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Bypassing public hearings, debate on Ontario Place bill is undemocratic: opposition

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Ontario's Progressive Conservative government is planning to bypass key debate and public hearings on a bill to push Ontario Place redevelopment plans forward, a move the opposition parties say is undemocratic.

The legislation enacts the province's promise to take control of two Toronto highways, largely exempts Ontario Place land from further environmental assessments and heritage protections, and allows the minister of infrastructure to issue minister's zoning orders, which override local laws.

Government House Leader Paul Calandra has now proposed skipping committee hearings, which provide an opportunity for public input and normally come after a bill passes second reading, and skipping debate on the bill's third and final reading.

NDP Leader Marit Stiles said it is particularly troubling that the bill seeks to indemnify the government against claims of "misfeasance" and "bad faith."

"It's deeply concerning," she said. "There's something really wrong with that deal for Ontario Place and this government is trying to rush through new laws as quickly as they can to avoid public scrutiny."

The government's Ontario Place plan has faced opposition from some community groups and members of the public, with an underground parking garage for more than 2,000 cars paid for by the government and the long-term nature of a lease with European company Therme for a $350-million spa and waterpark facing particular criticism.

As part of Toronto's deal with the province for the upper level of government to handle costs of the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway highways, Ontario agreed to consider moving the parking lot to nearby Exhibition Place.

The government's moves on the bill also limit the participation of members not in an officially recognized party in the legislature, including the Liberals and the Greens, who were not allowed to take part in the approximately 90 minutes of debate on Calandra's motion itself.

John Fraser, the Liberals' house leader, said it silences 12 per cent of the House and the two million people who voted for those members.

"It's wrong," he said. "It's an abuse of power. And if I sound kind of exercised or angry about it, it's because I've had enough. They could have done some simple things to give people a voice in here and they didn't."

Calandra said his motion to speed up passage of the bill shouldn't be a surprise.

"It's been pretty obvious that I said months ago that we were going to use all the tools at our disposal to make sure that we moved ahead with Ontario Place," he said.

A construction crew works at Ontario Place, in Toronto, on Friday, November 3, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

The motion is set to go to a vote Tuesday.

It also seeks to speed up passage of the government's bills to reverse its changes to the Greenbelt and urban boundary expansions, though not as dramatically as the Ontario Place bill.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 4, 2023

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