TORONTO – The RCMP has launched an investigation into the Ontario government’s decision to open up parts of the protected Greenbelt for housing development.
The police force said Tuesday (Oct. 10) that its “sensitive and international investigations” unit is leading the probe.
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 Oct. 10, 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.
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 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, in a separate report, found the developers stood to see their land value increase by $8.3 billion because of the land swap.
Premier Doug Ford has apologized for the land swap and said in September that the 15 parcels of removed land would all be returned to the Greenbelt.
Ford has also previously said he is confident nothing criminal took place.
The premier’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The aftermath of the watchdog probes saw several high-profile resignations, including Clark and another cabinet member, Kaleed Rashed.
The province is soon set to table legislation so future changes to the Greenbelt would have to be done through the legislature and not done by regulation, as the Ford government did last November.
The opposition roundly supported the RCMP 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,” said interim Liberal Leader John Fraser.
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.”
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