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The Greenbelt “Episode,” the State of Ontario Politics, and the Future of the GTHA.

September 8, 2023

Published in the Conversation, September 11, 2023.

The past few weeks have witnessed an extraordinary series of events in Ontario politics.  Reports tabled by the province’s Auditor General and Integrity Commissioner on the government’s November 2022 decision to remove 7400 acres of land from the GTA Greenbelt have set off a political firestorm, leading, so far, to the resignation of the province’s Minister of Housing and his chief of staff.

The Auditor found that normal decision-making processes had been bypassed, that it was well established that there was no need to remove land from the greenbelt for housing purposes, was “biased” in favour of certain developers, who had bought the lands in question, and who stood to reap a $8.3 billion windfall from their development. The Legislature’s Integrity Commissioner, for his part, described the decision-making process around the Greenbelt removals as “madcap.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government so far has stonewalled on the Auditor General’s key recommendation that the removal of the lands from the Greenbelt be “reconsidered.” In fact, the government’s response seems to be moving in the the opposite direction. It is pressuring developers to accelerate construction on the removed lands. The new Minister of Housing is now advancing a wholesale review of the Greenbelt plan. That seems to include consideration of the possibility of further land removals, if not a complete reconsideration of the Greenbelt as a whole.

The government’s response to the situation appears to defy normal political logic. Following the departure of the minister and his chief of staff, a government might have been expected to use the announcement of the Greenbelt review as provide political cover for a backdown on the land removals, take further moves on the Greenbelt off the table, and then move on from the whole episode.

The Ford government’s emerging ‘double-down’ approach, by contrast, seems fraught with political and legal risks. Further, likely damaging, reports are expected from Integrity Commissioner.  A follow-up report will be delivered at some point over the next year from the Auditor General as well.

The RCMP is considering requests to examine possibility of criminal behaviour in relation to the episode. Potential challenges to legality and procedural correctness of greenbelt removals loom. Municipal councils may decline to provide or approve the infrastructure needed to support housing development on the greenbelt lands, as the lands in question were never expected to be developed, and no plans exist for such infrastructure. Challenges may even arise from Indigenous peoples whose Treaty rights and interests may have been affected by the Greenbelt decisions.

The situation begs an explanation of the government’s behaviour in response to the episode. Some have suggested simple bull-headedness and a refusal to accept what happened was wrong in both process and substance, although the Premier himself has described the process as flawed.

A second possibility is more subtle, and may rest on a populist assumption that a significant portion of Ontario voters, especially those who are likely to vote for the Ford government (a.k.a. the ‘Ford Nation’) care more about immediate affordability issues than the more abstract notions about evidence-based policy-making, good planning, legal correctness and political accountability that are being emphasized by the legislative opposition and mainstream media. Premier may himself see the dismantling of the Greenbelt as a legacy issue in addressing the housing ‘crisis.’


Public opinion polling on the impact of the Greenbelt episode is still at a relatively preliminary stage. What evidence there is indicates relatively high levels of awareness of the issue but are less clear on its political consequences, particularly nearly three years from the next provincial election. The longer-term response may give some indication of whether the government’s apparent calculus about deeper shifts in political culture of the province, which has traditionally emphasized administrative competence, integrity and moderation, is correct.

Beyond its political impact, the Greenbelt episode, and the government’s broader approach to planning and development matters, have left the province’s planning process a discredited shambles.  Once the subject of international acclaim, the Greenbelt debacle has made it starkly apparent that the government’s ‘reforms’ over the past 5 years have converted the process into an instrument wielded by the province on behalf of development interests. The government seems to have no underlying vision for the region other than to give the development industry everything it wants and hope that solves the housing ‘crisis.’  The industry itself has no vision for the region other than its own overriding focus on short-term profit maximization.

Challenges facing the GTA are multidimensional and complex: housing needs, particularly at lower end of the income scale; structural economic transitions and increasingly polarized labour markets; the impacts of a changing climate; and a growing fiscal crisis, particularly for the City of Toronto, driven in large part by provincial downloading. Responding to these challenges will require planning and decision-making processes grounded in democratic norms, evidence, transparency and accountability - the very opposite of what the Ford government has constructed.