Ford doubles down on Greenbelt plan, supports housing minister after scathing report

By Liam Casey and William Eltherington in Toronto

Ontario Premier Doug Ford doubled down on his Greenbelt plan and stood by his housing minister on Thursday after the integrity commissioner found the government’s process of removing land from the protected area for development was hasty and deceptive.

Ford said Housing Minister Steve Clark will remain part of the team as the government tries to to fulfil its promise to build 1.5 million homes over 10 years.

“Minister Clark has a tough job and his goal is to continue building homes,” Ford said during a news conference. 

“I saw the report, I read a good chunk of it last night, and, admittedly, the process could have been a lot better – and I agree.”

The premier said he has “confidence” in Clark, who is set to face questions in a news conference on Thursday afternoon. 

Ford’s comments came a day after the integrity commissioner found Clark violated two sections of the Members’ Integrity Act as the government removed land from the Greenbelt. 

Last year, the province took 7,400 acres of land out of the Greenbelt to build 50,000 homes and replaced it with about 9,400 acres elsewhere.

Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake found the Greenbelt land removal process was marked by “unnecessary hastiness and deception.”

Both Clark and Ford have denied wrongdoing, but admit that the process to select the lands, which favoured certain developers, was flawed.

Wake recommended to the legislature that Clark be reprimanded.

Clark failed to oversee the process over what lands would be removed from the Greenbelt and allowed his chief of staff to become the driving force behind the land swap, Wake found.

Ford did not say what reprimand Clark is facing.

“That’s going to go to the legislature and we’ll see when we get back into the house in September,” he said.

The legislature is set to resume on Sept. 25.

Ford said he is ultimately responsible for the Greenbelt process.

“The buck stops with me,” the premier said, although he didn’t explain what that meant or how he or Clark would take responsibility.

“The buck’s not stopping anywhere,” said Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser.

Fraser called for a legislative committee investigation into the Greenbelt land swap. 

He said the Liberals have written to the chair of the Standing Committee on Heritage, Infrastructure and Cultural Policy to begin that work, which would include interviews with those involved plus all related documents. 

Fraser also wants Ford to waive all cabinet privileges given to sitting members of parliament so they can participate.

The integrity commissioner, like the auditor general in a separate investigation, found the housing minister’s chief of staff selected 14 of the 15 sites that were removed from the Greenbelt.

He found that neither Ford nor Clark knew what Ryan Amato was up to. Amato has since resigned, but has denied any wrongdoing.

“It may seem incredible that Minister Clark would have chosen to stick his head in the sand on such an important initiative being undertaken by his ministry but I believe that was exactly what he did,” Wake wrote.

Ford had given Clark directives to open up the Greenbelt for development through a mandate letter shortly after the Progressive Conservatives won last year’s election in a landslide.

All three opposition leaders have demanded Clark resign from his post, as have all the chiefs of Ontario First Nations, who said they were not consulted on the development of lands on their traditional territory.

Ford and Clark have been at the helm of the government’s pledge to build 1.5 million homes over 10 years. They have repeatedly said that the 50,000 homes slated for development on land removed from the Greenbelt are needed to achieve that goal.

But the province’s housing task force and three regions where the land was removed have said the Greenbelt land was not needed to achieve that target.

Ford had said in 2018 he would not develop the Greenbelt after previously musing about doing so.

The RCMP is reviewing information to determine whether it should investigate the Greenbelt land swap. Ford has said he is confident nothing criminal took place.

Ontario created the Greenbelt in 2005 to protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area from development.

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 31, 2023.