Ontario housing minister resigns over Greenbelt scandal, ethics breach

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Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark delivers remarks at Queen’s Park in Toronto on August 31, 2023.Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

Ontario Housing Minister Steve Clark resigned Monday after resisting opposition calls to step down over the removal of select lands from the Greenbelt and a scathing report by the Integrity Commissioner that found he violated ethics laws.

In a statement, Mr. Clark said he was becoming a “distraction” from work addressing the housing crisis, and needed to “take accountability for what has transpired.”

“I feel that it is my responsibility to adhere to the principles of ministerial accountability,” he added.

Mr. Clark had until now rebuffed calls from opposition MPPs to resign, and was backed by Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

In a brief statement on social media Monday, Mr. Ford thanked Mr. Clark, but did not address the Greenbelt controversy.

“Thank you @SteveClarkPC for your years of service in Cabinet,” the Premier wrote on social media platform X.

“As Ontario grows, our government is on a mission to build at least 1.5 million homes. After decades of inaction, we’re seeing real results: 2022 and 2021 had the most housing starts in 30 years. Our work won’t stop.”

The province’s decision late last year to break repeated promises and remove 15 parcels of land from the protected Greenbelt to allow for development has been met with significant criticism and been the subject of reports by the Integrity Commissioner and the Auditor-General.

Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake found that Mr. Clark contravened both the conflict-of-interest and insider-information sections of the act governing MPPs that prevents them from making a decision or using information not available to the public to further their or another person’s private interests. In a report released on Aug. 9, her last as Auditor-General, Bonnie Lysyk found the process was “biased” and delivered favoured developers a potential $8.3-billion windfall. The Ontario Provincial Police also recently referred a probe into a possible criminal investigation on the matter to the RCMP.

On Monday, Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles called on Mr. Ford to recall the legislature, set to return on Sept. 25, and immediately return the lands to the Greenbelt.

“Steve Clark is finally taking some responsibility for his role in the government’s Greenbelt scandal. But the Auditor-General’s report, the Integrity Commissioner’s report, and now a potential criminal investigation clearly show that this corruption reaches far beyond Clark’s office,” Ms. Stiles said in a statement.

“Now it’s time for Doug Ford to face the music. Recall the legislature so we can restore these lands to the Greenbelt; and give Ontarians the transparency and accountability they deserve from a Premier.”

Editorial: The ugly Greenbelt saga just got uglier

Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said Mr. Clark’s resignation is the first step in what needs to happen “to get to the bottom of this $8.3-billion cash-for-your-land scheme.”

“What needs to happen next, is the Premier needs to open the books on the Greenbelt land swaps and waive Cabinet Privilege as it relates to this decision,” Mr. Fraser said.

He called for the standing committee on heritage, infrastructure and cultural policy to meet to begin the process of reviewing relevant documents and interviewing those involved.

Mr. Clark said in his statement that he had been reflecting since the Integrity Commissioner’s report on his role and “obligations to the people of Ontario.”

After receiving the report, his “first instinct was to take responsibility for the mistakes that were made and create a process so that this would never happen again,” he said.

“Although my initial thought was that I could stay in this role and establish a proper process so that these mistakes don’t happen again, I realize that my presence will only cause a further distraction from the important work that needs to be done and that I need to take accountability for what has transpired.”

The Integrity Commissioner report found that the process, led by Mr. Clark’s former chief of staff, Ryan Amato, was marked by “misinterpretation, unnecessary hastiness and deception” and created “an opportunity to further the private interests of some developers improperly.”

It said Mr. Clark had failed to properly oversee “an important initiative in his ministry” – namely, the process by which 3,000 hectares of land were removed from the province’s Greenbelt, an environmentally protected zone that arcs around the Greater Toronto Area. The government added new protected land elsewhere – part of what was described as a land swap.

Centrepiece of Doug Ford’s Greenbelt housing plan faces multiple roadblocks

Mr. Wake said in his report that he believed Mr. Clark chose to “stick his head in the sand” on the decision-making process, and recommended that the minister be reprimanded by members of the legislature for failing to comply with two sections of the Members’ Integrity Act.

All but one of the properties selected for removal was identified by Mr. Amato, according to findings confirmed by both Ms. Lysyk and Mr. Wake. He resigned from his position a day before the OPP announced that it was referring a probe into a possible criminal investigation on the matter to the RCMP.

Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said that although Mr. Clark’s resignation “is a step toward accountability, Mr. Ford’s Greenbelt scandal is far from over,” and reiterated his party’s call for an independent public inquiry into the land swap.

“The Premier keeps assuring us the buck stops with him. It’s time for him to step up and prove it,” Mr. Schreiner said.

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