The RCMP announced Tuesday it has launched a criminal investigation into Ontario Premier Doug Ford's plan to open up Greenbelt land for development.
"Following a referral from the Ontario Provincial Police, the RCMP O Division's Sensitive and International Investigations (SII) 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," RCMP Cpl. Christy Veenstra said in a statement Tuesday.
It added that no further updates will be provided at this time to ensure that the investigation process leads to a "fair and proper" outcome.
"While we recognize that this investigation is of significant interest to Canadians, the RCMP has a duty to protect the integrity of the investigations that it carries out."
The RCMP's sensitive and international investigations unit specializes in "sensitive, high risk matters that cause significant threats to Canada's political, economic and social integrity of its institutions across Canada and internationally," the force's website says. The squad performs political investigations that examine elected officials on allegations of fraud, financial crimes, corruption and breach of trust.
The criminal probe comes after the province removed land from the protected Greenbelt last year as part of its broader push to build 1.5 million homes by 2031. Last month, Ford walked back his plan to remove large swaths of land from the protected Greenbelt following weeks of public pressure and the resignation of two ministers. He apologized for the land swap and said the lands would all be returned to the Greenbelt.
Prior to the reversal, 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, J. David Wake, found Steve Clark, Ford's housing minister at the time, violated ethics rules. Clark resigned shortly after the commissioner's report was released.
The auditor general, Bonnie Lysyk, in a separate report, found the developers stood to see their land value increase by $8.3 billion because of the land swap.
Ford has previously said he is confident nothing criminal took place.
WATCH | Ford apologizes for controversial Greenbelt plan:
Both the integrity commissioner and the auditor general focused their probes on Clark's chief of staff at the time, Ryan Amato.
Lysyk found that more than 90 per cent of the land removed from the Greenbelt was within five sites passed on to Amato by two prominent developers he met at an industry dinner.
Wake found no evidence of developers being specifically tipped off that the government was considering Greenbelt removals — though he found one developer "questionable" on that point — but said Amato's actions and conversations with them had that effect.
Amato resigned shortly after the auditor general's report. He has previously said he did nothing wrong and declined to comment Tuesday.
"On the advice of my legal counsel it would be inappropriate for me to comment on an ongoing police investigation," Amato wrote in an email.
Government to 'fully cooperate' with investigation
The criminal probe comes after OPP said in August that the force had asked the Mounties to decide whether an investigation is warranted, in order to "avoid any potential perceived conflict of interest."
On Tuesday, Ford's office said it will "fully cooperate" with any investigation.
"We have zero tolerance for any wrongdoing and expect anyone involved in the decision-making about the Greenbelt lands to have followed the letter of the law," a statement from his office reads.
"Out of respect for the police and their process, we will not be commenting further at this time."
The province is set to soon 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.
Opposition NDP Leader Marit Stiles says she is hopeful that the RCMP investigation will "get us even more answers.
"Now we have a Premier who is under criminal investigation and a government that is spiraling out of control," Stiles said in a news conference Tuesday.
"It is absolutely shameful that under Premier Ford's leadership this government has appeared to have acted so improperly that the RCMP was compelled to launch an investigation."
WATCH | Stiles comments on RCMP criminal probe announcement:
Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, an organization that advocates for clean water, a safe climate and healthy communities, said the launch of an investigation into Ontario government's Greenbelt land swap is an "encouraging and significant development.
"It has been clear from the start that the Ontario government's removal of land to enable sprawl in the Greenbelt was a false cover story," Gray said in a news release Tuesday.
"However, the involvement of political figures and loyalties in this scandal makes the investigation and apportionment of criminal blame much more important."
Gray added that while the criminal probe is underway, "immediate action" must be taken to reverse boundary expansions and Greenbelt land removals to ensure the land is protected from further development.
Probe 'key' to delivering justice, accountability
Meanwhile, Ontario Greens leader and Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner said the probe is "key to delivering the justice and accountability Ontarians deserve.
"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," Scheiner said Tuesday.
"Ontario Greens have repeatedly called for a police investigation to repair the harm done by Ford's Greenbelt giveaway and restore Ontarians' trust. But there are still many unanswered questions that have significant implications on the way we govern in this province."
Similarly, John Fraser, interim leader of the Ontario Liberals, called the move "good news.
"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," Fraser said.
"All roads lead to the Premier's office. There is no way that in a scandal of this size, one rookie chief of staff was the mastermind behind it."
With files from The Canadian Press