Published October 10, 2023

RCMP launches investigation into Ontario's Greenbelt land swap

By Liam Casey in Toronto

The RCMP has launched an investigation into the Ontario government's decision to open up parts of the protected Greenbelt for housing development, a probe the premier's office said the province will co-operate with.

The police force said Tuesday that its "sensitive and international investigations" unit is leading the investigation.

The province removed 7,400 acres of land from the Greenbelt last year as part of its broader push to build 1.5 million homes by 2031, while adding land elsewhere. The swap triggered a public outcry and investigations from two legislative watchdogs. 

In January, the Ontario Provincial Police said it was working to determine whether it should investigate and in August the force referred the matter to the RCMP out of concern over a perceived conflict of interest.

The RCMP had been assessing whether to launch a probe since then. On Tuesday, the Mounties said an investigation into the land swap had begun. 

"Following a referral from the Ontario Provincial Police, the RCMP O Division’s Sensitive and International Investigations unit has now launched an investigation into allegations associated to the decision from the Province of Ontario to open parts of the Greenbelt for development," Cpl. Christy Veenstra wrote in a statement.

Veenstra said no further details would be released to protect the integrity of the investigation.

Premier Doug Ford's office said the government would work with the Mounties. 

"We have zero tolerance for any wrongdoing and expect anyone involved in the decision-making about the Greenbelt lands to have followed the letter of the law," it wrote in a statement. 

"Out of respect for the police and their process, we will not be commenting further at this time.”

Ford has previously said he is confident nothing criminal took place.

The RCMP's sensitive and international investigations unit specializes in "sensitive, high risk matters that cause significant threats to Canada's political, economic and social integrity of its institutions across Canada and internationally," the force's website says.

The squad performs political investigations that examine elected officials on allegations of fraud, financial crimes, corruption and breach of trust.

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

Two legislative watchdogs examining the government's land swap found the process to select which lands were removed from the Greenbelt was flawed and favoured certain developers.

The province's integrity commissioner, J. David Wake, found Steve Clark, the province's housing minister at the time, violated ethics rules. 

Clark resigned shortly after the commissioner's report was released. 

The auditor general, Bonnie Lysyk, in a separate report found the developers stood to see their land value increase by $8.3 billion because of the land swap.

Both the integrity commissioner and the auditor general focused their probes on Clark's chief of staff at the time, Ryan Amato.

Lysyk found that more than 90 per cent of the land removed from the Greenbelt was in five sites passed on to Amato by two prominent developers Amato met at an industry dinner.

Wake found no evidence of developers being specifically tipped off that the government was considering Greenbelt removals – though he found one developer "questionable" on that point – but that Amato's actions and conversations with them had that effect.

Amato resigned shortly after the auditor general's report.

He has previously said he did nothing wrong and declined to comment Tuesday. 

"On the advice of my legal counsel it would be inappropriate for me to comment on an ongoing police investigation," Amato wrote in an email.

Ford has since apologized for the land swap and said in September that the 15 parcels of removed land would all be returned to the Greenbelt. 

The premier also pledged to not touch the Greenbelt in the future.

The aftermath of the watchdog probes saw several high-profile resignations, including Clark and another cabinet member, Kaleed Rasheed.

The province is soon set to table legislation so future changes to the Greenbelt would have to be done through the legislature and not by regulation, as the Ford government did last November.

The opposition roundly supported the RCMP probe on Tuesday.

New Democrat Leader Marit Stiles said Ford's government is "spiralling out of control."

"It is absolutely shameful that under Premier Ford’s leadership this government has appeared to have acted so improperly that the RCMP was compelled to launch an investigation," Stiles said.

Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser also welcomed the probe. 

​"Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and we need to get to the bottom of why a handful of the premier’s friends and fundraisers were given the inside track for an $8.3-billion windfall," he said.

Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner said an RCMP investigation is key to delivering justice and accountability to Ontarians.

"I am pleased to hear that the RCMP is investigating the corrupt process that saw a few wealthy, well-connected land speculators cash in $8.3 billion on Ontario’s Greenbelt," Schreiner said. 

"The people of this province put their trust in the premier, and he chose deals for developers over everyday Ontarians."

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 10, 2023.

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