Challenging the Ford government’s failure to consult on Bill 197

Queens Park by James G via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Bill 197 (COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act) used the premise of economic recovery to tear up environmental protections and prevent Ontarians from having a say on major projects that impact their lives. 

Introduced and passed in less than two weeks in July 2020, the omnibus bill made major changes to the province’s Environmental Assessment Act (EAA), the Planning Act and other environmental laws. As part of Bill 197, the government also retroactively exempted itself from having to consult about the changes to the EAA. 

Although the province’s Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) gives Ontarians the right to participate meaningfully in major environmental decision-making, the Ontario government failed to consult the public about these and other parts of Bill 197, including expanding the power of the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing to fast-track development projects through Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZOs). 

This conduct shielded Bill 197 from public scrutiny and the government from public accountability. It continued this government’s pattern of disregard for Ontarians’ environmental rights. 

Ecojustice, on behalf of Greenpeace Canada and Wilderness Committee, brought a lawsuit challenging the provincial government’s failure to give Ontarians a say before ramming through these major changes. We argued the case before Ontario’s Divisional Court in May 2021.  

In September 2021, the Divisional Court ruled that Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark acted “unreasonably and unlawfully” by failing to consult the public before rushing through changes to the rules governing minister’s zoning orders (MZOs). 

However, the Court ruled the government acted lawfully even though it did not consult the public before making changes to other legislation. In particular, it ruled that the government’s decision to retroactively absolve itself from having to consult before making changes to the EAA was lawful.  

Ontarians have the right to be consulted on major environmental decisions under the EBR.  

However, in recent years, the Ontario government has violated this law and prevented public input on changes to environmental law and policy.   

In 2018, Ecojustice brought the Ontario government to court for scrapping the province’s cap and trade regime without public consultation. A majority of Ontario’s Divisional Court agreed that this was unlawful in a 2019 ruling, but stopped short of granting a legal remedy (a formal declaration) to sanction the conduct. 

 Two years later, in this case in which there are similar issues are at play, the Divisional Court found that the Ontario’s government’s failure to consult with Ontarians before overhauling some, but not all, environmental legislation affected by Bill 197 was unlawful. For the first time, the court granted a remedy against this conduct in the form of a declaration. 

This decision holds the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing accountable for failing to consult the public before expanding his powers to issue zoning orders to fast-track development. The Court’s declaration is a clear message to the provincial government that it cannot ignore Ontarians’ right to public consultation under the EBR without consequence. However, this decision also makes clear Ontarians will have to closely guard against future attempts to write their participation rights out of the law. 

Key developments

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