Ontario NDP leader Marit Stiles reflects on 2023: Greenbelt and internal governance

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Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles reflects on year dominated by Greenbelt scandal
WATCH: Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles spoke to Global News' Queen's Park Bureau Chief Colin D'Mello at the end of 2023. Reflecting on the year that was, she talked about the Greenbelt, Sarah Jama and the fact Doug Ford has still not congratulated her on her leadership win – Dec 27, 2023

Marit Stiles’ first year as Leader of His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in Ontario has been anything but quiet.

Her NDP caucus has celebrated significant wins and policy reversals from the governing Progressive Party while navigating internal turbulence of its own.

Stiles was officially installed as the Ontario NDP’s new leader on Feb. 5, 2023, after winning a race none of her colleagues decided to enter.

“It wasn’t exactly the way I expected, I was sure there would be a competition but it felt good to come in knowing the party was really behind me,” Stiles told Global News in a year-end interview at Queen’s Park.

Much of her first year leading the opposition to the Ford government was spent on the Greenbelt scandal, which grew from a light wind to a howling gale by the end of the summer.

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The NDP pushed for investigations from parliamentary watchdogs that led to two damning reports. Summer reports found a decision to swap 7,400 acres of land from Ontario’s Greenbelt had benefited certain developers by around $8.3 billion.

“I’m proud we were able to play a role in returning land to the Greenbelt,” Stiles said.

The fallout from the reports into the Greenbelt land swap, written by the auditor general and integrity commissioner, involved resignations by two cabinet ministers and several political staffers.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford issued an apology and admitted he got it “wrong” removing land from the Greenbelt and breaking a 2018 promise.

The NDP, however, did not call for Ford himself to step down.

“My focus has been to get the government to reverse course on bad decisions,” Stiles said. “Usually when people get the chance to change government is during elections. So I think that’s when this government will, I hope, fall.”

The NDP leader hasn’t ruled out eventually calling for the premier to step aside but said she wanted to get a fuller understanding of his involvement in issues like the Greenbelt scandal before making any decisions.

Ford has denied any involvement in the Greenbelt decision and said he was not briefed about it until just before it went to cabinet for approval.

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“I had nothing to do with the changes in the Greenbelt, number one,” the premier said during a 2023 news conference.

A request from Global News for a year-end interview with Ford was not granted.

Stiles said she thinks there is more to uncover.

“I think it is unfortunate that he will not share information that we and others have repeatedly asked him for like his phone records, his business calls on his personal devices,” she said. “To me, he’s hiding something. I want to see what he’s hiding, then let’s decide if he needs to resign too.”

Stiles has not been without troubles of her own.

In October, around the same time that the RCMP announced an investigation into the Greenbelt, newly elected Ontario NDP MPP Sarah Jama sparked controversy for comments she made about the Israel-Hamas conflict.

A protracted standoff between Jama and Stiles played out, with the Ontario NDP Leader telling her rookie caucus member to clarify her post and apologize.

While Jama eventually apologized, she did not remove her original statement and was booted from the party after weeks of tension. Stiles said at the time she had been removed for taking “a number of unilateral actions” that undermined the party.

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The decision to remove Jama was controversial, with criticism voiced by some local NDP organizations. A few called for Stiles to resign.

“No leader of any political party wants to lose MPPs from their caucus,” Stiles said, reflecting on the controversy.

“But I do think as a political leader, it’s on me to ensure that my team is strong and united and sometimes that means making very difficult decisions. And I think I had to do that.”

As she turns her attention to 2024, Stiles told Global News she is still waiting for Ford to formally congratulate her on becoming Ontario NDP Leader, a win confirmed in late 2022.

“He has still never called me since I was elected leader,” Stiles said. “I don’t know why he’s so afraid of me, I’m about like a quarter of his size maybe, I’m five-foot-one, and he seems really concerned.”

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