TORONTO — An Ontario court has found the provincial government broke the law by failing to adhere to the Environmental Bill of Rights.
Several environmental groups brought forth applications for judicial reviews over the province's alleged failure to consult with the public before enacting the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act.
Late last year, the province opened up consultations to the public months after the passage of Bill 197 last summer.
The Superior Court of Justice says the minister of municipal affairs acted "unreasonably and unlawfully" by consulting with the public months after it enacted changes.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark said the government was forced to act quickly "in the face of a rapidly changing pandemic."
"The ministry consulted with the public after Bill 197 was implemented, and continues to do so, with a clear commitment to take the public’s input into consideration whenever an enhanced Minister’s Zoning Order is used," Zoë Knowles said.
"As Ontario continues to respond to COVID-19, we will not let red tape put Ontarians’ health and safety at risk."
The three-judge panel granted the judicial review in part but dismissed numerous other challenges the environmental groups raised about other ministries.
The court said the government failed to post proposed amendments over the controversial use of Ministerial Zoning Orders on the Environmental Registry prior to implementation.
The province has used the so-called MZOs to fast-track land developments, especially in environmentally sensitive Greenbelt.
Environmental groups that were part of the case hailed the Sept. 3 decision as a victory for the environment.
"As Environmental Commissioner of Ontario for 15 years, I am heartened to see the court uphold the rights of people to participate in government decision-making affecting the environment," said Gord Miller, chair of Earthroots, one of the organizations involved in the court battle.
"The court's declaration is clear – the Government of Ontario broke the law in violating those rights."
The Canadian Environmental Law Association said the decision reaffirms the public's rights.
"The Environmental Bill of Rights provides very significant tools for the people of Ontario to know about, and participate in, decisions that affect their environment," said Theresa McClenaghan, the executive director of CELA.
Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said it was a win for the public.
"Ontarians have a right to participate in government decision-making that impacts the environment," Schreiner said.
"By violating Ontarians’ environmental rights, Doug Ford has not only broken the law but has also made it clear that he will put his pro-sprawl, pro-developer agenda above all else."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 8, 2021.
Liam Casey, The Canadian Press