It’s generally a bad idea to fight a war on two fronts, especially when your forces are as depleted as the Liberal Party of Canada’s right now. But Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault might want to open a second one anyways in Ontario, despite the major battle already brewing in Alberta and Saskatchewan over his proposed clean electricity standard and a potential cap on oil and gas emissions.
After all, Premier Doug Ford has made it clear he’s comfortable using any means necessary to defend his government’s $8-billion Greenbelt giveaway and the developers who have benefited so disproportionately from his decisions to date. That began with a belated decision to throw his own housing minister and his chief of staff under the political bus. When that didn’t slow the backlash, Ford tossed his province’s most at-risk teenagers under there as well. Last week, he joined the growing chorus of conservative premiers pushing anti-trans legislation that would force their schools to dime out students who change their pronouns or gender identity. One wonders who he’ll sacrifice next in order to protect his own standing.
Ford can count on his allies in the Postmedia chain to play their part in this shamelessly transparent use of Boris Johnson’s “dead cat strategy.” But Guilbeault, who’s not exactly one to shy away from a fight, will almost surely keep his eye on the bigger picture. He’s already made it clear the entire Greenbelt situation has his full attention and that developers and other financial actors should act accordingly. “If you’re a developer thinking you’ve just struck gold and can start building tomorrow, know that the government could intervene,” he said back in late March. “I’ve spoken to bankers who said that they will have to take a long, hard look at financial viability now that we know there could be delays or that certain projects could even be denied.”
Indeed, according to a briefing note from this March, there are 29 at-risk species that live (or are likely to live) on the 7,400 acres of land opened up for development. Those animals are protected under federal legislation, and their presence could be used to slow or stop development entirely. As federal environment minister, Guilbeault could also demand new studies of potential impacts under the auspices of the Impact Assessment Act that might take years to complete.
The Ford government and its proxies would cry bloody murder about any of this, but polls show the public isn’t on their side right now. The recent auditor general report clearly stated land within the Greenbelt wasn’t needed to meet the province’s target of 1.5 million new homes, and polling suggests the public already understands this. As former Greenbelt Foundation CEO Burkhard Mausberg noted in a recent op-ed, “83 per cent of Ontarians believe there is no need to build housing on the Greenbelt and farmland to solve Ontario’s housing challenges because there is enough land already available in existing towns and cities.” More interesting, perhaps, is that this same poll shows 76 per cent of 2022 Conservative voters agree with that statement.
Even so, Guilbeault will need some covering fire here. Enter new(ish) federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser, who should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him on an announcement of new housing supply in the region, one that more than makes up for any potential Greenbelt-related losses. In the process, he can nudge the housing debate away from its current focus on which party wants to see housing get built the fastest and towards which sort of housing we ought to prioritize. Is it the sprawl-oriented supply that conservatives clearly favour, one that just happens to suit their developer donors? Or is it transit-adjacent, purpose-built rentals, urban infill duplexes and other more climate-friendly choices the Liberals ought to be incentivizing?
Here, too, the Liberals have more public support than they might imagine. A new poll from the Task Force for Housing and Climate, a new organization co-chaired by former Edmonton mayor Don Iveson and former deputy Conservative Party of Canada leader Lisa Raitt, says 78 per cent of Canadians want new housing to be built in a way that minimizes their carbon footprint. In Ontario, meanwhile, 64 per cent of respondents said it’s important to address the housing affordability crisis in ways that don’t compromise Canada’s climate objectives.
Taking on this fight would require the sort of political bravery the Trudeau Liberals haven’t shown in a while. It would almost certainly undermine what’s been a reasonably productive relationship with the Ford government. And the well-networked club of sprawl-oriented developers in this country would fight like hell to resist any attempt to reverse Ford’s big giveaway. But if the Liberals want to win the electoral war that’s coming in the next two years, they need to start taking some risks — and winning some battles. With housing and climate both certain to play big roles in the next election, there might not be a better place to start than the Greenbelt.