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Crayons and highlighters? Greenbelt drama enters silly territory

Dramatic saga around Ford government's Greenbelt changes dipped into a dopey chapter after premier alleged past governments' rearrangements were drawn by staffers using 'crayons and highlighters'
Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark speaking to reporters in Toronto on Sept. 10, 2018.

The Greenbelt rearrangement drama reached perhaps its most ludicrous chapter on Wednesday.

In a wandering tangent about the Greenbelt a day earlier, Premier Doug Ford said 17 revisions previous Liberal governments made to the Greenbelt were decided by "a bunch of staffers in a room with a bunch of crayons and highlighters."

"It's the most craziest things I've ever seen," Ford added.

He then doubled down on Wednesday when NDP and Opposition Leader Marit Stiles asked him how his government landed on its controversial Greenbelt changes last fall.

Ford said his comments on Tuesday were "the truth."

"I've talked to people who were in the room. They sat there with a big map and they literally got highlighters, Mr. Speaker, a bunch of top staffers, and joking around, and we know that's true because the Liberals changed it 17 times," Ontario's premier said.

So could it be? No, according to two Liberals who were involved intimately in such past rewrites — who had quite a bit more to say about Ford's claims.

"It's absolute nonsense," according to John Gerretsen, a former Liberal MPP and cabinet minister who was one of the main architects of the Greenbelt, having been minister of municipal affairs for the first four years of Ontario's 15-year Liberal dynasty that began in 2003.

The two years Gerretsen spent crafting the Greenbelt was "the most exciting thing" he said he did in the 19 years he spent at Queen's Park, 11 of which were as a cabinet minister.

"For (Ford) to suggest we just kind of drew on a map, that's absolute nonsense, and you can quote me on that," Gerretsen told The Trillium in an interview on Wednesday.

After his four years as municipal affairs minister (for most of which time "housing" was also in his official title), Gerretsen was then environment minister from 2007 to 2010. Until his retirement in 2014, Gerretsen remained close to Greenbelt-related matters despite holding other ministerial portfolios, he said.

The Liberals' process for altering the Greenbelt after 2005 was much like how it put it together in the first place — through consultations with municipal councillors, developers, environmentalists, and the government's Greenbelt advisory group, he said.

The Liberals' changes after the fact, as Gerretsen described them, were minor adjustments. "It may be that we had something wrong in one particular area and we tried to correct those the best way we knew how," he said. "To somehow suggest that we sat around (a table) like a bunch of cronies and just started drawing lines willy nilly all over the place is absolute nonsense and if Ford said something like that, I take that as a great offence."

The longtime Liberal minister added that he feels Ford's "Crayons and highlighters" claim is an attempt to justify the Progressive Conservative government's changes.

Turning attention to the Liberal governments’ Greenbelt changes has been a go-to for Ford when he’s been questioned about his government’s rearrangement last fall.

The Ford government’s revisions have been the point of intense scrutiny. The government has cast them as being done for the purpose of building houses. But, in particular, six developers’ purchases of removed land parcels since 2018, the year the Ford government was elected, prompted a constant barrage from the opposition and various advocacy groups.

Ford had promised during the 2018 election campaign that a PC government “won’t touch” the Greenbelt.

By suggesting what he has about the Liberal government’s changes, Gerretsen said "(Ford's) belittling the work that was done by very competent civil servants within the Ministry of the Environment (and) within the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (and) within the municipalities... and the private sector as well."

Andrew Bevan, a top premier's office staffer for the duration of Kathleen Wynne's premiership, said Ford's crayons and highlighters claim is "a ridiculous idea" and "of course not" how Liberal governments determined revisions.

In the case of the Liberals' final Greenbelt change, in 2017, Bevan said a "26-month process" went into the revision.

Stiles’ questions of Ford on Wednesday that ignited wider hoopla about writing utensils were ultimately an attempt to ask how the Ford government decided its rearrangement last fall.

“The decision was very easy,” Ford said in one of his responses. “We’re in a housing crisis right now, costs are going through the roof. It was very simple supply and demand.”

Chiming in after question period, interim Liberal leader John Fraser said “the premier shouldn't be chastising anybody about using highlighters and crayons because this government basically pulls stuff out of a hat.”



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Charlie Pinkerton

About the Author: Charlie Pinkerton

Charlie has covered politics since 2018, covering Queen's Park since 2021. Instead of running for mayor of Toronto, he helped launch the Trillium in 2023.
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