Doug Ford thinks the Ontario Greenbelt — two million acres of sprawl-halting buffer on the Niagara Escarpment and the heavily populated west end of Lake Ontario — is a scam.
The Ontario premier said just that at a May 11 press conference in Toronto. “The Greenbelt is 2,000 acres larger than when I took office, so I think we are doing pretty good on the so-called Greenbelt, as the Liberals made up that name. It was just a big scam, as far as I am concerned.”
It’s a bit tough to discern what “scam” Ford is talking about, but one thing is for sure: the Greenbelt has always been backed by more than just Liberals. The Ontario Liberals decided in 2005, almost a generation ago, the megalopolis from Oshawa to Niagara known as the Golden Horseshoe should be stopped in its tracks before sprawl began to encroach on remaining green space, farmland, forests, wetlands and watersheds.
They froze development on lands outside the urbanized zones extending east, west and north of Toronto and assembled them into a parcel one-quarter the size of Vancouver Island.
Fast-forward to the Progressive Conservatives under the leadership of Ford, where the party is using an outlandish housing starts goal to justify cracking the Greenbelt open.
In so doing, Ford and his big-tent Progressive Conservative Party have abandoned big-tent conservation and the principles of environmental preservation. They favour no-holds-barred free enterprise and a market-driven ideological approach to Ontario’s housing shortage.
So, the mask has slipped and the worm has turned. Ontarians are waking to the realization that Ford's “Progressive” Conservatives have been guided by an agenda to enrich allies within the Building Industry and Land Development Association.
If the Greenbelt is a scam, it’s one of the longest cons in recent political history, extending back to the 1973 Niagara Escarpment Planning and Development Act passed by Ford's fellow Progressive Conservative, Premier William Davis. The act ensured maintenance of the Niagara Escarpment and ensured any development would be compatible with the natural environment.
Davis’s 1973 act was followed up by his 1985 Niagara Escarpment Plan, Canada’s first large-scale environmental land-use plan, providing a framework for a string of more than 160 parks and open spaces. Environmental protection for Ontario’s green spaces grew even more under Progressive Conservative Premier Mike Harris with the 2001 Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act. Ultimately, this entire area was combined and expanded to two million acres with the 2005 passage of the Greenbelt Act by Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty.
Doug Ford's attack on Ontario's Greenbelt could be his undoing, writes freelance journalist Robert Lee. #ONpoli #Greenbelt
The fact is, for decades, a whole lot of people in Ontario thought the Greenbelt was a valuable investment, including three former premiers, two of whom were Progressive Conservatives.
Ford’s recent scam comment drew condemnation from former Toronto mayor David Crombie, a vocal proponent of the Greenbelt.
What Ford said was stunning, said Crombie, looking visibly irritated at a June 2 press conference. “He said, first of all, that the Greenbelt was a scam. He said the Greenbelt was simply a field of weeds. He said it was a failed policy. And he kept on talking about how the Greenbelt was of no consequence to him or this province,” Crombie added.
Greenbelt philosophy combines watershed planning, conservation authority oversight, public participation and open debate, and the provincial government is bent on destroying it, Crombie said.
“This is not policy and institutional reform. This is high-level bombing and needs to be resisted.”
Sprawl in the Greater Golden Horseshoe is spreading like lava: Ontario is losing 319 acres of farmland daily. And Ford’s promise to replace the Greenbelt land he wants for housing with an equivalent amount of protected land elsewhere doesn’t hold up.
The premier’s boast of adding 2,000 acres to the Greenbelt was a gross overstatement: 7,400 acres of prime land was exchanged for 9,400 acres of either already protected acreage or undevelopable river valley.
There is a kind of wilful ignorance and arrogance about all this that reflects Ford’s attitude toward the protected zone and the environment in general. We’ve seen it with the Greenbelt and more recently in Ford’s denial that climate change has anything to do with wildfires.
There are signs the autocratic bent that makes Ford reluctant to engage in legitimate dialogue with legislative opponents is not playing well with Ontarians. In March, Ford’s approval rating was a dismal 33 per cent.
Ford may indeed take down parts of the Greenbelt that he wants for housing, and in turn, the Greenbelt may take down Ford.