This past weekend, David Crombie, a former mayor of Toronto and cabinet minister in Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government, resigned in anger as chair of the Ontario government’s Greenbelt Council.
Crombie was protesting measures the Ford Conservatives slipped into their most recent budget implementation bill, which, the former mayor says, endanger the environment. Half the members of the council quickly followed their chair’s example.
The Ontario government designated the Greenbelt in 2005, in densely populated and industrialized southern Ontario. It consists of two million acres of protected agricultural land, forest, wetland, lakes and rivers.
The belt surrounds the Golden Horseshoe of greater Toronto, Hamilton, and Niagara, extending as far east as Peterborough, and runs along the Niagara escarpment as far north as Georgian Bay.
Among the environments the Greenbelt designation protects are the Oak Ridges Moraine, a giant glacier-created water filter measuring160 kilometres from east to west, and the fertile Holland Marsh, north of greater Toronto. In 2017, Kathleen Wynne’s government expanded the Greenbelt to include 21 urban river valleys and seven coastal wetlands.
Crombie objects to what is called Schedule 6 of the Doug Ford government’s most recent budget bill. It would severely weaken the capacity of the province’s conservation authorities to regulate and control development on vital watersheds.
There are 36 conservation authorities across Ontario. Their official mandate is to “undertake watershed-based programs to protect people and property from flooding and other natural hazards, and to conserve natural resources for economic, social and environmental benefits.”
Among the authorities’ key objectives are to ensure Ontario’s water resources are safeguarded, to protect woodlands and wetlands, and to connect people to the natural environment.
Control over construction projects on protected lands
Conservation authorities have long had a central role in regulating development, together with municipalities and the provincial government. Ontario’s Conservation Authorities Act gives these bodies significant powers to protect rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands and entire watersheds.
Those powers include the right to prevent private interests from diverting, straightening, changing or interfering with the “existing channel of a river, creek, stream or watercourse.” They also include the capacity to prohibit or regulate construction projects that might jeopardize fragile and valuable environments.
The changes to the act in the Ford government’s 2020 budget bill eviscerate conservation authorities’ powers.
The budget bill shifts regulatory power from the non-partisan environmental stewards at the authorities to partisan politicians (and the private interests that finance their campaigns).
A key provision of the budget bill gives Ontario cabinet ministers the untrammeled capacity to issue permits for major projects in sensitive environmental areas, in effect overriding the conservation authorities.
In a letter to Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark, David Crombie says the proposed legislative changes contribute to “a growing public concern that the end result will be a widening of the path of political influence on behalf of special interests.”
The government showed its hand earlier this year when it issued what is called a ministerial zoning order (MZO) to allow a project that will destroy a wetland in Pickering, east of Toronto, to go ahead. Indigenous groups joined local communities and those concerned with conservation to protest that decision.
Many were relieved at Ford’s reasonable approach to COVID-19
At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, late last winter, many feared that Doug Ford would act like a northern Donald Trump. They worried Ford would be as suspicious of science, hostile to any actions that threatened any businesses short term profits, and as arrogantly confident as the infantile U.S. president that he knew better than the experts.
Those fears were not borne out by events. Ford did not channel Trump’s erratic and irrational reaction to the massive public health crisis. Instead, he took, overall, a reasonable, even compassionate approach.
The majority of Ontarians — and many other Canadians — breathed a sigh of relief. It was comforting to have an adult in power at Queen’s Park, and not the tantrum-throwing baby in the White House.
But, as the French say, “Chassez le naturel, il revient au galop” — which, roughly translated, means a leopard will never truly change its spots. Ford could not stop from being who he is at heart.
When he came to office in 2018, it was, in right-wing commentator Rex Murphy’s words, as a “slayer of carbon taxes.”
Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson ascribed Ford’s victory to a revolt of the suburban car-commuters, tired of being lectured about their environmentally damaging way of life. In the same vein, when Ford’s brother Rob won the race for mayor of Toronto almost his first words were: “The war on the car is over!”
Following his accession to the premiership, Doug Ford quickly joined three other premiers in a court challenge to the federal government’s price on carbon. He even forced gas stations to post a political message next to every pump, which told motorists what proportion of the cost of gas went to the federal carbon tax.
Those propaganda stickers conveniently failed to mention that the federal government returns the carbon tax money to Ontarians in many environmentally-friendly forms. The stickers also said not a word about how Ontario could reduce its climate warming greenhouse gas emissions.
Ford never denied the human causes of a warming planet, in so many words. Nor did he ever say he believed any serious concern for the environment was hogwash and hooey.
But he acted as though that is what he believed.
He abolished the Ontario environment commissioner’s job, right after she had issued a damning report, and inveighed against the downtown elites who were hostile to cars and, the premier claimed, wanted to put a halt to economic growth. Ontario was open for business, full stop, Doug Ford proclaimed.
At the same time, Ford showed an arrogant contempt for democracy when he arbitrarily reduced the number of seats on Toronto’s city council, mere months before the municipal election.
In this case, he was candid about his motive. He wanted to get rid of some of those elitist downtown left-wingers who sit on Toronto’s city council. Doug Ford did not hide his vindictive goal of revenge on municipal rivals who had made life hard for his late brother Rob when he was mayor.
Anti-environment and anti-democracy too
All in all, in his first 18 months as premier, Ford quite enthusiastically played the role of right-wing populist — although, Ontarians being the inveterate moderates they are, did not always approve. They forced the premier to back down on some of his friskier initiatives.
The COVID-19 crisis changed all that. It gave Ford a choice: carry on with his divisive and passive-aggressive leadership style or quickly acquire an unaccustomed measure of political maturity. He chose the latter.
However, it seems there is only so much a leader can change in himself.
Not too long ago, Ford attached a gratuitous provision forbidding municipal governments from using ranked-ballot elections to a completely unrelated piece of legislation. That was not quite as outrageous as Ford’s peremptory circumcision of Toronto’s city council. But it also came out of nowhere, without discussion or forewarning, and did not appear to have any greater motive than spite.
Now, Ford is using budgetary legislation notionally designed to deal with the COVID-19 crisis to hobble long-standing land-use practices and decision-making.
Ford and his government have not even tried to provide reasons for the big changes to which David Crombie and every single conservation authority object. Instead, the Ford-ites try to bluff their way through.
Nothing to see here, folks, is their message. We love Ontario’s precious wetlands and waterways, they claim, and will do nothing to endanger them. Their actions tell a contrary story.
And, as for the howls of protest from a respected figure such as David Crombie — well, on that, the Ford government’s response is more than a bit Trump-like. The former mayor only has a few months left in his mandate, they tell us, adding that they had been planning to replace him all along.
Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.