The Ontario government is under fire after six more members of Premier Doug Ford’s Greenbelt Council resigned over the weekend in protest of legislation they say is “a blatant assault on conservation.”
The exodus follows the resignation of council chair David Crombie on Saturday, and comes as the government is set to push through controversial changes to the Conservation Authorities Act. The amendments contained in the omnibus budget bill limit the role in the development approvals process of Ontario’s 36 conservation authorities, which are mandated to ensure the responsible management of water, land and natural habitats.
Council member Deborah Martin-Downs said in her resignation letter to Minister of Municipal Affairs Steve Clark on Sunday that the government “does not value the role that conservation authorities play in public safety and environmental quality.”
“I believed that being ‘in the tent’ was valuable and that I could contribute to good public policy that makes Ontario great,” said Martin-Downs, who is the chief administrative officer of Credit Valley Conservation.
“However, it is now clear that the government’s direction … is a blatant assault on conservation, the environment and transparent governance.”
In her resignation letter to Clark, council member Lynn Morrow said the amendments, combined with a recent “proliferation” of minister’s zoning orders which allow the minister to override local planning rules, “represent a reckless gutting of land use and watershed planning in Ontario.”
A remaining council member, Marcy Burchfield, told the Star late Sunday that if the government passes the budget bill with Schedule 6, which contains the controversial amendments to the Conservation Authorities Act, attached, “I will have no choice but to resign.”
“Conservation authorities play a key role in balancing environmental protection and economic growth,” said Burchfield, who is vice-president of the Economic Blueprint Institute at the Toronto Region Board of Trade. “Schedule 6 threatens that balance.”
In an interview, Clark told the Star he has become “increasingly frustrated” with the advisory council.
“I wanted to work with the council to grow the Greenbelt … and I just could never seem to get the council to take me up on my offer to work collaboratively,” he said.
Clark pushed back against criticism that the amendments will limit the ability of conservation authorities to assess the environmental impact of developments and will force them to issue permits on environmentally sensitive lands across the province. He said there is “ample opportunity for discussion” between municipal councils and conservation authorities before a minister’s zoning order is issued.
“I have all the confidence in the world that conservation authorities can put (in) the conditions they see fit,” he said, adding that none of the changes “provide any opportunity to provide minister’s zoning orders in the Greenbelt.”
Clark said he has made a point of attending the council’s meetings in recent months, and has been “disappointed to read in the media first” letters from the council expressing concerns.
“I felt that by sitting at the table with them, or on the zoom call with them, that I was signalling the goodwill as minister to work with them,” he said.
But Kevin Eby, who resigned from the Greenbelt Council on Saturday, said in an interview that “we tried really hard to provide the ministry with the best advice we could.”
“We found it unfortunate that we were trying to react to things that were out there instead of them coming to us, and using us as a sounding board,” said Eby, who is the former director of community planning for the Region of Waterloo. “That makes it so much more difficult.”
Crombie, who is a former Toronto major and federal cabinet minister, has previously told the Star that letters sent by the advisory council to the minister have always been public.
On Sunday, Crombie said he met with the council before he resigned to tell members he was planning to step down and about “what the government was now bent on doing,” referring to additional amendments he believes further gut environmental protections and “limit public discussion.”
He added that “the opportunity is still there” for the government to withdraw Schedule 6 from the budget bill.
“If they don’t, then we are committed … to join all the many other people across the province who are concerned,” Crombie said. “From our point of view, the fight goes on.”
The other council members tendered resignations this weekend were Leith Moore, Pamela Blais and Wayne Caldwell. Linda Pim, an environmental biologist and land use planner, resigned from the council in early November in protest over the province’s decision to issue an minister’s zoning order for a development that will destroy a provincially significant wetland in Pickering.
In a statement on Sunday, Peter Tabuns, NDP energy and climate crisis critic, said the seven resignations this weekend “should be seen as the sounding of a massive warning alarm.”
“Ford’s attacks will have serious consequences for our climate and our environment. Once again, we call on Ford to reverse these changes and stop his plans to let developers attack the environment,” he said.
In response, Clark said a minister’s zoning order is “not driven by a developer, it’s driven by the local council.”
Adam Wilson, communications director for the housing minister, declined to comment on Burchfield’s possible resignation. Speaking to the Star earlier in the day, Clark said he was “encouraged” by conversations he had on Sunday with remaining members of the Greenbelt Council, as well as potential members. He noted that several of the members who resigned this weekend, including Crombie, had tenures that were set to expire in the coming months.
With files from Jim Rankin