Winners and Losers: The Greenbelt scandal
The unravelling of the Greenbelt fiasco has led to a mounting list of celebrations, humiliations and resignations
In a monumental mea culpa last week, Premier Doug Ford announced his decision to reverse the controversial Greenbelt land swap, finally succumbing to months of pressure from pretty much everyone who isn’t a member of his cabinet. First introduced last November, the plan to open up 7,400 acres of previously protected land flew in the face of Ford’s campaign promise to leave the Greenbelt alone. It was unpopular off the jump—even more so when it became clear that a number of developers had made some extremely well-timed land purchases in the lead up to new zoning rules. Yet Ford remained committed to his plan.
And he might have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those meddling environmentalists, political opponents, investigative journalists and adorable turtles, all of whom now have reason to celebrate. The Greenbelt may even end up becoming larger than it was before this saga began. It’s not all high fives and fist bumps, though. Over at Queen’s Park, the unravelling of the biggest Ford fiasco since Crackgate has led to a mounting list of humiliations and resignations—and proof that what happens in Vegas rarely stays there. Here, a rundown of the biggest winners and losers from the Greenbelt scandal.
Ontario’s auditor general launched her investigation into the opening of sections of the Greenbelt for development back in January and spent months conducting interviews and unearthing documents. The report that came out was nothing short of scorched earth: a damning indictment that revealed secret handoffs, unlawful NDA agreements and umpteen examples of back-scratching between PC cronies and bigwig developers. The report was the final order of business (and the ultimate mic drop) for Lysyk, who retired in September and is probably feeling pretty chuffed right now.
J. David Wake
As if one scathing report calling out government corruption and ethical violations weren’t bad enough, Ontario’s integrity commissioner delivered a career-ending punch just weeks after the auditor general’s report. Wake found that housing minister Steve Clark had violated two sections of the province’s Integrity Act relating to conflicts of interest and the use of insider information. Now, it’s former housing minister Steve Clark.
Since taking the helm of the provincial NDP in February, Stiles has played the proverbial dog with a bone, calling for two integrity investigations into the Ford government’s Greenbelt dealings and never missing a chance to put the premier on blast. Yesterday, when the legislature resumed for the first time since summer break, Stiles was ready for her victory lap, introducing a new bill called the Greenbelt Restoration Act (exactly what it sounds like). Of course, the Conservatives voted it down—they will introduce their own Greenbelt legislation later this week. But Stiles’s status as Greenbelt crusader remains intact, which is likely to be useful come election time.
The Chiefs of Ontario firmly opposed the land swap, which involved a number of nations’ ancestral and traditional territories, maintaining all along that the government had failed to meet its duty to consult (as stipulated in Section 35 of the Constitution). Earlier this year, chief Stacey LaForme of the Mississaugas of the Credit said he was considering legal action if the Ford government failed to reverse course. Now, he’ll be spared the trouble.
Lest we forget the original would-be losers: Blanding’s turtles, one of the 29 at-risk species that call the Greenbelt home, will no longer be subject to a potential renoviction. Their newfound safety has also prompted federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault to suspend his study assessing the harms of Greenbelt development on the neighbouring Rouge National Urban Park.
The Woodward and Bernstein award goes to The Narwhal’s Emma McIntosh and the Toronto Star’s Noor Javed and Brendan Kennedy, three of the journalists who made sure that Ford’s feet were rarely out of the fire. In November 2022, their explosive joint investigation found that at least six developers had bought Greenbelt land after Ford came into power and stood to benefit significantly from their “fortuitous” timing. They’ve been covering the unfolding chaos ever since.
From the Greenbelt Preservation Association to the protester who went topless at the Juno Awards (earning the ire of Avril Lavigne), conservationists and environmentalists have decried the Greenbelt swap since day one. And 321 days later, Mother Nature has won out, proving that everyday people really can make a (clothing optional) difference.
The premier is no stranger to scandal, and for a while there it looked like reneging on his promise to protect the Greenbelt would be just another drop in the #BuckABeer bucket. But two ethics investigations later, what started as a whiff of impropriety has become a full-blown stink bomb—a classic example of a botched recovery that becomes even more damaging than the original crime. Ford may see his public apology as step one in rebuilding credibility, but recent polling suggests that “I’m very, very sorry” may not cut it.
When it comes to shady deals and inappropriate exchanges, all roads lead to the housing minister’s former chief of staff, a political nepo baby called out by the integrity commissioner as the “driving force behind a flawed process.” Amato hand-picked 14 of the 15 land parcels that were removed from the Greenbelt, all while under the influence of many of the developers who owned them. It was Amato, not Clark or the premier, who dealt directly with developers, and it was Amato who took the fall—at least the first one. His August 22 resignation spelled the beginning of the end for an increasingly lengthy list of Ford affiliates.
At first, it looked like Ford’s housing minister was going to keep his job by playing the “plausible deniability” card, even after being identified by the integrity commissioner as having had his “head in the sand” when it came to Amato’s unlawful antics. The problem with this logic is that someone so oblivious probably shouldn’t hold elected office. Whether Clark was wilfully blind or woefully incompetent remained unclear—and irrelevant—at the time of his September 4 resignation.
Back in 2020, the then PC cabinet minister just happened to be at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas at the same time as Greenbelt developer Shakir Rehmatullah. At least, that’s how Rasheed framed the trip in an interview with the integrity commissioner—a story that became implausible when spa employees started saying that Rasheed, Rehmatullah and Ford’s then principal secretary Amin Massoudi indulged in simultaneous massages. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” didn’t carry the day, and Rasheed resigned on September 20.
The mysterious and unwitting star of the integrity commissioner’s report, “Mr. X” was called out as one of the most egregious conduits of shady relations between developers and government employees. Eventually identified by the Toronto Star as former Clarington mayor John Mutton (though Mutton denies this), X is accused of wining, dining and Raptors-gaming his way to favourable results for his landowner clients. His contract with developer Peter Tanenbaum promised a $1 million bonus for the removal and rezoning of a particular Clarington plot in the Greenbelt. Now, he faces a possible ethics investigation based on his failure to register as a lobbyist.
Thursday’s announcement probably hit hardest for the members of the development community, who stood to make billions by building on their formerly protected parcels of land. You can’t say they didn’t work for it—some bought tickets to Kyla Ford’s now-infamous stag and doe party, and two even performed legal gymnastics to avoid testifying before the auditor general. But, in the end, Silvio De Gasperis, Michael Rice and others were unable to withstand the will of the voting public—though they are now the owners of some beautiful protected land in the Greenbelt.