Can anyone stop Ontario's Greenbelt land swap from going ahead? Here's what we know

Potential court challenges to the Doug Ford government's Greenbelt policies are up in the air until either the government or developers move to start construction. That's why advocates say it's up to residents and other levels of government to get involved while other authority figures probe the government's decision further.

Advocates say pushback from other governments, residents could push Ontario to reverse course

An above shot of a swath of green land, running water and piles of stones.
Aerial photos of areas in Duffins Rouge Greenbelt identified by Doug Ford's government as land targeted for development. (Patrick Morrell/CBC News)

After a scathing auditor general's report that found Ontario's decision to open up protected Greenbelt lands for housing was heavily influenced by a small group of developers who now stand to make billions, the big question is: Can anyone stop the controversial land swap from going ahead?

Parts of the Greenbelt, a vast 810,000-hectare area of farmland, forest and wetland from Niagara Falls to Peterborough were opened to development in a bid to get more housing built late last year. 

Following the report by Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk that found "the process was biased in favour of certain developers and landowners," Premier Doug Ford said his government would accept and implement 14 of 15 total recommendations.

The single recommendation Ford said his government won't accept is to revisit the land swaps and possibly reverse those decisions. Ford said the land will be used to build 50,000 homes desperately needed to help ease the province's housing crisis. 

So what happens next? And is the land swap a done deal? Here's what we know. 

What's underway?

One watchdog and one criminal authority are already involved. 

Ontario's integrity commissioner, who has the power to recommend disciplinary measures on public servants, is considering a request to investigate if the housing minister's chief of staff, Ryan Amato, broke any ethics rules connected to the province's choice of Greenbelt land to open for development. 

That's on top of an ongoing investigation into the Greenbelt land swaps at the request of NDP Leader Marit Stiles, who asked the office to look into the "curious timing" of developers' Greenbelt land purchases and whether they had been tipped off by Housing Minister Steve Clark ahead of the government's announcement.

WATCH: Well-connected developers influenced housing staffer on Greenbelt plan: AG 

Ontario Greenbelt plan influenced by well-connected developers, AG says

4 months ago
Duration 2:03
Featured VideoOntario's Auditor General says a land swap in the protected Greenbelt was heavily influenced by well-connected developers without considering environmental impacts or properly engaging the public.

Both Ford and Clark have denied they had any knowledge of how Amato and his team were selecting sites for removal from the Greenbelt. 

Meanwhile, the Ontario Provincial Police, which can lay criminal charges and has access to broader investigative tools the auditor general doesn't, says it's still reviewing whether or not there's enough evidence to launch a full investigation.

What about other levels of government?

Municipalities can stall developments by refusing to re-zone land still largely zoned for agricultural uses. They can also refuse any development applications made to local councils, said Tim Gray, the executive director of advocacy group Environmental Defence.

Environmental Defence, part of the Alliance for a Liveable Ontario, a coalition of advocacy groups, is working with municipalities that have spoken against the Greenbelt changes, such as Hamilton, to "not cooperate in any way," according to Gray.

Two photos show two men looking into the camera for a photo.
Franz Hartmann, left, is the coordinator of the Alliance for a Liveable Ontario, a coalition of advocacy groups, and Tim Gray, right, is the executive director of the group Environmental Defence. They say they're hoping Ontarians will push back against the Ford government's decision to open up Greenbelt land for development. (Franz Hartmann and Environmental Defence)

The federal government could play a role in areas where it has jurisdiction.

One example is Rouge National Urban Park, which is adjacent to a swath of Greenbelt land opened for development. At a new conference on Thursday, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault said staff will be looking at the auditor general's report and any elements that touch on the federal government's environmental impact assessment study on development happening around the park. 

"We will be looking at those very closely," said Guilbeault. 

If that doesn't lead to any action, Gray says the federal minister can enact an emergency order under the federal Species at Risk Act that would make it so the province and developers would have "no choice" but to comply.

What about the courts?

Potential court challenges are up in the air until either the Ontario government or developers move to start construction on lands that previously belonged to the Greenbelt, says Gray.

Environmental Defence has people "on the ground" watching for the movement of trucks and heavy equipment and are ready to go to court if there's an opportunity, he added.

When that might happen or what it might look like isn't yet clear. 

"They're going to try and move very quickly," said Gray. 

Does the public have a role to play?

Some advocates say pushback from the public could pressure the Ford government to reverse course.

On Friday however, Ford told reporters he will not back away from plans to build on the protected Greenbelt, adding no one received preferential treatment in the process, despite Lysyk's report. 

Franz Hartmann, the co-ordinator for the Alliance for a Liveable Ontario, says it's up to residents to contact their MPPs, push them to recall legislature early and return the lands that were removed as police investigate.

"As Ontarians, residents and citizens, it's our duty to speak up," said Hartmann.

"Our job is to let our elected officials know we do not accept this."

Trevor Farrow, a professor at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School, said not only does the auditor general's report call into question the government's choice to remove environmental protections during a climate crisis, it shakes public trust in the way the government operates.

Headshot of Steve Clark.
Steve Clark, Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, addresses members of the media at Queens Park in Toronto on Oct. 25, 2022. Clark has said he wants to work with municipalities to reach their housing targets. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"People need to be able to trust choices and processes," said Farrow.

"If the auditor general is calling into serious question how any government makes choices around zoning, planning and bylaws, what's to say that everyone else will still play by the rules?"

Ford has already admitted his government followed a flawed process in a bid to quickly get housing development off the ground. Farrow says that acknowledgement can help restore faith in the government. 

The next step, he says, should be to either slow down or stop any developments until the public "can get their head around" what's at stake — something the Ford government has said it wouldn't do. 

"It's so important for all public figures and quite frankly for everyone to have justice and policy not only done, but be seen to be done," said Farrow, "so we can continue to trust in the public institutions that are so important for the running of society and democracy itself."


Vanessa Balintec is a reporter for CBC Toronto who likes writing stories about labour, equity and community. She previously worked for stations in New Brunswick and Kitchener-Waterloo. You can reach her at and on Twitter at @vanessabalintec.