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'It was a mistake': Ford reversing government's decision to open Greenbelt

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Premier Doug Ford said he will be reversing his government’s decision to open up the Greenbelt to developers, calling the controversial land removals a “mistake.”

Ford made the announcement on Thursday afternoon after meeting with his caucus at a retreat in Niagara Falls earlier in the day.

“Our caucus, they shared with me what they have heard in their communities. I want the people of Ontario to know, I’m listening. I made a promise to you that I wouldn't touch the Greenbelt. I broke that promise. And for that, I'm very, very sorry,” Ford told reporters at a news conference.

“I pride myself on keeping our promises. It was a mistake to open the Greenbelt. It was a mistake to establish a process that moved too fast.”

The premier said all lands removed from the Greenbelt will be returned and he will work with affected developers on a path forward.

READ MORE: A timeline of the key events in the Ontario Greenbelt scandal

The process involved in selecting what parcels of land would be removed from the Greenbelt left “too much room for some people to benefit over others,” Ford said.

“It caused people to question our motives. As a first step, to earn back your trust, I'll be reversing the changes we made and won't make any changes to the Greenbelt in the future,” the premier said.

“Because even if you do something for the right reasons, with the best of intentions, it can still be wrong.”

Despite this reversal, Ford still asserted that developing the Greenbelt “would have made a big difference” with respect to the housing crisis, adding tens of thousands of homes to the province’s housing stock.

“But we moved too quickly. And we made the wrong decision,” Ford added.

Last month, Ontario’s Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk released a scathing report on the government's handling of Greenbelt land removals. The report found that certain developers received “preferential treatment” and had direct influence over the government’s decision to extract lands. According to the auditor general, of the 7,400 acres of land removed from the Greenbelt by the province, 92 per cent could be tied to three developers with direct access to the housing ministry.

The owners of the 15 land sites could see more than an $8.3 billion increase to the value of their properties,” the report noted.

The report also found that there is already sufficient land available in Ontario to build much-needed housing and that there was no need to remove lands from the Greenbelt in order to meet housing targets.

Ford’s about-face comes just one day after a second cabinet minister was forced to resign in the wake of the Greenbelt scandal.

MPP Kaleed Rasheed, Ontario’s minister of public and business service delivery, resigned from his cabinet post and the PC caucus on Wednesday after records revealed contradicting accounts of a Las Vegas trip that was investigated as part of the integrity commissioner’s probe into the Greenbelt land deals.

According to the integrity commissioner, Rasheed and Amin Massoudi, the then-principal secretary to the premier, said they took a trip to Las Vegas in December 2019 and “exchanged pleasantries” with developer Shakir Rehmantullah in the lobby of a hotel. The former minister confirmed that he is friends with the developer, whose company FLATO Development is listed as the owner of two of the sites removed from the Greenbelt, but said he did not know Rehmantullah was going to be in the area at that time.

Records now show that the minister actually took the trip in February 2020 and multiple hotel employees also confirmed to CTV News Toronto that the three individuals got massages at the same time.

The trip, the minister’s office said, was originally planned for December 2019 but had to be moved due to scheduling conflicts. The original date was mistakenly shared with the integrity commissioner, staff claimed.

Rasheed has said he resigned to avoid being a distraction to the “important work of the government” and added that he is looking forward to “taking the steps required” to clear his name.

The premier’s office said if the integrity commissioner clears Rasheed, he will be “provided an opportunity to return to caucus.” He will sit as an independent until that time.

Rasheed's resignation comes weeks after Ontario Housing Minister Steve Clark stepped down after Ontario’s integrity commissioner found he violated ethics rules in his role overseeing the Greenbelt land removals.

When asked whether he should face any consequences for his decisions surrounding the Greenbelt, Ford said he has admitted his mistake.

“Leadership shows if you make a mistake, you come out and admit it, you tell the people what you are going to correct it and make sure it happens. That’s what I’ve done,” Ford said.

“I’m the first to admit, I’m not perfect but every intention I have… is the right intention.”

As for a possible RCMP investigation on his government’s handling of Greenbelt land removals, Ford said he doesn’t “get involved in any police investigation at all.”

“They have a job to do. I’m going to continue moving forward to build homes for the people of Ontario,” he added.

Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles called the reversal “a victory for Ontarians.”

“It was clear from the beginning that this was the wrong decision, and yet Ford’s Conservatives pressed on. It was a calculated attempt by this government to benefit a select few of their insiders at the expense of everyone else,” Stiles said in a written statement.

This was echoed by Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser, who also released a statement following Ford’s announcement.

"The decision to return all lands to the Greenbelt is a good one, and one that Ontario Liberals have called for since the Conservatives chose to sell off our protected lands to a group of PC Party insiders. But Ontarians still need to get to the bottom of this $8.3 billion backroom deal. The questions we had this morning are still the same questions we have now,” Fraser said.

" How much will this flip flop cost taxpayers when the landowners ask for compensation, and how were a handful of rich insiders, and Doug Ford's personal friends and fundraisers, able to direct the government to give them an $8.3 billion payday?”

At Thursday’s news conference, the premier said he could not yet provide any details about the price tag associated with the reversal, saying only that the housing minister is “working through those details.” He promised to make that information public when it is available.

Asked if legal action could be pending from developers, Ford said he “can’t predict the future.”

“My main goal is to work with the builders, because they are part of the solution,” he said.

“I can’t determine what the builders are going to do.”

-With files from CTV News Toronto’s Katherine DeClerq and Jon Woodward

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