“It’s an attack against Indigenous communities”: This First Nation may sue the Ford government over the Greenbelt

Chief Stacey Laforme of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation talks pushing back against developers, the duty to consult on treaty lands and his message for the premier

By Courtney Shea| Photography by Peter Power
“It’s an attack against Indigenous communities”: This First Nation may sue the Ford government over the Greenbelt

Late last fall, Doug Ford announced his government’s plan to open up sections of the previously protected Greenbelt—nearly two million acres of green space, farmland, forests and wetlands in southern Ontario—for development. Since then, the political fur has flown in every direction. The province says the More Homes Built Faster Act, or Bill 23, is a solution to our current housing crisis. But critics, including leaders from Indigenous communities, aren’t buying it. “We can’t solve housing now and save the environment later—it doesn’t work like that,” says Chief Stacey Laforme, the elected leader of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. Here, he explains why he may sue the Ford government if it doesn’t repeal its plan.

Indigenous communities have been speaking out against Bill 23 from the moment it was announced. In a nutshell, what’s the objection?
This all starts with our role as stewards of the land and of our treaty lands in particular, which cover 3.9 million acres in southern Ontario, including a large chunk of the Greenbelt and the lands that are now open to development. Our treaties and Aboriginal titles give us claim to the land, but our opposition is mostly due to the obligation we feel to protect the well-being of both the land and the people who live and play on it. Between Bill 23 and the government’s plan to build Highway 413, which will cut through farmland and the Greenbelt, it really feels like a two-pronged attack against Indigenous communities who have been living here for centuries. We can’t stand by while the government plows forward with its plans without consulting us, nor do we intend to. 

Earlier this year, you said that you were considering legal action. Is taking the government to court still on the table?
We’re reviewing our options as we wait to see how things pan out. We’re far from the only group speaking out against Bill 23, so we are hopeful that the situation can be resolved before it comes to that. The federal environment minister has said that development on the Greenbelt flies in the face of our national climate change strategy, and we were really happy to see the feds use their power to launch an environmental investigation last month. Parks Canada has sounded the alarm about the specific dangers development would pose to habitats and species in the affected areas; the integrity commissioner has been looking into the relationships between recent buyers of Greenbelt land and the Ontario PC party; and the auditor general is weighing the financial and environmental implications of the government’s plan. I’m actually meeting with the auditor general this week to discuss the Indigenous perspective. So there’s a lot of opposition, and few are in favour of the plan—except some happy developers.

Okay, but just to argue the other side here, Ford has presented this as a solution to the housing crisis, with the potential to build 50,000 new homes.
We are all in favour of more housing. But we also know that municipalities in the Greater Golden Horseshoe already have additional lands designated for growth over the next 25 to 30 years. A recent report from Environmental Defence showed that Ontario has land to build two million homes without disrupting the Greenbelt. 

Then why open it up?
I think maybe we’re looking at a lack of understanding and education on the part of the provincial government. You can’t solve housing now and then save the environment later—it doesn’t work like that. I’m not going to say there is malice, but when you look back at some changes to the provincial legislation over the past few years, you start to see what looks like a very deliberate agenda. In 2018, there were changes to the Environmental Assessment Act giving cabinet unfettered discretion to decide what projects will and will not be subject to environmental assessment, and then changes to the Planning Act last year allowed the government to expedite developments by ignoring local zoning regulations. These changes really paved the way for what’s happening now with Bill 23. 

To be clear, do you believe Ford was lying when he said, during his election campaign, that he would not touch the Greenbelt?
I don’t know his heart well enough to call him a liar. Certainly what we’re seeing hasn’t come out of nowhere, but I can’t say when the plan began. This is the other thing: people need to be concerned about what’s happening in the Greenbelt because it doesn’t come only at the expense of the environment—it comes at the expense of democracy. 

If the Mississaugas of the Credit do take the province to court, is there a particular legal argument you’ll focus on?
We would be looking at a breach of the duty to consult and accommodate, which is guaranteed under Section 35 of the Constitution and basically means that the government is required to consult Indigenous communities regarding decisions that affect our lands. The level of consultation is supposed to be commensurate to the level of disruption, and I would say that real estate development ranks pretty high. 


I take it you were not consulted?
I found out about Bill 23 via an email on the same day everyone else did. It essentially read: We are introducing this legislation on the floor today. If you have any comments, you can leave a message on our website. I don’t think I’m being dramatic when I say that does not qualify as meaningful consultation. It’s a bit complicated from a legal perspective because the Supreme Court has ruled in favour of the duty to consult and accommodate, but technically the duty doesn’t kick in at the legislative stage. It just means that we have to wait until the development actually starts to do anything about it. Doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? 

Chief Stacey Laforme, the elected leader of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, he explains why he may sue the Ford government over Greenbelt development
Dane Evans, quarterback for the CFL Hamilton Tiger Cats, meeting with and being educated by Indigenous community members at Six Nations and Mississaugas of the Credit in southern Ontario on September 19, 2022. Evans, who is of American Indian heritage, has been using his platform as a professional athlete to encourage others to educate themselves about Indigenous culture and history, especially in light of Truth and Reconciliation. (Photo by Peter Power for Sportsnet)

The government has said that it will replace the land that it has removed from the Greenbelt and even add 2,000 new acres. Not good enough?
No, because it doesn’t work that way, and the fact that the government doesn’t understand this is the whole problem. The Greenbelt is based on the protection of specific lands—habitats, water systems, forests—which is why it doesn’t follow provincial or municipal borders or zoning patterns. It’s just so outrageous. Imagine if someone took your child away and then gave you a different child and acted like that was okay. 

Are there any specific concerns around particular areas?
I know Parks Canada has talked about Rouge National Urban Park and the harm to certain species of wildlife. There is also the concern about potential burial grounds within the Oak Ridges Moraine. For hundreds of years, our people lived on these lands and moved around and buried people when it was appropriate at the time. To hand the land over to developers who would then own anything that is found on it—that’s certainly not in keeping with reconciliation. 

If you had a few minutes with the premier, what would you say?
First, I just want to say that I don’t have any animosity toward Doug Ford. He actually seems like a pretty decent, regular guy, and I have been doing this long enough to know that it is never about one person or one political party—it is the system that needs to change. It’s funny, though, because the last time I visited Queen’s Park, in 2021, was to present the government with a carving that depicts the Seven Grandfathers and their teachings: wisdom, love, respect, courage, honesty, humility and truth. At the time, I said that I hoped these philosophies would guide the decisions made in chamber, and I joked that I would come and take the carving back if that didn’t happen. You know, I just might have to do that. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



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