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‘Why would anyone trust this government?’ Doug Ford slammed as he unwinds Greenbelt plans

Posted: September 26, 2023

(September 25, 2023)

By: Kristin Rushowy, Robert Benzie and Rob Ferguson, The Peterborough Examiner

Under fire over the $8.28-billion Greenbelt land swap scandal, Premier Doug Ford will introduce legislation within weeks to return the properties to the protected zone.

Ford’s move will enshrine in law his policy flip-flop from last Thursday, when he announced housing development would be prohibited on the 7,400 acres of Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area land.

As some 5,000 protesters demonstrated outside the legislature — against his plan for more privately delivered, publicly funded health-care services — the premier faced a barrage of opposition Greenbelt questions on Monday.

“Why would anyone trust this government to fix a disaster of their own making?” demanded NDP Leader Marit Stiles of a controversy that has cost Ford two ministers and two senior aides. A third minister has left politics for the private sector.

“All roads lead to the premier’s office in this scandal,” charged interim Liberal leader John Fraser.

Ford was defensive, saying life in Ontario is “1,000 times better” since his Progressive Conservatives came to power in 2018.

“When we took office … we inherited a bankrupt province from the Liberals, and the NDP supporting them. We have turned things around,” the embattled premier insisted.

Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Paul Calandra said legislation to be introduced soon would put 7,400 acres from the land swap back into the Greenbelt, along with 9,400 acres added elsewhere on the two-million-acre swath.

“If any other government wants to remove that (land), it has to be done through legislation in the house and not through the process we have right now, which is through regulation,” said Calandra of the beefed-up measures.

Mindful that Ford described the Greenbelt as “a scam” as recently as last month, opposition parties warned the Progressive Conservatives could leave “loopholes” in the new Greenbelt protection bill.

Indeed, the Tories still have not revealed how — or if — developers were tipped off to the changes last fall that made their land far more valuable.

Green Leader Mike Schreiner, who wants a public inquiry into the affair, said any legislation to “truly protect the Greenbelt” should also stop the construction of the proposed 60-kilometre Highway 413 and the 16.2-kilometre Bradford Bypass.

The RCMP is in the midst of deciding whether to investigate “irregularities” in the government’s handling of the zone after Ontario Provincial Police handed the matter over to them last month.

Facing a revolt last week at a Tory caucus retreat in Niagara Falls, Ford backtracked and apologized for breaking his promise to protect the Greenbelt, admitting last Thursday that it was a mistake” to open up the lands.

Until the U-turn, the premier had maintained the environmentally sensitive land was needed to help meet a goal of building 1.5 million homes by 2031 to ease a shortage that has sent prices skyrocketing.

The entire episode has caused more destruction than construction for Ford, who was forced to shuffle his cabinet twice in less than three weeks.

On Labour Day, Steve Clark resigned as housing minister after an integrity commissioner’s report found he had his “head in the sand” by allowing his chief of staff, Ryan Amato, who has also since quit, to personally select 14 of the 15 parcels of land that were removed from the Greenbelt.

Last Wednesday, Kaleed Rasheed stepped down as minister of public and business service delivery after giving misleading information to the integrity commissioner about a trip to Las Vegas with Ford aides and a developer whose lands were removed from the Greenbelt. Rasheed now sits as an Independent MPP.

One of those staffers, the premier’s housing policy adviser Jae Truesdell, resigned Thursday.

Then, last Friday, Monte McNaughton announced he was stepping down as labour minister to take a job in the private sector. He remains the MPP for Lambton-Kent-Middlesex MPP for the time being.

That forced another hurried cabinet shuffle that saw David Piccini taking over labour, Stan Cho take over in long-term care from Calandra, Andrea Khanjin become environment minister and Vijay Thanigasalam named as associate minister of transportation.

Amid the turmoil inside the legislature, the building was ringed by dozens of buses that brought thousands of demonstrators to Queen’s Park carrying signs like “health care not wealth care.”

The rally was organized by the Ontario Health Coalition, which opposes changes that would see more private clinics offer OHIP-covered services — a move the government says is necessary to shorten waiting lists for treatment of cataracts and other conditions in some communities.

“We want to send a very strong message,” said coalition executive director Natalie Mehra, who is concerned patients will end up paying for health-care extras at the private clinics. “The Ford government has no mandate to privatize.”

Inside, the Liberals also welcomed two new MPPs who won July byelections — keeping the riding of Scarborough-Guildwood and taking Kanata-Carleton from the Tories.

Andrea Hazell, a local businesswoman, now represents Scarborough-Guildwood and Karen McCrimmon, a former Liberal MP, won Kanata-Carleton. As they were led to their seats in the legislature, both approached Ford — who campaigned against them — to shake his hand.

There are now 80 Tory MPPs in the 124-member house, 29 New Democrats, nine Liberals, four Independents, one Green and one vacancy.

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