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Have you ever driven beside a ravine and absently wondered what would happen if you fell off the edge? Most people have, and then learn to be grateful for the guardrail keeping us away from that one-way trip.

The Ford government’s Bill 23 claims that environmental protections are a hurdle to profits and affordable housing. In actuality, environmental regulations are guardrails, protecting us from a cliff of preventable flooding, environmental degradation, and sky-high infrastructure costs accompanied by increased taxes.

Yesterday, Global News reported that Ontario's integrity commissioner has launched an ethics probe into the Greenbelt deal, a development the commissioner's office confirmed in a news release, which also announced it had denied an unrelated conflict-of-interest complaint into the deal from Ont. Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner.

In the same way that guardrails are often a response to accidents and preventable deaths, Ontario’s Conservation Authorities (CAs) received many of their powers in the aftermath of tragedy.

In 1954, hurricane Hazel caused damages worth over $1 billion in today’s dollars. Bridges, highways and entire communities were swept away by the floods. Worst of all, 81 people were killed by rising floodwaters. To add insult to injury, much of the destruction was avoidable. The communities that were hit the hardest by hurricane Hazel were built on floodplains, making them more vulnerable to the storm.

The CAs were given the power to protect nature from us and us from nature. In enabling the Conservation Authorities, Ontario said never again.

Bill 23 will turn never again into sometime soon.

The CAs have been stripped of their watershed stewardship powers. This not only puts those new houses at risk of flooding, it also increases the risk of flooding for the rest of the region. No neighbourhood is an island … unless poor flood mitigation makes it one. Surely, developers who bought previously undevelopable land in the Greenbelt are relieved the guardrails have been removed, giving them the freedom to launch themselves and homebuyers right off the side of the cliff.

The real kicker is that Bill 23 will do little to address its stated goal: solving the affordable housing crisis. Communities built in the Greenbelt will be relatively isolated, requiring massive expenditures to build infrastructure. This is less than ideal, especially considering that the bill also waives developers’ obligation to help pay for this infrastructure. That cost will instead be offloaded onto municipal governments, which will in turn have to offload it onto homeowners through property taxes.

#Ontario's Bill C-23 has stripped the province's conservation authorities of their watershed stewardship powers, write Alyssa Scanga @AlaskaScandal & Peter Cohen @cohen_parto #ClimateJusticeDurham, #CJD #Greenbelt #handsoffthegreenbelt #repealBill23

Ford’s bill is ostensibly meant to address the housing crisis by allowing developers to build in the Greenbelt and removing the CAs’ power to prevent construction on vulnerable and vital natural lands.

But we don’t have a shortage of land for housing that would justify tearing up the Greenbelt or floodplains. For example, planners in Durham Region concluded that the area could accommodate a doubling of population without even expanding its urban boundaries at all. At the very most, Durham would expand its urban boundaries into the Whitebelt — the buffer between the Greenbelt and our communities.

Greenbelt expansion is similarly unnecessary in Hamilton, whose council voted in late 2021 to keep growth within its existing boundaries only to see that decision undermined by the provincial government in favour of sprawl.

The idea that we need to cannibalize the Greenbelt to build enough housing is completely false. There’s no reason we can’t tackle the affordable housing crisis without putting the environment on the chopping block.

To describe it charitably, Premier Doug Ford’s response to the housing crisis has all the care, precision and forethought of an overzealous kindergartener armed with safety scissors. That is to say, none at all. He mistakes caution tape for red tape and is terrifyingly eager to slice it to ribbons.

To be less charitable and more honest, Bill 23 reads less like a bill and more like Ford saw a developer’s wish list and decided to play Santa. Nobody — not municipalities, not current nor future homeowners, not the environment, not some Ontario First Nations — will benefit from the bill except for the developers who may stand to make millions thanks to their timely purchase of previously undevelopable land.

As the Ontario Green Party leader said: “This doesn’t pass the smell test.”

The bill, which is being challenged in court, puts our communities at risk, it reeks of corruption, and it will do little to address its stated goal.

Ontarians need guardrails and caution tape. Without them, we’ll be tumbling down a slippery slope, and we won’t like what we find at rock bottom.

Alyssa Scanga has been an organizer with Climate Justice Durham and Climate Strike Canada since 2019. She works with the environmental organization Banking on a Better Future, and her writing about climate and energy issues has been featured in the Toronto Star and Arthur Newspaper. Alyssa studies environmental and resource science at Trent University with a specialization in climate change science and policy.

Peter Cohen has been an organizer with Climate Justice Durham since 2019. During the last term of council, he sat on the Durham Region Roundtable on Climate Change as a youth member. Peter studies business at Durham College, and music at the University of Toronto.

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