Ontario government staff used ‘code words’ when talking about Greenbelt, NDP alleges

Doug Ford government staff used “code words” when talking about removing land from the Green Belt, Ontario’s Official Opposition alleges.

The claim was made after thousands of pages of documents were obtained through a freedom of information request. Among the documents were emails sent by Ryan Amato, former chief of staff to then-Housing Minister Steve Clark, who has been widely named as the decision-maker who chose the 15 sites that were removed from the Green Belt.

The NDP says terms like “G” and “Special Project” were found in several records, including in correspondence between the ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office.

An earlier email, also obtained by the NDP and made public in January, showed that an email with the subject “Special Project – GB” was sent to the personal email address of Patrick Sackville, the prime minister’s principal secretary. Sackville is now Ford’s chief of staff.

The new documents show that terms such as “G” and “SP” were used multiple times to refer to the policy change.

Speaking at Queen’s Park, NDP Leader Marit Stiles said that while it might be “nice shorthand,” she believes it has a larger meaning.

“It means that a search on Mr. Amato’s account using the term ‘Greenbelt’ would not return those particular emails. It means that replacing the word ‘green belt’ with ‘G*’ is evidence of an intention to conceal, as if someone was trying to cover their tracks.”

In the 3,776 pages of documents the NDP obtained, they say the terms “special project” appeared 36 times and “SP” appeared 44 times.

Screenshot of an email sent by Ryan Amato on October 6, 2022 regarding the Greenbelt development. (PND)

Stiles questioned the government about whether or not code words were used to evade public scrutiny.

Government House Leader and current Housing Minister Paul Calandra dodged these questions, saying the integrity commissioner and auditor general had already published a report on the decision to remove land from the Green Belt.

Both the provincial integrity commissioner and the auditor general found that the government’s decision to carve up parts of the Green Belt for development favored certain developers with access to ministry staff. They also found there was a significant lack of transparency and consultation.

During the investigation, it was discovered that some political staffers were also forwarding emails from lobbyists and other external parties from their personal email accounts.

Amato resigned from his position shortly after the auditor general’s report was published. Clark also resigned from his cabinet position following both reports.

The Ford government reversed its decision to develop the Green Belt months later, saying any future changes to its boundaries would be made through a “public and transparent process that would require legislative approval.”

The legislation also included liability protections for those who acted “in good faith.”

The RCMP is investigating “allegations associated with the Province of Ontario’s decision to open portions of the Green Belt for development.”

Little information has been released so far about the specific allegations under review; However, the RCMP said its provincial International and Sensitive Investigations Unit is leading the investigation.

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