“If you’re a developer eyeing the Greenbelt, just know the federal government has the power to intervene”: A Q&A with environment minister Steven Guilbeault
The minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada discusses being a thorn in Doug Ford’s side, his plan to protect Rouge National Urban Park and the time he scaled the CN Tower to protest climate injustice
The federal Liberals have officially entered the Greenbelt development debate, launching a study to investigate potential environmental damage to the adjacent Rouge National Urban Park, which could slow down and even kibosh building in the area. This comes four months after Doug Ford ushered in Bill 23 (the More Homes Built Faster Act), effectively reneging on his 2022 election promise to never open up the Greenbelt for development. The new law has been criticized by conservationists, climate activists, Indigenous communities and Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault, who ordered the study. Here, he talks about taking on Doug Ford and real estate developers, the dangers of building in sensitive ecosystems, and his wild days as a Greenpeace activist.
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Doug Ford announced that he would open up 7,400 acres of the Greenbelt to build housing nearly five months ago. What took your ministry so long to respond?
We have spent the past several weeks examining our options. Like many others, we were alarmed when the premier announced plans to develop the Greenbelt, particularly given his recent assurances that he would not. The study that I announced last week comes after endless expressions of concern from many citizen groups. I can’t think of an issue where my office has seen a bigger public outcry. The study will be conducted by the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada in collaboration with Parks Canada and my department. The goal, in this particular case, is to determine the effects of development on Rouge National Urban Park. Parks Canada has already predicted that development would cause “irreversible harm” to wildlife, natural ecosystems and agriculture.
And, for those who aren’t familiar, can you describe what is special about Rouge?
Well, it’s the largest urban park not just in Ontario, not just in Canada, but in North America. It’s a unique jewel, and what’s amazing is that you can access it by train from Toronto in about 25 minutes. We realized during the pandemic how much people crave green spaces. When there was nowhere to go, they could still go to nature. In the 2021 federal election, part of the Liberal campaign was the creation of 15 new national urban parks modelled after Rouge, because it’s been such a success. I try to visit the park whenever I’m in Toronto.
Premier Ford has said that he has “no problem” with your study since the Greenbelt land that he has freed up for development is not actually within Rouge but is adjacent to it, on the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve. What do you say to that?
Technically, the premier is correct, but a national park like Rouge doesn’t exist in a bubble. It is dependent on the health of the ecosystems around it, and in this case, that includes areas that were previously protected under the Greenbelt. If we start paving and building condos all around the park, it will likely have negative effects on the viability of those ecosystems. Also, as soon as any new development projects are announced, there is a strong possibility that further impact assessments will follow. Right now, we’re only looking at one specific area. But I say this to all parties involved in Greenbelt development: the federal government is paying very close attention. If you’re a developer thinking you’ve just struck gold and can start building tomorrow, know that the government could intervene. I’ve spoken to bankers who said that they will have to take a long, hard look at financial viability now that we know there could be delays or that certain projects could even be denied. Suddenly, it’s a lot more risky for investors.
I’m guessing you don’t agree with Premier Ford’s position that developing the Greenbelt is the best way to solve Ontario’s housing crisis. Do you have an alternative?
What I know is that, just a few weeks ago, the Regional Planning Commissioners of Ontario released a survey saying that there’s no need to build in the Greenbelt to meet Ontario’s housing needs. That’s not my opinion—that’s a respected agency saying that we can meet our housing needs without destroying the environment.
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Is it fair to say that you have officially become a thorn in the premier’s side?
You’d have to ask him. As a federal cabinet minister, one of my goals is to work in partnership with my provincial and territorial colleagues as much as possible. But my mission—what the prime minister has asked me to do—is to be the minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada. That’s my main concern. I’m trying to ensure that Canadians have access to a healthy environment: cleaner air, cleaner water, and so on. If that means I have to ruffle some feathers, that’s a small price to pay.
Did you happen to catch the Junos a couple of weeks ago? I ask because a topless woman painted in anti-Greenbelt-development messaging rushed the stage.
I did see it, and I’m very glad I wasn’t on stage when that happened. There are many ways for activists to make their points. That’s part of living in a democratic society. But I would not have used that woman’s particular tactic.
Although, in 2001, you did famously scale the CN Tower to protest North America’s failure to meet the Kyoto Protocol. Now that you’re a member of the establishment, do you ever feel nostalgic for your rogue activist days?
I don’t think so. I certainly have a lot of respect for my former colleagues in the activism community. As a federal minister, I have access to tools and levers that I didn’t before. When I was younger, I was trying to put pressure on the decision makers. Now I am a decision maker.
So you never wake up and think, Man, I wish I could just chain myself to a tree in Rouge this morning?
I don’t chain myself to anything anymore, but I am able to continue my activism. Last week, as part of President Biden’s visit, we worked to announce a historic investment of $420 million toward protecting the Great Lakes.
Getting back to the Greenbelt: What happens next?
We wait for the results of the study while also holding consultations with involved parties. One thing I’ve heard from a lot of people is that the Ontario government was fairly opaque in pushing this through, even announcing it during the holiday between Christmas and New Year’s. So we want to be very transparent and very open to hearing from people regardless of their views.
Developers clearly support Ford’s plan, as do some residents counting on development to raise the value of their land. Does anyone else?
Not that I have heard from. But we will see what people have to say. I want to emphasize that the story of the Greenbelt hasn’t been written yet. We are examining options, including whether the federal government could purchase some of the land. I will do everything I can to protect Rouge and the Greenbelt.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.