More highways. More sprawl.
These are a couple of re-elected Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s promises for his next four years in office, which he secured Thursday night as his Progressive Conservative Party thoroughly trounced its rivals to win 83 of 124 seats at Queen’s Park.
The seven-seat increase from the 2018 election issues Ford a resounding stamp of approval from voters after an often-embattled first term that saw his government, in the words of a Greenpeace spokesperson, “taking a sledgehammer to Ontario climate policies.”
Across the province, environmentalists shuddered.
“If it’s anything like the previous four years, I think we’re in for a really challenging time,” said Caroline Schultz, executive director of Ontario Nature.
Soon after the 2018 election, Ford’s PCs dismantled Ontario’s cap-and-trade system, cancelled hundreds of green energy projects, threatened to allow development in the protected Greenbelt, ripped out electric vehicle charging stations and axed EV buyer incentive programs.
They cut back public consultation on environmental issues, rolled back a slew of regulations protecting the environment and endangered species, canned the province's environmental watchdog and began issuing zoning orders to override local governments to ram through potentially unpopular developments.
Ford also dusted off plans for two contentious highways, the Bradford Bypass and Highway 413, which were scrapped by a succession of previous governments because studies showed the extra lanes would not reduce traffic congestion or travel times long term. The most recent environmental assessments on both projects are more than two decades old, though the federal government has taken over an impact assessment process for Highway 413 that could see the project scrapped.
Margaret Prophet, executive director of the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition, said if the Bradford Bypass goes ahead — construction is slated to begin shortly and Ottawa has declined to intervene in that project — the Holland Marsh wetlands it will cross will be irrevocably damaged.
The seven-seat increase from 2018 issues Doug Ford a resounding stamp of approval from voters after an often-embattled first term that saw his government, in the words of a Greenpeace spokesperson, “taking a sledgehammer to Ontario climate policies."
“You can’t unpave wetlands, you can’t unpave farmland,” said Prophet. “You don’t bisect one of Ontario’s most important wetlands with a four- to six-lane freeway… It’s going to cause so many problems that I don’t know if we’ll be able to build or buy our way out of.”
Environment and climate change barely figured in the campaign leading up to Thursday’s polls, with political parties and the electorate far more seized with affordability issues amid record inflation and skyrocketing housing prices. The previous Ontario government, led by Ford, did not even include a section on the environment in its 2022-23 budget-come-campaign-platform.
“It’s probably better they didn’t make any commitments, given how regressive they’ve been on the environment,” said Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence. “They probably would have been bad ones.”
Gray pointed to a number of the Ford government’s earlier boondoggles on which it was forced to reverse course. For example, Ford waged war on electric vehicles when he assumed office, only to do an about-face late last year and begin touting Ontario as the place to manufacture “the cars of the future.”
“It was a real effort to try and put the genie back in the bottle,” said Gray. “But four years later, [Ford] is running around cutting ribbons at new EV manufacturing facilities… I think there’s a real kind of blind spot that this government has around [the] environment, they kind of see it as the enemy. Then, they realized it’s kind of central to survival, both economic and social.”
Environmental Defence recently released a report showing Ford’s moves on the environmental file have cost Ontario taxpayers more than $10.5 billion to date in lost revenues, legal fees, compensation and other costs.
In addition to those expenses, business groups in Windsor are blaming Ford’s cancelling of renewable energy projects for the city losing out on a $2.5-billion chemical plant because there isn’t sufficient electricity to run it, the Toronto Star reported.
Keith Stewart, a senior energy strategist at Greenpeace Canada, said while no one would ever suggest Ford is a leader on environmental and climate issues, his government has quieted down its “active opposition” to federal measures, like implementing a carbon tax when Ford cancelled cap-and-trade.
Ontario fought the federal government's imposition of the tax in the Supreme Court of Canada and lost, at an estimated cost of $30 million. More recently, the Ford government has seemed willing, at least, to accept targets and requirements from Ottawa.
“They’re no longer the climate wrecking ball that they were,” said Stewart.
Ford did a 180 when he realized electric vehicles were a path to create jobs — and win votes — and perhaps will do the same when it comes to renewable energy and other environment and climate-friendly measures, said Stewart.
“Strategically, we need to keep pushing the feds and making sure that Ontario doesn’t move back into opposition against those measures, but I think the Ford government is definitely seeing a green industrial strategy as a winner for them. There’s a bunch of areas that are purely provincial jurisdiction, where we’re going to have to push hard on the provincial government to change their tune.”