First Nations leaders in Ontario are demanding the Ford government promptly return all lands removed from the protected Greenbelt for housing in response to a damning auditor general's report.

Following their Emergency Chiefs Assembly, the leaders have also called for a criminal investigation into the province’s removal of Greenbelt land for housing development. The Chiefs of Ontario (COO), which advocates for 133 First Nations in the province, say they will suspend any working relationship with Ontario's Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark until further notice. However, technical work within the ministry will continue to ensure progress on First Nations' housing priorities, according to the statement by the COO.

“From First Nations’ point of view, the situation in its entirety is corrupt,” Grand Chief Joel Abram of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians said in a statement. “We will continue to support the RCMP in its considerations to conduct a full investigation into this matter.”

A resolution passed by the assembly directs the COO to demand Premier Doug Ford fully commit to all recommendations outlined in the auditor general's report on the Greenbelt, including returning all the portions removed under the province’s development plans. Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk found the Ford government’s 2022 decision to open up parts of the protected area for development was the result of a deeply flawed and biased process.

Ford's Greenbelt parcels were handpicked and favoured developers with political access to the housing minister’s chief of staff, the report found. “The exercise to change the Greenbelt boundaries in fall 2022 cannot be described as a standard or defensible process,” the auditor general said.

Since the report’s release, Clark’s chief of staff has resigned, and the Ontario Provincial Police has handed over its review of the Greenbelt land swap to the RCMP for investigation. Ford has expressed his confidence that the RCMP investigation will reveal no criminal wrongdoing.

The Ontario premier said he believes no criminal activities will be uncovered and remains determined to develop the areas his government exempted from the Greenbelt. He insists the removals are necessary to build crucial housing for Ontario, despite Lysyk’s findings there were other ways the province’s housing needs could be met.

The COO says First Nations have been given very little, if any, opportunity to be adequately consulted on changes to the Greenbelt, despite these changes directly affecting First Nations’ inherent treaty and constitutionally protected rights.

Lysyk also mentioned in her report that the truncated and highly restricted land selection exercise excluded substantive input from land-use planning experts in provincial ministries, municipalities, conservation authorities, First Nations leaders and the public while giving preferential treatment to certain developers with direct access to Ryan Amato, the housing minister former chief of staff.

The COO says the removal of lands within and around the Greenbelt directly interferes with the existing rights of several First Nations under the Williams Treaty Settlement Agreement. These rights include harvesting, hunting, fishing and gathering.

“The Ford government has a strong track record of ignoring First Nation voices and Treaty rights, as demonstrated with the Williams Treaty,” Grand Council Chief Reginald Niganobe of the Anishinabek Nation said in the statement. “Anyone who cares about democracy, public trust and institutions should be profoundly disturbed by the report and its findings.”

All Ontarians should be alarmed by the negative environmental and agricultural impacts resulting from these land removals, the statement said.

“We must discuss the importance of the Greenbelt, wetlands, woodlands, and all its significant pieces,” said Chief Laurie Carr of Hiawatha First Nation in the statement. “In our teachings, we talk about wetlands as being the kidney of Mother Earth, and how they filter our waters; we talk about food, water, hunting, lands, and farming; all of these agricultural impacts should be concerning to every Ontarian, and development in any part of this area is unacceptable.”

According to the auditor general report, Greenbelt removals were approved without full consideration of environmental and agricultural risks and were inconsistent with the vision, goals and processes of the Greenbelt plan to provide important natural features and agricultural land with permanent protection, as well as previous amendments to the Greenbelt boundary. The 2022 boundary changes removed almost 1,000 acres of wetlands and woodlands from the Greenbelt. As well, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs indicated that 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.

The COO says the removal of lands within and around the Greenbelt directly interferes with the existing rights of several First Nations under the Williams Treaty Settlement Agreement. These rights include harvesting, hunting, fishing and gathering. The province’s removal of these lands within and surrounding the Greenbelt areas will directly interfere with those First Nations’ rights.

“Premier Doug Ford and his government must be held accountable to their early promises to ensure the Greenbelt remains untouched,” said Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare. “The province must take into consideration First Nations’ rights and the duty to consult when proposing changes of such a great impact and magnitude.”

Ford threatens to revert 104 acres of land back to the Greenbelt in Ajax

Discord with First Nations was just one of the most recent Greenbelt problems that cropped up for Ford this week.

The premier was also forced to respond to efforts by one of the owners of the exempted Greenbelt land to sell the property. That prompted Ford to threaten to revert 104 acres of land back to the Greenbelt after his government learned that two sites, located at 765 and 775 Kingston Rd. E. in Ajax, had been listed for sale by the developers who own the land.

Ford's statement did not name the company. However, the auditor general's report lists Buena Vista Development Corp. as the primary developer and/or the landowner for the land recently listed for sale. According to CBC, a large parcel of the land in question was bought in June 2018.

“At no point was the intention to sell disclosed to the government’s facilitator during active and ongoing discussions,” Ford said in a statement.

Ford says this behaviour goes against everything his government is doing to build at least 50,000 new homes on the removed Greenbelt land and make homeownership more attainable for more people.

The statement indicates the government is exploring every option available, including immediately starting the process of putting the land back into the Greenbelt.

“To the other property owners, you’re on notice: if you don’t meet our government’s conditions, including showing real progress by year-end with a plan to get shovels in the ground by 2025, your land will go back into the Greenbelt,” the statement reads.

In her report, Lysyk found the owners of all 15 land sites removed from the Greenbelt could ultimately see their property values increase more than $8.3 billion.

Ontario’s Greenbelt was created in 2005 to permanently protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands from development. The swath of about two million acres of protected land includes farmland, forests, wetlands, rivers and lakes. In December 2022, the Ford government removed land from the Greenbelt to open it up for housing development as part of the province’s commitment to build 1.5 million new homes over the next decade. A total of 7,400 acres were removed, which the provincial government rationalizes with its commitment to add another 9,400 acres to the Greenbelt elsewhere.

This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights for the Afghan Journalists-in-Residence program funded by the Meta Journalism Project.