A lot has changed for the premier with the arrival of the pandemic, but on the other crisis of our times he remains a denier
“We’re gonna open up the Greenbelt – not all of it, but a good chunk of it. And we’re going to start building and make it more affordable and putting more houses out there. The demand for single-dwelling homes is huge. But no one can afford ‘em. So we need to start building affordable housing. I’ve already talked to some of the biggest developers in this country. And again, I wish I could say it’s my idea. But it was their idea as well. ‘Give us property, we’ll build and we’ll drive the cost down.’ That’s my plan for affordable housing.”
That was Doug Ford during a private meeting with backers in the middle of his 2018 PC leadership bid. The video that captured the moment would cause a stir during the election that would follow. But for many critics, it only confirmed what they already knew about Ford – that when it comes to choosing between the environment and his development buddies, his buddies win all the time.
A lot has changed since the arrival of the COVID pandemic, including the public’s perception of the premier. He has seemingly learned a thing, too. But on climate change – the other crisis of our times – Ford has yet to evolve. He remains a climate change denier.
The recent resignations of David Crombie and six others from the province’s Greenbelt Council are just the latest mark on an environmental record that’s the worst of any premier in the country – perhaps ever, when all is said and done.
Ford has been able to wash away an unenviable and scandal-plagued first 18 months in office during a COVID crisis that has sucked up all the oxygen in the room. But the attacks on the environment continue. The list is a long one.
There was the scrapping of Ontario’s cap and trade program and millions in green energy contracts signed by the previous Liberal government without public consultation. Ford said he was “proud” of that one. His government also took the feds to court over national measures to combat climate change.
Last month, Ontario’s auditor general delivered a scathing criticism of the Ford government’s environmental record. The report says the Ford government failed to adhere to the most basic rules, including failing to provide the opportunity for public input, even on major projects.
Now Ford has gutted the power of conservation authorities to check development in environmentally sensitive land. The government passed Bill 229 on Tuesday with language that critics say will give the minister of municipal affairs the power to issue ministerial zoning orders (or MZO) and override the environmental concerns of conservation authorities in development decisions.
Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) CFO Michael Tolensky, a longtime Conservative, says the legislation will “allow the Minister to override conservation authorities’ science-based watershed approach to planning… to one based solely on politics.”
In his resignation letter, Crombie writes that “essential public discussion and debate will be stifled or shut down,” under the legislation. “This is not policy and institutional reform. This is high-level bombing.”
Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark attempted to put a different blush on the controversy, backhandedly blaming the Greenbelt Council during a press conference on Monday for not coming to the government with ways to expand the Greenbelt – and then pledging $30 million to restore wetlands.
Speaking to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario Conference in late August, Clark was singing a different tune, touting the MZOs as a tool to “cut red tape to support Ontario’s recovery” during the pandemic. He claimed Monday that the MZOs will not apply to Greenbelt lands.
But they have already been used on some 30 occasions by the Ford government over the last two years in favour of development projects close to environmentally sensitive lands, including one of the last remaining tracts of shoreline wetland – the Lower Duffins Creek coastal wetland complex.
Some 50 per cent of the wetland on the Ajax/Pickering border is slated for a large casino and retail development. The province issued an MZO despite opposition of the TRCA and Durham Regional Council. The development, which includes casinos, warehouses, apartments, retail, and film studios, is currently the subject of a legal challenge filed by Ecojustice and Ontario Nature against the province and Pickering Developments Inc. last week. The groups say the development area “would encroach approximately 120 metres into areas [wetlands] that were subject to urban reserve environmental restrictions.”
The legal challenge is seeking to have the MZO declared unlawful “for failing to comply with provincial law and policy.” Ecojustice argues that “The 2020 Provincial Policy Statement under the Planning Act clearly does not permit development on provincially significant wetlands.”
Ecojustice argues that “Unconstrained development in wetlands and flood-prone areas can result in costly flooding and saddle municipalities with the cost of repairs that will ultimately have to be borne by taxpayers.”
But the controversy over conservation authorities is not simply one of developers versus environmentalists. Farmers have also come out against the Ford government’s proposed changes. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) argues that removing the power of conservation authorities over planning decisions threatens food security.
The OFA’s recent submission to the province’s Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs points out that agricultural lands in Ontario are “a finite and shrinking resource” that’s increasingly being lost to development.
“Ontario cannot sustain continuing losses of agricultural land while maintaining our ability to produce food, fibre and fuel from our limited and declining agricultural land base,” which is being lost at a rate of some 90 hectares per day in Ontario.
The OFA adds that it’s expected future population and job growth in the Greater Golden Horseshoe “will consume agricultural lands and natural heritage features, thereby placing even greater demands on the remaining non-urbanized land.”
Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, offered during a recent webinar on the development that the change proposed under Bill 229 “flies in the face of science.” That may be putting it mildly.