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Ontario government staff used ‘code words’ when talking about Greenbelt, NDP allege

Staff within the Doug Ford government used “code words” when talking about removing land from the Greenbelt, Ontario’s Official Opposition alleges.

The claim was made after obtaining thousands of pages of documents through a Freedom of Information request. Among the documents were emails forwarded by Ryan Amato, the former chief of staff to then-Housing Minister Steve Clark, who has widely been named as the decision-maker who chose the 15 sites that were removed from the Greenbelt.

The NDP says that terms like “G” and “Special Project” were found in several records, including in correspondence between the ministry and the Premier’s Office.

A previous email, also obtained by the NDP and released to the public in January, showed that an email with a subject heading of “Special Project – GB” was sent to the personal email address of Patrick Sackville, the principal secretary to the premier. Sackville is now Ford’s chief of staff.

The new documents show that terms like “G” and “SP” were used to reference the policy change multiple times.

Speaking at Queen’s Park, NDP Leader Marit Stiles said that while it could be “a cute shorthand,” she believes there is a greater significance.

“It means that a search through of Mr. Amato’s account using the term ‘Greenbelt’ wasn’t going to return those particular emails. It means that replacing the word ‘greenbelt’ with ‘G*’ is evidence of an intent to conceal, like someone was trying to cover their tracks.”

In the 3,776 pages of documents the NDP obtained, they say the terms “special project” appeared 36 times and “SP” appeared 44 times.

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Stiles questioned the government on whether or not code words were used to evade public scrutiny.

Government House Leader and current Housing Minister Paul Calandra sidestepped these questions, saying that the integrity commissioner and auditor general have already released a report on the decision to remove land from the Greenbelt.

Both the provincial integrity commissioner and auditor general found that the government’s decision to carve up parts of the Greenbelt for development favoured certain developers with access to ministry staff. They also found there was a significant lack of transparency and consultation.

During the investigation, it was discovered that some political staff were also forwarding emails from lobbyists and other external parties from their personal email accounts.

Amato resigned from his position shortly after the auditor general report dropped. Clark also resigned from his cabinet position following both reports.

The Ford government reversed its decision to develop the Greenbelt months later, saying that any future changes to its boundaries will be made through a “public and transparent process that would require the approval of the legislature.”

The legislation also included liability protections for those who acted “in good faith.”

The RCMP 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 its provincial Sensitive and International Investigations Unit is the one leading the investigation.