The new chair of Ontario’s Greenbelt Council is under fire over his environmental record again, this time for his approach to climate pollution as environment minister in the 1990s.

Norm Sterling ⁠— who was lambasted by critics shortly after the Ford government appointed him last week for voting against the creation of the Greenbelt when he was a PC MPP ⁠— was an environment minister in the Mike Harris government.

A longer look at his record also shows Sterling’s environmental legacy is complex. He was resistant to climate targets in the Kyoto Protocol, and oversaw the Environment Ministry as carbon emissions rose and senior officials instructed staff not to enforce regulations in hundreds of cases. But he also helped shape Canada’s first environmental land use plan and implemented legislation aimed at cracking down on smoking in the workplace.

“Doug Ford is taking a page out of the Mike Harris environmental playbook by appointing Norm Sterling, Ontario's worst environment minister, as chair of Ontario's Greenbelt Council,” Liberal MPP Stephen Blais said in a statement.

“(Ford) knew Sterling’s appalling environmental record and deceived us all by choosing him anyway.”

Sterling didn’t respond to requests for an interview sent via email and LinkedIn. As chair of the Greenbelt Council, he will advise the government on issues related to the protected area as the PCs seek to expand the Greenbelt while facing increased scrutiny over its approach to development.

The longtime Progressive Conservative was first elected as an MPP in 1977 and served as environment minister from 1996 to 1999.

Former PC MPP Norm Sterling was appointed chair of the Greenbelt Council on April 29, 2021. Handout photo

Stephanie Bellotto, a spokesperson for Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark, whose purview the Greenbelt Council falls under, said in a statement that the PCs “will not take any lessons from the previous Liberal government. The party removed 350 acres from the Greenbelt while it was in power, she added.

The new chair of Ontario’s Greenbelt Council, former environment minister Norm Sterling, has come under fire for voting against the creation of the protected area. Now, the Ontario Liberals are calling more of Sterling’s record into question. #onpoli

“As the new chair of the Greenbelt Council, Norm Sterling will support our government’s priority to grow and protect the Greenbelt for future generations,” Bellotto said.

During Sterling’s tenure, the Ontario government failed to strengthen its climate targets in response to the Kyoto Protocol, the province’s environmental commissioner noted in 1999.

Air pollution in Ontario also went up due to the province’s reliance on coal-fired energy. Emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide, which contribute to smog, rose by 58 per cent and 68 per cent, respectively, from 1996 to 1998.

In 1999, a leaked memo showed that Sterling’s ministry had instructed staff to ignore hundreds of environmental infractions around issues like bad drinking water and sewage dumping.

National Observer reported last week that Sterling also oversaw dramatic cuts to the Environment Ministry’s budget that were later found to have contributed to the Walkerton E. coli crisis in 2000.

The Ontario Liberals launched an attack of new Greenbelt Council chair Norm Sterling's environmental record Wednesday, including a mock resume listing the party's critiques.

Clark has previously defended Sterling’s record, pointing out that he was the minister responsible for the Niagara Escarpment Plan, the first large-scale environmental plan in Canada.

Sterling has also netted praise from officials from other parties. When he left politics in 2011, Liberal and NDP MPPs lauded him for his work at Queen’s Park, including former Liberal environment minister Jim Bradley: “Here’s an individual, Norm Sterling, who was responsible for the Niagara Escarpment Plan, an enduring legacy for him,” Bradley said.

Former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty called Sterling “good people” the same year. And former premier Kathleen Wynne, Ford’s predecessor, appointed him to a blue ribbon panel aimed at making government data easy to find.

Sterling replaces former chair David Crombie, who resigned alongside six others late last year in protest of a bill they said would undermine environmental protections.

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While I like the greenbelt model, I kind of wish "the land" was out of the hands of politicians for good - for now subject to political whim it seems only "safe" until the next election. And battles to protect seem happen over and over again until those on the protection side just get worn down. It seems like as long as there is any potential for some money to be made the fighting over what to do with "undeveloped" land will always remain an unsettled question. Of course undeveloped doesn't mean unproductive, it's the wrong word to use and completely the wrong way to look at it, and yet, as a society, with our current rules, we still do talk about it and think about it that way.

Maybe some kind of "land trust" would be better? Property rights seem pretty strong under common law (less so I'm told under civil law) but still a higher bar than what exists now.

Pros and cons anyone?

The problem is if you hand it over to some body that's unaccountable to government, it's also unaccountable to everyone else. You have some technocrats running it and nobody to stop them, and if today's technocrat isn't bribable, tomorrow's may well be.
A lot of the "land trusts" turn out to be a clever form of greenwashing, especially in Africa where they tend to be all about kicking indigenous people off the land so we wise whiteys can decide how profit is to be made from it--all in the name of sustainability, you understand.

The problem is, the slope is always slippery no matter what your method. Once something gets developed, it's hard to undevelop it again, and the basic bias of our society is towards destroying more environment rather than leaving it alone. It's the nature of capitalism, which is structured around growth and profit--things are real and important to the extent that they can be invested in.

But at least if a democratic government is in control there is some hope that the public can have a voice and block developments they don't like. Unfortunately, our governments aren't as democratic as we would like and our media system definitely isn't, so people don't have as much voice as they should and they can be convinced of a fair amount of nonsense. Media reforms could help, governance reforms could help, but in the end the slope will stay slippery unless we make a wholesale change in our economic system.