Premier Doug Ford on Thursday denied that staff in his office discussed changes to the Greenbelt months before the date he's maintained was when non-partisan ministry staff recommended them, despite the publication of a news story suggesting the opposite.
The Narwhal published a story earlier on Thursday citing documents they obtained via freedom-of-information requests that it said show a senior staffer in Ford's office forwarded an email and an attachment to colleagues in the premier's office on Aug. 23, 2022, which "casts doubt" on the government's explanation about how it decided what land to remove.
Ford and Housing Minister Steve Clark have each upheld that they learned which properties would be removed from the Greenbelt shortly before their announcement on Nov. 4, 2022. They've also repeatedly said the lands were selected by public servants.
"I just want to say categorically, no, it wasn't discussed (months earlier)," Ford said, responding to a Trillium reporter's question at an unrelated media event in Brampton.
"There is nothing wrong that happened here," Ford said, responding to a followup question on what's preventing the government from releasing the document. Ford did not address the point of the question. Documents cited by the Narwhal were "heavily redacted," due to cabinet secrecy, and other limitations allowed by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, its story said.
Ontario's integrity commissioner and auditor general are both investigating the Greenbelt changes made last fall by the Ford government, which were to the benefit of multiple developers with personal and political connections to the premier and the PC Party, whose companies also bought certain removed land parcels since Ford was elected in 2018. Each oversight office has powers that can be used to access many otherwise closely guarded government documents.
A couple of hours before Ford took reporters' questions on Thursday, NDP Leader Marit Stiles tried wedging the government in question period to respond to the report.
"What was the exact date when (the premier) was made aware of this Greenbelt proposal?" Stiles asked with her opening question.
Although Ford was in the legislative chamber, Government House Leader Paul Calandra answered for him, as he has through much of the Greenbelt controversy ignited last November.
"I think the premier and the minister of municipal affairs and housing have been very clear on that, and they have, of course, worked with the (integrity) commissioner on this," Calandra said.
Stiles also asked if any developers were tipped off, and if the government would release all records related to the Greenbelt land swap. Calandra budged neither time, giving similar answers to each.
On Wednesday, a day earlier, Dave Wilkes, president of the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD), said his organization became aware of the Ford government's Greenbelt rearrangement "when it was announced."
Multiple of BILD's member organizations own land that was removed from the Greenbelt last fall. Wilkes also said his organization didn't — and does not — advocate on behalf of any specific developers, but only the homebuilding industry in the Greater Toronto Area as a whole.
Wilkes briefly spoke to The Trillium after appearing at a committee meeting on Clark's latest housing legislation, Bill 97.
The Ford government's justification for its Greenbelt changes has been that they'll facilitate necessary housing construction, which it's requiring on the removed land.
—With files from Aidan Chamandy.