The office of Premiere Doug Ford knew details of the controversial Greenbelt land swap earlier than previously admitted, an internal email suggests.
The email, obtained by the Ontario NDP as part of a freedom of information request, contradicts statements provided to the Integrity Commissioner last year as part of his investigation into the Greenbelt scandal.
Sent from the personal email of then-housing minister Steve Clark's Chief of Staff, Ryan Amato, to the personal email of Patrick Sackville, Ford's former principal secretary and now chief of staff, the email provides a list of criteria for land to be removed from the Greenbelt, including preferred locations, required infrastructure services, and potential offsets.
The email, dated October 17, 2022, calls into question Sackville's testimony made under oath to Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake, in which he said he was not aware of the land swap details until 10 days later.
"Mr. Sackville said he did not discuss specific properties to be removed or removal criteria with Mr. Amato until the briefing that occurred on October 27, 2022," Wake wrote in his report, released on August 30 of last year. "Mr. Sackville recalled being first briefed about the Greenbelt project at a meeting facilitated by the cabinet office on October 27, 2022."
The email surfaced on December 20, 2023, after Sackville "conducted additional searches within his personal email account," according to a notice from the Freedom of Information and Issues office. It lays out location preferences for the protected land that was to be removed from the Greenbelt, eyeing land that was "adjacent to an existing (developed) urban area" and "on the edge of the existing Greenbelt plan" It lists "infill that would complete existing neighbourhoods and communities" as something that would be "nice to have."
The email goes on to name several infrastructure services that the lands would need to have available, including municipal roads, utilities, transit infrastructure, and schools nearby to accommodate growth. In a section describing potential offsets — land to be added to the Greenbelt to compensate for the land being taken out — Amato names the Paris Galt Moraine as a "mapped and consulted on green space our government decided not to move on." He also says there are "options to go larger depending on Executive Interest."
Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles has since written to the Integrity Commissioner, informing him of the email and noting her 'extreme concerns' about its apparent contradiction with statements provided during the investigation. Wake's office confirmed to STOREYS that the letter from Stiles had been received, noting that the Integrity Commissioner has said he would "review the document against Office records and provide a response to her directly."
The office of Premier Ford did not respond to request for comment by the time of publication.
Steve Clark and Doug Ford.(Steve Clark/Twitter)
The Greenbelt Saga
This is the latest in a slew of updates to the seemingly never-ending Greenbelt saga. Clark first announced plans to remove nearly 3,000 hectares of land across 15 sites from southern Ontario's protected Greenbelt lands back in November 2022. Those lands, he said, would be opened up for housing development as part of the Province's goal of building 1.5 million homes by 2031.
Reports started to emerge that big-name developers stood to profit immensely from the land removals, with some having suspiciously made fairly recent purchases of Greenbelt land. Both Clark and Ford maintained that no developers had been tipped off about the government's plans to remove protections.
Stiles asked Ontario's Auditor General and Integrity Commissioner to look into the land removal, noting that at least one developer who had attended Ford's daughter's $150-a-ticket stag-and-doe had their land taken out of the Greenbelt. By January, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) said they were looking to determine whether they should investigate the matter, and the Integrity Commissioner and Auditor General both announced they would be conducting separate investigations.
Both the Auditor General and Integrity Commissioner found evidence of a biased land selection process that not only favoured certain developers, but that tipped them off about the government's plans to remove lands in advance. While the Auditor General largely condemned Amato, who oversaw the selection process, the Integrity Commissioner took aim at Clark, finding that his lack of oversight of Amato resulted in multiple violations of the Members' Integrity Act.
Both Amato and Clark have since resigned their positions.
Amidst the scathing reports and fierce public pushback, Ford doubled down on his plans, saying in September that a a full review of all Greenbelt lands would be conducted, overseen by his new Minister of Housing, Paul Calandra. He left that door open to even more land being removed from the Greenbelt, saying it "will be up to the Minister to make that decision."
But as the OPP referred the matter to the RCMP for investigation and Ford's poll numbers began dropping, he reversed course, cancelling all plans to remove Greenbelt lands, calling it "a mistake."
In November, Clark said he will cooperate with the RCMP's investigation. He added that he was "deeply remorseful" about the land selection process, and noted that although the RCMP had yet to contact him, he 'looks forward' to answering their questions.