There is mounting evidence challenging Premier Doug Ford’s claim that he and his office were not involved in selecting Greenbelt and rural properties for housing development.
Ford and his officials have consistently claimed since early August that the former housing minister Steve Clark and his top political staffer are solely responsible for both the Greenbelt debacle and the government’s actions to encourage urban sprawl.
However, recently disclosed government records indicate that the premier’s office was actively involved in monitoring specific land parcels and that Ford himself had a meeting with a developer regarding the removal of his land from the Greenbelt.
However, Ford is persisting with their denials.
During his initial news conference in almost six weeks, Ford stated on Tuesday at a gas station in Etobicoke that he was not involved in the alterations made to the Greenbelt.
Ford claimed that he was not engaged in any modifications implemented by the government to increase the worth of countryside properties. Additionally, he stated that he cannot recall any encounter with a developer regarding the authorization of their Greenbelt land for residential purposes.
Here’s what the paper trail shows:
In September 2021, Ford had a direct meeting with Sergio Manchia, a developer from Hamilton, to discuss the possibility of excluding his property from the Greenbelt. A year later, Ford’s government lifted restrictions on Manchia’s land and 14 other properties within the Greenbelt.
In November 2022, the office of the premier sought verification that two particular properties in Nobleton, which are partially owned by Flato Developments, had received approval for development. Shakir Rehmatullah, the founder of the company, shares a friendship with the premier and was invited as a guest to Ford’s daughter’s wedding during the summer of 2022.
Reporters at the news conference on Tuesday posed questions to Ford regarding the newly disclosed information.
When questioned about why his political staff were worried about the Nobleton properties, he expressed complete ignorance regarding the specific location being referred to.
“I cannot recall what I did or said during my Greenbelt meeting with the Hamilton developer two years ago,” Ford replied when questioned about it.
The recently disclosed records are significant because they indicate that employees working for Ford were potentially directly engaged in approving specific properties for development in the government’s 2022 decisions.
WATCH | ‘I had nothing to do with the changes in the Greenbelt’: Ford
This raises the question: Did Ford’s personally chosen political staff act independently, or did they act based on the premier’s desires?
“The rot goes all the way to the top,” said Marit Stiles, leader of the Ontario NDP. “These documents make it more clear than ever that all roads lead to the premier.”
There is absolutely no possibility that the premier was unaware.
John Fraser, interim leader of the Ontario Liberal Party, cited his own experience as political staff in a premier’s office in rejecting Ford’s denials.
Fraser claimed that it was impossible for the premier to be unaware. Absolutely impossible. Perhaps he may not be familiar with every small and complex aspect, but he is aware of the major things. That’s just how it operates.
The recently published records originate from approximately 7,000 pages acquired by Environmental Defence and Ecojustice through a freedom of information inquiry.
They detail the inside story of the government’s moves in the fall of 2022 to approve housing development on certain properties in the Greenbelt and to force changes in the official plans of Hamilton and Ottawa as well as Peel, York and Halton regions.
A significant portion of the records comprise email exchanges between political staff and impartial government officials regarding the selection of properties to be excluded from the Greenbelt or the expansion of city boundaries in order to make more rural land available for development.
The documents contain numerous mentions of “PO,” which stands for premier’s office, prior to the official implementation of land use rule modifications in November 2022.
“PO wants this done,” says a document that recommends allowing development on 29 hectares of land in the Oak Ridges Moraine previously classed as countryside.
Ryan Amato, the chief of staff for the housing minister, sent an email regarding the approval of the Nobleton properties for development. In the email, he mentioned that “po has requested a picture for verification.”
“I apologize for having to bring this up, but we have received a message from an individual at PO,” states an email sent by the deputy chief of staff for the housing minister, requesting modifications to the official plan of Peel Region.
Caitlin Clark, spokesperson for Ford, stated to CBC News that the government no longer employs staff members who were engaged in these decisions, including those from the premier’s office and minister’s office.
Meanwhile, Ford’s meeting on Sept. 20, 2021 with the Hamilton developer is revealed in an email to Ford’s executive assistant from an official at Manchia’s firm, Urban Solutions.
The email indicates that Ford has agreed to consider Manchia’s request to eliminate Greenbelt safeguards on his property at Barton Street and Fifty Road in Hamilton, with the intention of developing it.
The meeting took place at a $1,200-per-ticket PC Party fundraiser that Manchia hosted at his home in Ancaster, according to a statement issued Tuesday by Urban Solutions.
I had a short conversation with Ford regarding Greenbelt.
“According to the company’s statement, Mr. Manchia briefly discussed this property with the Premier during the event. However, this was not a novel occurrence. It was simply the most recent development in a longstanding endeavor spanning multiple years, where we, along with Hamilton Council, have been urging both the previous government and Mr. Ford’s government to correct what we believed to be an error.”
The statement added that Ford has called Manchia “a few times over the years, but on each occasion, it was only to briefly thank him for his support. In none of those calls did they ever discuss planning issues.”
In November 2022, the Greenbelt restrictions on the property were eliminated by the government led by Ford.
The Integrity Commissioner of Ontario stated in his investigation of the Greenbelt that Ford claimed to have no memory of meeting Manchia, discussing the Greenbelt with him over the phone or in any other form of communication, or informing any staff members about Mr. Manchia.
When asked about the meeting by CBC News, Ford’s spokesperson stated in an email that neither the premier nor the premier’s office were involved in selecting a specific site.
On Tuesday, Ford cited the investigations conducted by the integrity commissioner and the auditor general as proof that he did not instruct the removal of any land from the Greenbelt.
Ford stated at the press conference that they cleared both my office and myself, affirming that we had no participation in it.
J. David Wake, the integrity commissioner, dismissed the idea that Ford’s officials were influencing the choices of Greenbelt parcels to be authorized for development.
Wake’s report states that the staff of the Premier’s Office did not give any guidance. Mr. Amato kept the Premier’s Office uninformed about the process he followed for selecting properties to remove from the Greenbelt until the very end.
Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk refrained from making a direct assessment of Ford’s participation in her Greenbelt report. During the subsequent press conference, a reporter inquired about her belief regarding Ford’s awareness of the events. Lysyk responded, “I have no grounds to doubt it.”
In September, Ford expressed remorse for going back on his commitment to leave the Greenbelt untouched and announced that the government will revoke its authorizations for housing development within the protected region.
Despite that U-turn, an RCMP unit that specializes in political cases of corruption and breach of trusts has launched a criminal investigation into the original plan to open up Greenbelt land for development.
In October, Minister Paul Calandra, responsible for Municipal Affairs and Housing, revealed that the government is retracting one of its contentious decisions regarding the expansion of boundaries and zoning changes. This decision affected 12 municipalities, including Ottawa, Hamilton, and Waterloo Region.