An NDP MPP and an environmentalist are speaking out against the appointment of Sterling, who served under former Progressive Conservative Premier Mike Harris in the 1990s.
Sandy Shaw, MPP for Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas and the NDP's environment critic, noted that Sterling voted against the creation of the Greenbelt as an MPP in 2005.
"Appointing Norm Sterling is just another example of Doug Ford [being] completely hell-bent on paving over parts of the Greenbelt," Shaw said this week.
Sterling was Ontario's environment minister leading up to the Walkerton Tragedy, an environmental disaster widely regarded as Canada's most serious case of water contamination. It resulted in seven deaths and thousands of people becoming seriously ill.
Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence Canada, said he is concerned about Sterling's appointment given his track record.
"I'm really hoping that he has done his work in advance of accepting this role," he said.
The Greenbelt Council advises the province on land use issues to help shape growth and conservation of the protected Greenbelt, a permanently protected area of green space that surrounds the Golden Horseshoe area.
Crombie, in his resignation as chair of the Greenbelt Council, had said of proposed reforms to environment laws: "This is not policy and institutional reform. This is high-level bombing and needs to be resisted."
Crombie and other critics had warned that legislation proposed by the province would strip power from local conservation authorities and pose potentially sensitive environmental issues.
Sterling brings 'important experience' to job, province says
In a news release on Thursday, the Ontario government said Sterling will help guide the province on protecting and growing the Greenbelt as the province undertakes what could be the largest expansion of the green space since its creation in 2005.
The government noted that Sterling is one of the founding members of the Niagara Escarpment Commission in the 1970s and an environment and energy minister under Mike Harris in the 1990s.
"Mr. Sterling brings important experience to the Greenbelt Council, and I am confident that under his leadership there will be incredible work done to support growing the Greenbelt," Steve Clark, minister of municipal affairs and housing, said in the release. Clark oversees the council.
In a statement to CBC News, Rob Nicholson, chair of the Niagara Escarpment Commission, welcomed Sterling's appointment, saying the Niagara Escarpment is an important part of Ontario's Greenbelt.
Nicholson said Sterling is a good choice given his previous work as commissioner and environment minister.
"I have no doubt that he will work to enhance the Greenbelt," Nicholson said.
Shaw, however, said choosing Sterling to head the conservation of the Greenbelt, when he's been vehemently against it, is insulting to Ontarians.
"A guy that presided over the Walkteron tragedy, presided over cuts to the Ministry of Environment, a guy that voted against the Greenbelt...What message is this government trying to send?"
In 2001, Sterling was forced to testify about his role in the Walkerton tragedy, Canada's worst-ever outbreak of E. coli contamination in the rural town of Walkerton in Bruce County.
The province's chief justice at the time ruled Sterling's budget cuts to the environment ministry contributed to water contamination from farm manure spread near the town, about 180 kilometres northwest of Toronto.
Meanwhile, the Ontario government is responsible for a growing number of Ministerial Zoning Orders (MZOs) and it has not backed down from plans to build Highway 413, a controversial road that could lead to millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions as well as impact the protected Greenbelt.
But in a statement acknowledging his role for the next three years, Sterling said: "I will leverage my experience to work collaboratively with our council to ensure that we are working toward protecting and growing the Greenbelt."
Province vows to protect and expand Greenbelt
The province, meanwhile, vowed to expand the Greenbelt on Friday.
"We're the only government that is actually expanding the Greenbelt. Compared to the last government, for 15 years, they changed the Greenbelt 17 times for their developer buddies," Premier Doug Ford said at a news conference.
"I'm not doing that, I'm not touching the Greenbelt."
For its part, the Greenbelt Foundation worked closely with the municipal affairs and housing ministry on a recently-concluded 60-day public consultation on expansion and protection of the ecological space, which focused on areas in the Paris Galt Moraine and Urban River Valleys.
Currently, the Greenbelt consists of nearly two million acres of protected land that is home to 78 at-risk species, and offsets over 71 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.
In a statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for Minister Clark says: "We received up to 950 submissions through our online portal" and that it "will not consider any proposals to remove or develop any part of it."
Gray, of Environmental Defence Canada, said the public overwhelmingly would like to see expansions of the Greenbelt," and Sterling has "every opportunity to lead that."