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Will the Ontario Greenbelt RCMP investigation lead to jail time? Top questions answered

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An investigation has been launched by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) into the Ontario government’s decision to open up parts of the Greenbelt for development.

Here’s what you need to know:

What is the RCMP investigating?

The RCMP confirmed Tuesday that it is looking into “allegations associated to the decision from the Province of Ontario to open parts of the Greenbelt for development.”

Little information has been released so far about the specific allegations being reviewed; however the RCMP did say it’s provincial Sensitive and International Investigations Unit is the one leading the investigation.

According to the RCMP’s website, this unit probes “high risk matters that cause significant threats to Canada's political, economic and social integrity of its institutions across Canada and internationally.” This can include investigations into elected officials on allegations of fraud, financial crimes, corruption and breach of trust.

“It’s as serious as it sounds,” Michael Kempa, associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, told CTV News Toronto.

“The main concern, it seems to me on this file, is in the area of breach of trust. So that's where elected officials abuse their position, either by giving out patronage appointments or favorable contracts or insider information that could prove profitable to their friends and donors elsewhere in civil society or in the marketplace in the corporate sphere.”

Why are they investigating the Greenbelt?

Two summer reports by the auditor general and integrity commissioner found that a lack of supervision and leadership led to certain developers with ties to the housing ministry gaining an advantage when the province decided to open up 15 sites of the Greenbelt for development.

Prior to these reports, allegations were made that some developers were tipped off ahead of time and benefited financially from their relationship with the Progressive Conservative government.

The owners of the 15 land sites chosen through this process could see more than an $8.3 billion increase to the values of their properties.

What is the timeline like for an RCMP investigation?

The timeline for the investigation is unclear as it depends on what is uncovered.

“The RCMP have a big job ahead of them,” CTV News Public Safety Analyst Chris Lewis says.

“There's so many moving parts of this. I mean, some documents within government have to be kept for a certain amount of time, so those will be seized at some point through whatever legal means. People need to be interviewed. They don't have to cooperate,” he said. “Some people may not be in government anymore.”

Kempa told CTV News Toronto that at minimum, the investigation will take a couple of months.

What are the potential legal consequences?

“The RCMP has not disclosed yet what potential charges may be forthcoming,” Kempa said.

Breach of trust, Kempa said, is an indictable offence that could garner someone up to 10 years in prison, although very few people have received this severe a sentence. He said that given the assumed offences of breach of trust or corruption, a conviction could land someone a two-year jail sentence.

This would increase depending on the person and the position of authority they hold.

‘Given the height of the offices in question, that sort of weight of the public office, you would expect a slightly longer sentence of perhaps somewhere in the area of two to five years."

It's important to note the RCMP could determine there has been no wrongdoing or that there isn't enough evidence to continue an investigation.

What does this mean for Premier Doug Ford?

The premier recently reversed his decision to develop the Greenbelt, calling it a “mistake” and promising to bring forth legislation that would codify its boundaries. A number of ministers as well as staff involved in the decision-making process have also resigned.

CTV News political analyst Scott Reid told CP24 on Tuesday the RCMP investigation brings the issue back to the forefront.

“It means they're gonna have to prepare themselves for the possibility that senior staff, senior bureaucrats, ministers, members of the government, perhaps the premier himself, all will be asked to speak to police,” he said, adding that this could also impact others associated with the decision outside of the government.

“All of it is cause for sleepless nights if you're Doug Ford.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford arrives at a press conference following the release of the Auditor General’s Special Report on Changes to the Greenbelt, at Queens Park, in Toronto, Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Arlyn McAdorey

Ford is already seeing historic low approval ratings following the release of the Greenbelt reports. In September, an Angus Reid poll found that fewer than three in 10 Ontarians, or about 28 per cent, approved of the premier.

More than half of the survey respondents also believed the premier should resign in the wake of the Greenbelt controversy.

Reid said that at the same time, the premier can use the investigation to remain tight-lipped about the Greenbelt and the related decision-making process.

“The government is basically going to say ‘hey, the police are doing their work, we're not going to interfere. We're not going to comment any further,’” Reid said. “The opposition is going to have to get creative to find ways to keep this story alive.”

The Premier’s Office has said it will fully cooperate with the investigation. Ford has not yet been approached by the RCMP for an interview.

What does this mean for the Greenbelt?

It’s unclear but it likely won’t stop new legislation slated to be tabled next week to codify the boundaries of the Greenbelt and institute a process in which changes can be made.

The Progressive Conservatives have also said it will do a complete review of the Greenbelt–as is mandated every 10 years–including hundreds of removal applications.

Kempa said that he is unsure if the investigation would be a legal impediment to proceeding with any changes to the Greenbelt; however he did note the public optics of doing so while under criminal investigation “would be political suicide.”

CTV News Toronto has reached out to the Ministry of Housing to determine if the first piece of legislation will in fact be tabled on Oct. 16 as planned.

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