Billion-dollar land deals in Ontario raise corruption suspicions

Hundreds of environmental advocates and some politicians gathered outside the Pickering office of Ontario’s Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy to register outrage over last week’s auditor general’s report on planned Greenbelt development. Protesters at the rally organized by Stop Sprawl Durham, criticized the Ford government’s decision to build housing on a portion of the protected Greenbelt as a scam and symbol of corruption. Those who attended demanded accountability and said all those involved should resign.

The report by Auditor general Bonnie Lysyk found some areas chosen for development were handpicked by a political staffer and favoured three major developers. It also concluded the land wasn’t needed to meet Ontario’s housing needs.

“It is a huge corruption scandal,” said John Smith, resident of Barrie, Ont., who attended the rally with his wife Pat Smith. “There are a handful of developers that are going to get rich with this number on the report, around 8 billion dollars, and the rest of us are losing farmland, wetland and animal species and it is just an awful thing.”

Lysyk’s report stated owners of all 15 land sites removed from the Greenbelt could ultimately see their property values increase by more than $8.3 billion.

Premier Doug Ford and the minister of municipal affairs and housing Steve Clark told Lysyk they were unaware the land chosen for removal was controlled by Clark’s chief of staff Ryan Amato.

The Smiths called for accountability and transparency in political decisions.

“There was a time when politicians caught doing something like this would feel ashamed and resign. Nowadays, they issue statements and proceed as if nothing happened. It’s disheartening.”

Some of Ford’s political opponents also attended the rally in full offence mode.

“This is a huge scam! “, said NDP MPP Sandy Shaw. Doug Ford literally called the Greenbelt a scam,” she noted. But the real scam is that this government is using housing as an excuse to enrich developers.

Protesters at a rally Sunday criticized the Ontario government’s decision to build housing on a portion of the protected Greenbelt as a scam and called on Premier Doug Ford to resign. #Greenbelt #OBpoli

Judy Mann, who lives in Pickering, said she is deeply concerned and saddened that the mechanisms currently in place for democracy are not being honored. Photo by Abdul Matin Sarfraz for Canada’s National Observer.

Last Wednesday, Ford acknowledged mistakes were made. “We were moving fast. We could have had a better process. As the premier, the buck stops with me and I take full responsibility for the need for a better process,” he said.

Shaw wasn’t buying it. This premier needs to be accountable, and so many people are out here because they are demanding accountability, she added. “ Nobody is buying that line that he didn’t know! How is it possible the premier of the province of Ontario doesn’t know how this massive decision was made? No one believes that at all!

Shaw said the minister of municipal affairs and housing Steve Clark should resign or be fired, and all the land returned to the Greenbelt and protected.

Marianne Ekubor, an environmental activist from Scarborough, ON, stressed the significance of tracing the financial trail to understand the motivation behind the decision.

Ekubor said she doesn’t believe any chief of staff operates on their own and would have the power to make such important decisions. “I think they all follow the directions, and the directions come from Doug Ford, and that is what I personally think. None of them can say, ‘I don’t know,’ or that they are operating on their own.”

Judy Mann, who lives in Pickering, said she is deeply concerned and saddened that the mechanisms currently in place for democracy are not being honored. “This situation is very disheartening, and it makes me angry. It feels quite suspicious and definitely gives off a sense of corruption. We are diligently conducting our due diligence to bring these issues to the surface. So, this is about democracy as well as ensuring that we all have a good place to live,” Mann added.

Mann came to the rally carrying a huge representation of a red-sided dace, an endangered tiny fish. She told Canada’s National Observer that these fish predominantly inhabit wetlands, primarily in Ontario, including Rouge National Urban Park. “If they are thriving, it signifies that our water system is also thriving! That’s how essential they are for all of us,” said Mann. Unfortunately, their existence will be jeopardized by development in the withdrawn area of the previously protected Greenbelt, she added.

At a news conference last week after the report’s release, Ford, accompanied by Clark, promised his administration would accept and act on 14 of its 15 recommendations. However, he refused to backtrack on the core decision to remove the Greenbelt lands for housing, saying the need for housing is crucial for Ontario.

This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights for the Afghan Journalists-in-Residence program funded by the Meta Journalism Project.

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