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Concerns found in Ontario government's Greenbelt boundary change processes

DAN CEARNS The Standard DURHAM: Ontario's Auditor General has laid out several concerns with the way the Ontario provincial government has handled the removal of some lands from the Greenbelt.

The changes to the Greenbelt boundary started in November 2022, when "material prepared by the Housing Ministry in response to the instruction provided by the Housing Ministry's Chief of Staff, and signed by the Housing Minister and the Deputy Minister of the Housing Ministry, was presented to Cabinet" according to Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk's report. The changes included removing a total of 15 land sites from the Greenbelt to support the provincial government's plan to increase housing across the province.

"Our review of the procedures used to amend the Greenbelt boundary in 2022 raises serious concerns about the exercises used, the way in which standard information gathering and decision-making protocols were sidelined or abandoned and how changes to the Greenbelt boundaries were unnecessarily rushed through. In essence, rather than allow the housing ministry's non-political public service staff to conduct a comprehensive process, with expert review to identify and select lands for possible removal from the Greenbelt, the government assigned responsibility for this important assignment to political staff," Ms. Lysyk told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday, August 9th.

The Greenbelt land removal initiative was led by the Housing Minister's Chief of Staff. "This selection exercise effectively excluded substantive input from many subject matter experts in the Housing ministry and other ministries and municipalities, first nation leaders and the public," Ms. Lysyk stated.

Among the observations detailed in the report, the land selection process was noted to have been "biased and lack[ing] transparency," and the removals "proceeded without evidence they were needed to meet [the] housing goals." The report also found the government did not factor into account "financial impacts or costs" and "environmental and agricultural implications." There also needed to be more consultation with Indigenous communities on this file.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford held a press conference to respond to the report later that day. "At current rates, Ontario will grow by more than five million people in the next ten years. That's close to adding two cities the size of Toronto in a decade. These are staggering numbers, numbers which didn't exist a few short months ago. Considering these facts has never been more important to deliver on our commitment to build at least 1.5 million homes. Failing to act would worsen the housing supply and affordability crisis," Premier Ford said.

The Premier added, most of the 15 recommended sites had been requested for use by municipalities. "We know there are areas for improvement as we move forward. We were moving fast. We could've had a better process. As Premier, the buck stops with me, and I take full responsibility for the need for a better process."

On Sunday, August 13th, hundreds of protesters lined both sides of Kingston Rd., outside the constituency office of Pickering-Uxbridge MP Peter Bethlenfalvy to voice their displeasure with the way the government had gone about the process of altering the Greenbelt.

Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation (MSIFN) Chief Kelly LaRocca responded to the findings in the auditor general's report through a statement. "The [Provincial] government's violation of its Duty to Consult is no news to First Nations across the province, and it's setting back the clock on reconciliation. We are delighted the Auditor General emphasized some of the concerns we have raised repeatedly. As we have said before, the [Provincial] government has a strong track record of ignoring Indigenous voices and Treaty Rights. Anyone who values democracy and trust in our public institutions should be profoundly disturbed by the report's findings."

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