Ontario Premier Doug Ford unveils infrastructure development project with developers in Ottawa.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford unveils infrastructure development project. Credit: Premier of Ontario Photography / Flickr Credit: Premier of Ontario Photography / Flickr

If it looks like a conspiracy and walks and talks like one, what do we call it? Yet the word has nowhere been used about Doug and the developers. How so?

In the 1990s, long before the Greenbelt was created in 2005 and put off limits to development, they were buying up pieces of it. They continued buying despite it, that’s what they do. You buy when and where land is cheap, then apply pressure to change the rules so values rise. Then you build or sell. You’re patient and predatory at the same time. And along came Doug Ford.

In November 2022, the premier said he’d open the Greenbelt to building, reversing his reversal during the 2018 election when he said he’d preserve it, after the leak of a video in which he told developers they’d finally get their mitts on it.

At the September 2022 Builders’ Ball, two developers had given housing minister Steve Clark’s chief of staff files itemizing which tracts of the Greenbelt to remove and make available for building. Later, parts of their briefs were, says Ontario’s auditor general, “copied and pasted” into documents that became law. It sounds brazen and amateurish, as if they never expected anyone to compare the wording. Or perhaps it’s common, though rarely noted.

MPAC, the board that decides what our houses are worth for tax purposes, says those changes added $8.3 billion to the worth of those few parcels of land. One site shot up by $6.3 billion. Is it so hard to believe that guys in government who made those leaps possible, believed that somewhere down the line they’d benefit? Have you heard of the revolving door between government and business?

One developer’s family, plus staff, gave at least $294,000 to Doug’s party since 2014, plus a pittance to other parties. (For purposes of cover and future opportunities, I’d submit, m’lawd.) At a wedding, the housing minister’s gofer sat at a table with two main developers of the Greenbelt lands.

Is there a smoking gun here? You mean literally? No. But there’s an arsenal of metaphorical, circumstantial pistols. It’s like those post-election debate “analyses” where pundits say a candidate was still standing at the end because no one landed a knockout blow. That’s metaphor run amok. To call a winner, you’d literally need one candidate to punch another who collapses on the floor.

Sure, it’s low-level corruption and sleaze, not grandiose and hi-tech, like arms makers in the U.S. But it’s Doug’s comfort zone. He’s the guy, when he was in the family business, who came in at the end of a deal to glad hand. Developers are the absolute clichés of the corruption world.

You could see it at his press conference after the recent report. Housing Minister Clark simply took charge. He interrupted and talked over Doug. That never happens elsewhere. Everyone defers to the boss. The evident disrespect makes you wonder what happens in private. Does everyone steamroll this guy?

It may also throw light (or shade) on some of Doug’s other policies, like giving mayors strong powers. It’s a lot easier for developers to move one mayor than an entire council, who might oppose them. Pickering’s council backed developing the Greenbelt for years, but recently reversed its position.

True, this is speculation, but based on facts. And speculation is also what developers do, though it’s a poor term when you think about it. It implies too passive a stance. They don’t just look around and buy some stuff that’s cheap now but might appreciate. They go all-out making it appreciate.

They’ve been buying for decades in the area of the Greenbelt. They went through ups and downs but never ceased applying pressure in places like Pickering and Queen’s Park to relent on the “easements” that prevented building on plots they’d snatched up at low prices. With Doug, they hit the jackpot.

You don’t have to call it conspiracy if it makes you queasy. But it’s surely conspiracy-ish.

This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.