Ontario municipal politicians and environmental advocates say they are shocked but not surprised by Wednesday’s auditor general's report, which found the provincial government’s plans to open up the protected Greenbelt were selectively tailored to benefit politically connected developers.
Ted McMeekin, a Hamilton city councillor who previously served as Ontario’s minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs as well as minister of municipal affairs and housing, responded to the revelations by saying: “Not much to say — you can't make this up.”
Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk found the Ford government’s 2022 decision to open part of the protected Greenbelt for development was driven by political influence and privileged access. She noted the plan to build housing on what was protected agricultural and wetland areas was tailored to favour specific developers while sidelining environmental, agricultural and financial concerns. The owners of all 15 land sites removed from the Greenbelt could ultimately see their property values increase more than $8.3 billion, Lysyk found.
Three major Ontario developers gained the most from the deal, the bulk of which was orchestrated by Housing Minister Steve Clark’s chief of staff, Ryan Amato, according to the report.
At a news conference, Premier Doug Ford, accompanied by Housing Minister Steve Clark, addressed the auditor general’s findings. Ford said his administration would accept and act on 14 of the 15 recommendations outlined in Lysyk's report. The only exception is the recommendation concerning a review of land swaps and potential reversals of decisions.
Ford held firm to his plans to develop the areas his government exempted from the Greenbelt, saying the need for housing is crucial for Ontario.
“We were moving fast. We could have had a better process. As the premier, the buck stops with me and I take full responsibility for the need for a better process,” said Ford.
The auditor general’s report notes ample land exists to meet the Ford government’s target of building 1.5 million homes without resorting to Greenbelt development.
One of the groups that benefited from the process was TACC Developments, which is owned by the De Gasperis family. Silvio De Gasperis, who was not named in the auditor general's report, has close ties to Ford. Another developer was Michael Rice, owner of the Rice Group.
Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk found the Ford government’s 2022 decision to open part of the protected Greenbelt for development was driven by political influence and privileged access. #Greenbelt
A Toronto Star/Narwhal investigation last year listed both developers among those who have made significant political donations to Ford's Progressive Conservative Party.
McMeekin called the deal laid out in the audit “value for money” and said it explains why the Ford government tried to stop Lysyk from conducting the probe. Last month, Ford said the Ontario auditor general's investigation into the Greenbelt is outside of her jurisdiction.
“The developers get to pocket $8 billion, so it is surely money and time well invested and of great value to them,” McMeekin added.
One particularly puzzling aspect, said McMeekin, is the assertion that the housing minister had no knowledge of his chief of staff's activities.
“If true, it is indicative of how out of control this government is,” he said. McMeekin said he doesn’t think blaming Amato will wash with the public.
Ian Borsuk, interim executive director of Environment Hamilton, said the audit is “incredibly damning.”
“The public simply should have no faith in our provincial government's interest in the public good — if the government will go to these lengths to benefit such a small handful of developers, what else are they doing behind closed doors?”
Borsuk referenced polling data from the Alliance for a Liveable Ontario indicating widespread public opposition to the Greenbelt plans. Given these circumstances, Borsuk emphasized the need for public resistance and vigilance against the government's actions.
“Our next provincial government in 2026 needs to be prepared to not only reverse the actions of Doug Ford but to take serious efforts to ensure that no government can do this much damage ever again,” he said.
The report revealed the Greenbelt removals were approved without full consideration of the environmental and agricultural risks. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs indicated about 83 per cent of the area removed is classified as prime agricultural land, having the highest quality and capability for agriculture, the report added.
“A total of 117 wetlands removed from the Greenbelt were within the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve lands, 110 of which have never been evaluated and are therefore not protected through the Provincial Policy Statement,” said Dave Pearce, senior forest conservation manager at Wildlands League. According to Pearce, despite potential risks, Housing Ministry staff confirmed there is no plan in place to monitor the status and protection of natural features on removed lands during future housing development.
Pearce told Canada’s National Observer this is a suspiciously flawed and opaque process that results in developer-proposed lands being opened for housing that is not needed and nets the developers an $8-billion increase in land value.
“What are Ontarians to conclude but that this whole affair is a gross scandal? We should be outraged. The only acceptable action is for the government to reverse its decision and restore these lands to the Greenbelt.”
— With files from The Canadian Press
This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights for the Afghan Journalists-in-Residence program funded by the Meta Journalism Project.