Published August 31, 2023

Ontario housing minister apologizes for his role in Greenbelt land swap, keeping job

Ontario Premier Doug Ford asks Bank of Canada to halt rate hikes

Liam Casey and William Eltherington in Toronto

Ontario's housing minister apologized Thursday for his role in the Greenbelt land swap that two legislative watchdogs have said benefited certain developers.

But he will keep his job with the backing of Premier Doug Ford. 

Housing Minister Steve Clark's apology came a day after a scathing report from the province's integrity commissioner, who found Clark violated two sections of the Members' Integrity Act as the government removed land from the protected Greenbelt for housing.

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

He found Clark's chief of staff, Ryan Amato, was the driving force behind the land swap that benefited certain land developers and that Clark failed to oversee his staff. 

Clark said he accepted responsibility for what happened. 

"I apologize to Ontarians that I did not provide more oversight to my chief of staff — my former chief of staff — and for this process," he said at a news conference.

Amato resigned last week after a similarly damning report from the province's auditor general. He has said he has done nothing wrong.

Clark said he ought to have had greater oversight of the land swap but did not specify what new measures he would take to improve the situation, other than the "process" would be different going forward.

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.

The move sparked a public outcry and calls for Clark's resignation.

Ford rebuked those calls earlier Thursday when he doubled down on both his Greenbelt plan and support for Clark, who he said will remain part of the team as the government tries to fulfil its goal of building 1.5 million homes over 10 years.

"Minister Clark has a tough job and his goal is to continue building homes," Ford said. 

"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.

Wake had recommended to the legislature that Clark be reprimanded.

Ford did not say what reprimand Clark might face. 

"That's going to go to the legislature and we'll see when we get back into the house in September," the premier 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 Amato was up to. 

"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.

Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk said in her recent report that developers who had access to Amato at a developer conference wound up with 92 per cent of the land. The owners of the sites removed from the Greenbelt stand to see their land rise in value by at least $8.3 billion, she found.

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. 

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