The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has officially launched a criminal investigation into the Ford government’s $8.3-billion Greenbelt land swap. In a stunning development, the RCMP's "sensitive and international investigations" unit has taken up the case following a referral from the Ontario Provincial Police.
“While we recognize that this investigation is of significant interest to Canadians, the RCMP has a duty to protect the integrity of the investigations that it carries out in order to ensure that the process leads to a fair and proper outcome. Therefore, no further updates will be provided at this time,” the police agency said.
Peter German, a lawyer and a former deputy commissioner of the RCMP, told Canada’s National Observer that it is good practice for a police service to refer investigations to other departments when there is the possibility of a conflict or perception of a conflict.
“In this case, the RCMP is utilizing an investigative unit that is experienced with investigating allegations of a sensitive political nature, such as corruption,” said German.
The Sensitive and International Investigations (SII) unit is tasked with investigating matters that pose significant threats to Canada's political, economic and social institutions, both domestically and internationally. Its jurisdiction extends beyond territorial boundaries and is determined by the nature of the offence.
Under its Domestic Corruption & Political Investigations mandate, SII, as stated on its website, conducts investigations into various financial crimes. These include allegations of fraud, corruption and procurement misconduct involving federal employees at the director and higher management levels. SII investigates elected officials, senators or executives of the federal government in response to allegations of fraud, financial crimes, corruption and breach of trust. It also investigates allegations related to illegal lobbying activities.
Following two scathing reports by the province's auditor general and its integrity commissioner in August, the Ontario Provincial Police handed over the Greenbelt investigation to the RCMP, citing the need to avoid any potential perception of a conflict of interest.
The reports revealed that the Ford government's decision in 2022 to open a portion of the protected Greenbelt for development was the outcome of a deeply flawed and biased process and that then housing minister Steve Clark had violated ethics rules.
Auditor general Bonnie Lysyk’s report stated owners of all 15 land sites removed from the Greenbelt could ultimately see their property values increase by more than $8.3 billion.
Peter German, a lawyer and a former deputy commissioner of the RCMP, said in this case, the RCMP is utilizing an investigative unit that is experienced with investigating allegations of a sensitive political nature, such as corruption. #greenbelt
Premier Doug Ford and Clark told Lysyk they were unaware the land chosen for removal was controlled by Clark’s then chief of staff Ryan Amato.
After the reports were released, two of Ford's cabinet ministers, Clark and Kaleed Rasheed, along with Clark's chief of staff, resigned.
Ford previously has expressed confidence that the RCMP's investigation will ultimately reveal no criminal wrongdoing. In a statement to the media on Tuesday, his office said it will co-operate fully with any investigation.
“We have zero tolerance for any wrongdoing and expect anyone involved in the decision-making about the Greenbelt lands to have followed the letter of the law," the statement reads. “Out of respect for the police and their process, we will not be commenting further at this time.”
In response to mounting pressure and public outcry, last month Ford announced his government's decision to reverse its stance on opening the Greenbelt for housing development. He admitted that it was a mistake.
In a statement, Environmental Defence welcomed the news of the RCMP Greenbelt investigation and described it as an encouraging and significant development.
"It has been clear from the start that the Ontario government's removal of land to enable sprawl in the Greenbelt was a false cover story. Contrary to messaging from Premier Doug Ford, Ontario has more than enough land available to meet rising demand for housing without expanding city and town boundaries and removing Greenbelt protections," reads the statement sent to Canada's National Observer.
The statement emphasized the importance of the investigation, given the involvement of political figures and loyalties in this scandal, stating it makes the investigation and apportionment of criminal blame much more important.
The 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.