Published August 28, 2023

Ontario chiefs unanimously oppose province's Greenbelt land swap

By Liam Casey

Ontario First Nation chiefs are demanding Doug Ford's government return land to the protected Greenbelt that the province removed for development.

The Chiefs of Ontario, which represents First Nations leaders across the province, voted unanimously Wednesday in an emergency meeting to oppose the land removal.

"The Ontario Government's decision to remove Greenbelt lands did not respect obligations to First Nations, the treaties or its own policy making process," said Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare. 

"The decisions made in a completely flawed process cannot in any way be allowed to stand."

Ontario created the Greenbelt in 2005 to protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area from development.

Last year, the province took 7,400 acres of land out of the Greenbelt to build 50,000 homes and replaced it with about 9,400 acres elsewhere.

The Chief of Ontario said the Greenbelt moves violate the Williams Treaties that were settled with the province and the federal government in 2018. 

That settlement included financial compensation, addition of land and the right to hunt, fish, harvest and gather on their traditional territory. The Williams Treaties cover land from the north shore of Lake Ontario north to Lake Nipissing, and include some of the Greenbelt land the province removed.

The chiefs said they were not consulted on the Greenbelt land removal involving land on their territory.

"It is setting back the clock on reconciliation, unfortunately," said Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Reginald Niganobe.

The chiefs said they are looking at their legal options in an effort to fight the move.

"We feel that the land removals are unconstitutional without free, prior and informed consent of the treaty rights' holders," said Alderville First Nation Chief Taynar Simpson.

Ford's office reiterated on Monday that it has accepted all but one of recommendations from the auditor general – the recommendation to re-evaluate its decision to remove the land.

"We have accepted all 14 recommendations related to process outlined in the report, including the recommendation related to Indigenous consultation, and have implemented a working group to ensure these recommendations are implemented as soon as possible," said Ford's spokeswoman Caitlin Clark. 

She said the government meets regularly with the Chiefs of Ontario.

Last week, Ford said he was confident nothing criminal took place in his government's process of removing land from the Greenbelt. He and his housing minister have also said they didn't know how sites that were removed from the protected area were selected. 

Earlier this month, the auditor general found the Ford government gave preferential treatment to certain land developers when it removed land from the Greenbelt. 

Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk found that Housing Minister Steve Clark's chief of staff selected most of the sites that were removed for housing, rather than a team of civil servants struck for that purpose. 

Lysyk also said that developers who had access to chief of staff Ryan Amato at an industry event wound up with 92 per cent of the land, and the property owners of the 15 sites removed from the Greenbelt stand to see their land rise in value by at least $8.3 billion. 

The auditor general's report has sparked a probe by the integrity commissioner and a review by the RCMP, which is weighing whether it will investigate.

Amato recently resigned from his job.

The Chiefs of Ontario also demanded Clark resign, and sought a "written commitment to seek consent from First Nations before any further changes are made to the Greenbelt."

"Taking those lands directly interferes with our rights," said Chief Laurie Carr of Hiawatha First Nation, whose lands include parts of the Greenbelt that have been removed.

The auditor general found that 83 per cent of the land removed is among the highest quality farmland in the province. About 1,000 acres of the removed land are wetlands or woodlands.

Carr said this isn't just a First Nations' issue.

"In our teachings we talk about wetlands as being the kidney of Mother Earth and filters that water," she said.

"It's also about the agricultural part of the Greenbelt, and when we're talking about food and water and hunting and lands and farming and all those pieces, we're talking about everyone." 

New Democrat Leader Marit Stiles said she stood with the Chiefs of Ontario.

"Ford must do what's right and return Greenbelt lands," she said on social media.

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 28, 2023.

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