Ecojustice Blog – Nature Posted on November 24, 2022 (updated: November 24, 2022)

The Ford government is trying to sell off Ontario’s natural heritage

Ecojustice lawyer Laura BowmanLaura BowmanLawyer
Loon and trillium flower in Ontario wetland area

In the past few weeks, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his government has been determined to trample on laws and policies that have protected Ontarians and many of the province’s natural spaces.

The Ontario government recently proposed to discard important protections for wetlands and woodlands, including in the Greenbelt.  These changes would allow uncontrolled sprawl across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

The government has justified these changes with the false promise of increasing the affordable housing supply.  In reality, these changes are a reckless selloff of Ontario’s natural heritage to land speculators with ties to the government.  The government has ignored or overturned advocates, local governments and experts who seek reforms that would provide true affordable housing supply in climate-friendly urban settings.

The government has attempted to give cover to its massive reforms to Ontario’s planning regime by leveraging the distraction of its fight with education workers and the undemocratic use of the notwithstanding clause. But just as Ford lost his battle with education workers, he failed to distract Ontarians from his land selloff.  In recent days there have been widespread protests across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), involving hundreds of Ontarians.

Developers win. We lose.

In late October the Ford government tabled the misleadingly-named More Homes Built Faster Act (Bill 23).¹ The legislation is an omnibus bill that would result in a total overhaul of the planning regime across Southern Ontario and particularly in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area.

At the same time as Bill 23 was tabled, the Ontario government tried to drown opponents with numerous other policy proposals and decisions.  They proposed to open thousands of hectares of land for development by expanding existing urban boundaries, paving the way for increased sprawl across the province of Ontario, especially in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

Bill 23 will not increase the affordable housing supply for Ontarians. Affordable housing advocates have already slammed the Bill as permitting “luxury” housing.² The proposed legislation would facilitate car-centred developments and high-cost housing, instead of affordable, sustainable homes. With these reforms, Ontario would force municipal residents to subsidize developer profits to the tune of $1 billion annually.³  It would also destroy natural spaces and agricultural land and would make it impossible for Ontario to lower its climate emissions.

Bill 23 was not introduced for the benefit of you and me. If it was, then Ontario would have subjected it to a proper consultation process instead of rushing the Bill through the legislature before municipal councils could even be sworn in to respond. Instead, it’s another trojan horse that Doug Ford has tabled that would benefit his small group of developer friends.⁴

Woodlands, agricultural lands and wetlands are supposed to be a protected legacy for all Ontarians. These lands should not be used as a pawn for land speculators to buy land cheap, rezone it for development and flip it at a profit.

Looking across greenbelt area towards Niagara Escarpment

Niagara Escarpment from Rattlesnake Point by Jeff Power via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Stripping powers from conservation authorities

Bill 23 would strip conversation authorities of their ability to adequately protect from flooding and keep drinking water free from pollution by managing the watershed including wetlands and woodlands. These reforms could also force conservation authorities to sell off conservation areas to developers and speculators by requiring them to identify “surplus” lands to sell for housing.⁵

Conservation authorities have these responsibilities for good reason. They were formed in 1946 at a time when it was clear that settler development was starting to take its toll on the province’s natural areas.⁶

In 1954, Hurricane Hazel struck Southern Ontario, resulting in flooding that led to the deaths of 81 people, leaving thousands homeless and causing widespread damage to infrastructure.⁷ In the aftermath of this tragedy, the provincial government at the time increased the responsibilities of the conservation authorities to make sure that similar flooding would not be repeated.

At a time when the risk of extreme weather events is increasing due to the climate emergency, Doug Ford’s attempts to rip apart the powers of conservation authorities put Ontarian’s property and drinking water at risk and attack the integrity of our natural areas.

Trampling on local democracy

For Doug Ford, local democracy shouldn’t stand in the way of speculator profits. Just as Doug Ford was willing to attack democratic rights for education workers, he is equally willing to do so to benefit developers.

Bill 23 would remove key powers for municipalities to plan for cost-effective infrastructure by controlling where development happens. Bill 23 would also make it difficult or impossible for conservation authorities, municipalities members of the public to try to enforce any remaining protections for natural spaces, or to ensure climate-friendly development through the appeals process.

