A prominent developer and philanthropist told CTV News Toronto on Friday that his well-timed proposal to get land out of the province’s protected Greenbelt began years before the flawed process that has scandalized Queens Park.
That was a repeat of what Shakir Rematullah told the province’s Integrity Commissioner — an explanation J. David Wake found “strains credulity” because it didn’t answer questions about why that older proposal suddenly jump-started precisely when ministry staff were looking for properties.
Wake wrote in his report that while he can’t make a finding as to who tipped off Rematullah to ask for his land to be removed — one of more than a dozen lands that the Auditor General found raised property values for a connected few by $8.3 billion — but believes there is a tipster out there.
“On the evidence, I am unable to make a definitive finding as to what or who prompted Mr. Rehmatullah in the Fall of 2022 to take the steps he did to request that his small piece of land and the land of two of his fellow members of a landowners group be removed from the Greenbelt. But I find it is more likely than not that someone did,” Wake wrote.
Wake noted that Rematullah and Ontario Premier Doug Ford are self-described friends and that he attended the premier’s daughter’s stag and doe, and wedding in the summer of 2022. But Wake said there are other possibilities, and he isn’t ready to draw any conclusions.
“For some, the fact that he was the only developer who had lands removed from the Greenbelt who attended the premier’s daughter’s wedding is probably enough to point the finger at the premier. But this fanciful connection is not sufficient for me to leap to that conclusion,” he said.
In a statement, the premier’s press secretary said, “The Integrity Commissioner clearly stated in his report that the Premier, and the Premier’s office, had no involvement in the process or of specific site selection.”
Rematullah is the founder of Flato Developments, Inc., which its website says is in the midst of building several projects of apartments and townhomes in the Greater Toronto Area. He has given multi-million dollar donations to area hospitals, and photos show him and Ford together at the announcements.
A photograph of Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Shakir Rematullah. (Supplied)
In a video posted to Flato’s website, Rematullah can be seen wearing a hard hat and strolling through a neighbourhood.
“When I’m on the site, I envision homes, buildings, that’s what we have to dream about. Then we have to bring that dream into reality,” Rematullah says.
As part of a regular review of protected land in 2017, Rematullah said he applied to get a property on McCowan Road and 19th Avenue in Markham out of the province’s protected Greenbelt, which is land preserved for agriculture and to prevent urban sprawl.
Wake found five years after that, Rematullah had a hand in a flurry of proposals for that property as well as two others nearby in September and October 2022.
In letters to housing ministry staff, some to former chief of staff Ryan Amato, lawyers from Dentons wrote one phrase repeatedly: “We understand this information was requested by the ministry.”
But Wake could find no contact records from anyone at the ministry. When asked by the integrity commissioner, Rematullah said he believed his lawyers got the information. His lawyers told Wake they were following his instructions.
In a second interview with Wake, Rematullah said he had filed a freedom of information request. But Wake found that the request hadn’t returned by the time those proposals were sent.
“Mr. Rematullah told me repeatedly that he believes it is just the normal course of business to ask consultants to keep submitting on our behalf, and the 2022 request was simply following up onto 2015-2017 request. He denied that anyone connected to government let him know the government was considering changes to the Greenbelt boundary,” Wake wrote.
That’s a position Rematullah reiterated to CTV News Toronto in an emailed statement on Friday.
“With regards to a small portion of the land removed from the Greenbelt, it is important to clarify that this request was made to the province in 2017. One of the best ways to build housing in Ontario is to maximize infrastructure investment we already have in place and our intention was to do that so we could provide more housing for people in Ontario,” Rematullah wrote.
He didn’t respond to follow-up questions from CTV News. That position was one that Wake took issue with in his report.
“Given that there had been no Greenbelt removal submissions for five years since the conclusion of the 2015-2017 review and given the timing of the current submissions while Mr. Amato was engaged in gathering properties for removal, I find that Mr. Rehmatullah’s position strains credulity,” Wake wrote.
Ian Stedman, an assistant professor of Canadian public law and governance at York University, who worked in the integrity commissioner’s office until 2014, said there would likely be further reports that would attempt to answer more questions.
“I hope we’re going to see the next report come out… I’m hoping what he’s signalling to us is, ‘Sit tight, I’ve got a whole other investigation,’” Stedman said.
“How much of this is insider dealing? How much of this is preferential treatment? That’s what we’re hoping to learn,” he said.
Markham councillor Karen Rea said she believes there are still too many questions — and can’t understand why the government isn’t just putting the land in question back in the Greenbelt and refocusing on other priorities.
“It’s not going to go away,” she said. “Do an inquiry into what happened, put the land back in, and let’s move on.”