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Opposition to Greenbelt land swap reaffirmed by Ontario First Nations leaders in unanimous vote

First Nations leaders from across Ontario are demanding the provincial government return environmental protections to land it recently removed from the Greenbelt to build housing.

The Chiefs of Ontario, an organization that advocates for 133 First Nations in the province, said it unanimously passed a resolution at an emergency meeting Monday opposing the so-called Greenbelt land swap.

In addition to returning the land to the Greenbelt, the resolution featured four other demands, including that Housing Minister Steve Clark resign or be removed.

Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare, who is from the M’Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island, said First Nations weren’t adequately consulted on the Greenbelt changes, despite the changes directly affecting their treaty and constitutionally protected rights.

“Planning decisions related to housing are foundational to how we live and live together,”  Hare said at a news conference following the meeting. “This requires all governments to work together in respect to treaty relationships and obligations.”

Ontario created the Greenbelt in 2005 to protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area from development. Last year, the province took 2,995 hectares of land on 15 sites out of the Greenbelt to build 50,000 homes and replaced it with about 3,000 acres elsewhere.

The chiefs’ vote comes just weeks after Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk found the government’s process for choosing which sites to remove favoured a small group of well-connected developers who now stand to make billions of dollars. The ensuing controversy prompted the resignation of the housing minister’s chief of staff and triggered a potential RCMP investigation into the matter.

Lysyk’s report also faulted the government for failing to consult with Indigenous communities before developing the Greenbelt policy.

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Land covered by multiple treaties

The majority of the land removed from the Greenbelt is covered by multiple treaties with the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and the 1923 Williams Treaties, of which seven other First Nations are party, according to Lysyk’s report. Rights under those treaties include harvesting rights in certain areas, such as rights to hunt, fish, trap and gather.

Chief Laurie Carr of the Hiawatha First Nation, one of the signatories to the Williams Treaties, said removing land from the Greenbelt “directly interferes” with those rights.

The auditor general found that 83 per cent of the land removed is among the highest quality farmland in the province. About 400 acres of the removed land are wetlands or woodlands.

“This is not just a First Nation issue and it should be concerning to every Ontarian,” Carr said. “There are many more areas to develop that don’t touch on … significant protected lands.”

Lush green farmland and trees.

Chief Taynar Simpson of the Alderville First Nation, another signatory to the Williams Treaties, said the Greenbelt removals will damage water systems and wetlands that supply groundwater, reduce flood risks and improve climate resilience.

He said recent wildfires and severe flooding events should serve as a warning that wetlands need to be protected.

“More importantly, wetland complexes are extremely significant for First Nations as they are considered medicine chests for harvesting,” Simpson said. “Certain medicinal plants only grow within these wetlands and removing them from the Greenbelt will remove access to dozens of medicines that First Nations have the right to harvest.”

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Clark pledges to ‘consult widely’ going forward

At an unrelated press conference Monday, Clark said the government moved fast on the Greenbelt decision because of the need to build more homes to address the province’s housing shortage.

He added the province has accepted 14 of the auditor general’s 15 recommendations, including one related to improving consultation with Indigenous communities. However, it has not accepted her 15th recommendation to reverse the Greenbelt decision.

“We’ve committed to making the process moving forward better and we’ll be consulting widely moving forward,” Clark said.

Ontario’s minister of housing Steve Clark and Premier Doug Ford.

When asked about the chiefs’ call for him to resign, Clark said he serves at the pleasure of the premier.

Last week, Premier Doug Ford reiterated his support for Clark and said he was confident nothing criminal took place in his government’s process of removing land from the Greenbelt. He and Clark have also said they didn’t know how sites that were removed from the protected area were selected.

The RCMP said last week it is assessing whether or not to investigate the Ford government’s controversial Greenbelt land swap after a referral from provincial police in Ontario.

Meanwhile, Ontario’s integrity commissioner J. David Wake is conducting an investigation related to the Greenbelt land swaps at the request of NDP Leader Marit Stiles. He is also considering whether to investigate whether Amato broke any ethics rules during the process after Ford’s office referred the matter to him. A probe by the integrity commissioner was one of 15 recommendations included in Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s report.

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