Travel with me to a time not long ago when the government in Ontario was of the red variety.
The former premier, at one point, went so far as to also serve as agriculture minister, in an effort, one can only imagine, to show her commitment and respect for the portfolio.
Kathleen Wynne’s government was widely seen as no friend of agriculture. Her environment minister, Glenn Murray, brought in sweeping changes to access to neonic seed treatments for corn and soybeans, and used what many saw as a new way of bringing in new rules (make the rule, allow “consultation,” put the rule into place, regardless).
For the most part, plenty of Ontario agriculture was highly critical of the Wynne government and its policies. That was easy – farmers tend to vote “blue.”
Now, a government of the “correct” colour is moving to sell off chunks of previously protected Greenbelt land for housing developments. The farming community hasn’t been supportive per se, but we haven’t exactly been highly critical, either.
I will, first and foremost, admit that I am in no way equating current agriculture minister Lisa Thompson to Kathleen Wynne. Thompson is well-respected in the agriculture community. She has served her community and her province and this industry with, I think, authenticity. I have had chances to interview her first-hand, and have found her knowledgeable, well spoken, and enthusiastic about the sector.
Thompson is a member of Doug Ford’s government. And as a member of Ford’s government, she is toeing the party line of “more housing.” It’s not a bad line; it’s a legitimate challenge and issue and it requires being addressed.
Within the same 24 hours of Ford’s government passing a bill to sell off and develop previously protected Greenbelt land, Thompson (conveniently?) released the Grow Ontario Strategy. It’s a bit of a love letter to Ontario agriculture, singing its praises and lauding its potential, and promising support for growth.
Upon its release, I asked for an interview with Minister Thompson. I was, instead, sent an editorial by the minister. Not able to ask my question directly, I asked for official comments on farm land development. Here’s a snippet of what I got:
“Ontario is in a housing supply crisis, and the government is considering every possible option to get more homes built faster. With the federal government’s recent announcement that it will raise immigration targets, it is particularly important that Ontario have the housing supply needed to welcome these newcomers and support existing residents. The proposed changes to the Greenbelt would lead to the creation of at least 50,000 new homes.”
Now, I get that Ontario needs more homes. But I’m struggling with this policy, and I don’t think the Ford government should get a pass, just because it’s blue.
There’s plenty to pick apart — the land in question may not be the prettiest or most productive, but every time we make excuses for reversing a preservation decision, we lose that land forever. If we go through the (costly) process of a land set aside, only to sell it off to the highest bidder decades later, have we really preserved anything? (Let’s also put aside for a moment the very uncomfortable optics of which developers are about to make a killing on these builds).
All land is not created equal. As MPP John Vanthof said, it’s not just about the land, either. Southern Ontario’s growing conditions are unmatched anywhere in the province and perhaps most of Canada. Already too much of this excellent, productive land has been paved over — when does it end?
It ends when governments set out good policy and stick to it. Some cities are doing just that, such as Hamilton and Pickering, councils that are voting against the Ford government’s push to expand city sprawl.
For her part, Thompson explains that the 15 sites set to be developed within the Greenbelt must have homes built on them quickly, or risk having the development rights nixed. New home construction has to begin no later than 2025, and that significant progress on approvals and implementation must be achieved by the end of 2023. If these conditions are not met, she says the government will return these properties to the Greenbelt.
Or, and hear me out here, we could focus on intensifying city neighbourhoods, invest in improving or expanding existing services, and stop gobbling up land that is necessary for growing food.
As an industry, it’s something we need to push for, regardless of government colour.
Related: Can land use planning preserve farmland and build homes?