The people of Hamilton and Halton Region know firsthand what this means.⁸ Local residents in these municipalities lobbied their municipalities for climate-friendly development policies to protect natural areas and prevent urban sprawl. Both municipalities adopted official plans that located all of the province’s projected housing needs within the existing urban areas.

However, in November the Ontario government overturned these popular plans and forced the expansion of suburban sprawl in these regions by thousands of hectares. Hamilton’s urban boundary alone was expanded by 2,200 hectares.⁹

Cutting apart the Greenbelt

The ink was barely dry on Bill 23 before the Ontario government announced its next attack on environmentally sensitive land in the province. The provincial government backtracked on the promise¹⁰ it made just last year and opened up¹¹ the Greenbelt for development.

Ontario’s Greenbelt is a unique area of protected land, comprised of farmland, forests, wetlands, rivers, and lakes.¹² It was created in 2005 to prevent further loss of farmland and natural heritage, and to restrict urban sprawl.

But now Doug Ford plans to open up 7,400 acres of the Greenbelt for development.¹³

We can fight back

But if we’ve learnt anything from the past few weeks about what this Ontario government is afraid of, it’s people power. Public solidarity in support of striking education workers forced Doug Ford and his government to back down when they brazenly overrode the constitution of Canada.

That is why thousands of people across Ontario are showing their opposition to Bill 23 and this government’s plans to weaken the province’s protection of many natural areas. Our friends at Environmental Defence,¹⁴ Ontario Nature ¹⁵and the Canadian Environmental Law Association¹⁶ among many others are helping to host rallies and organize actions to demonstrate opposition to this legislation.

We’ve pushed back on Premier Ford in the past and won. When the provincial government tried to ram through development at Duffins Creek using a Minister’s Zoning Order, we acted swiftly to make sure that decision was revoked.

When Doug Ford last tried to force through changes to provincial planning law using Bill 197, we challenged them in court in a case that found the government acted “unreasonably and unlawfully”.

At Ecojustice, we are committed to using the power of the law to stand up to the likes of Doug Ford when they threaten to destroy Ontario’s natural heritage. We recently made a written submission to the standing committee on Bill 23, and are supporting the rallies of local groups around Ontario. Stay tuned to how we can further push back against developer giveaways.

References:

¹ Bill 23, More Homes Built Faster Act, 2022 – Legislative Assembly of Ontario
² Doug Ford’s Bill 23 destroys existing affordable housing & builds more luxury condos! Scrap it NOW – ACORN Canada
³ AMO Submission on Bill 23, More Homes Built Faster Act, 2022 – Association of Municipalities Ontario
They recently bought Greenbelt land that was undevelopable. Now the Ford government is poised to remove protections — and these developers stand to profit – Toronto Star
Local residents protest Bill 23, the Building Homes Faster Act – Wellington Advertiser
Doug Ford to gut Ontario’s conservation authorities, citing stalled housing – The Narwhal
Hurricane Hazel floods Toronto in 1954 – CBC
‘Appeals are not allowed’: defying residents’ choice, Doug Ford orders Hamilton to allow sprawl – The Narwhal
⁹ Ontario just got 14,000 hectares of land to develop — so why does Doug Ford want the Greenbelt too? – CBC
¹⁰ Ford government set to expand Greenbelt protected area while proceeding with controversial highway nearby – Toronto Star
¹¹ Proposed Amendments to the Greenbelt Plan – Environmental Registry of Ontario
¹² Ontario’s Greenbelt is the world’s largest, protecting farmland, forests, wetlands, rivers, and lakes. – Greenbelt
¹³ Ontario backtracks on Greenbelt pledge with plan to allow housing on 7,400 acres – Toronto Star
¹⁴ Grassroots organizers from all across Ontario are holding rallies at MPPs’ offices to say #HandsOffTheGreenbelt and #StopBill23. – Environmental Defence
¹⁵ The Government of Ontario’s Bill 23 spells disaster for everything from conservation authorities to farmland to democracy. – Ontario Nature
¹⁶ Action Alert: Bill 23 – More Homes Built Faster, 2022 – Canadian Environmental Law Association

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