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Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow attend a news conference following their meeting at the Queens Park Legislature in Toronto on Sept.18.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has retooled his front bench for the second time this month, after the surprise resignation of his labour minister and on the heels of his decision to back down on plans to develop on the province’s protected Greenbelt.

Over the past three weeks, the Premier has lost three cabinet ministers, including labour minister Monte McNaughton, who announced Friday he is leaving politics to work in the private sector. Mr. McNaughton said his departure is unrelated to “recent events.”

It is a difficult time for Mr. Ford’s government, which is struggling to contain the fallout from the Greenbelt saga concerning the removal of lands from the protected zone that arcs around the Greater Toronto Area. After criticism from the public and within his own caucus – and after two scathing reports from independent watchdogs determined the process for choosing the lands was biased and favoured certain developers, delivering a potential $8.3-billion windfall – Mr. Ford reversed his decision on Thursday. He apologized and vowed he would not touch the Greenbelt in the future.

Meanwhile, Mr. McNaughton, one of the highest-profile members of Mr. Ford’s cabinet, said Friday he is stepping down immediately and resigning his Southwestern Ontario seat of Lambton-Kent-Middlesex in the coming days. He will not seek re-election.

The move prompted a same-day cabinet shuffle, which saw a minister switch portfolios and three others given promotions. Mr. Ford also had to fill the post of minister of public and business service delivery. It became vacant when Kaleed Rasheed resigned from cabinet and caucus this week after his office admitted to giving incorrect information to the Integrity Commissioner about a 2020 trip by the MPP to Las Vegas, where prominent developer Shakir Rehmatullah was also vacationing.

On Friday, Mr. Ford announced that David Piccini, who was environment minister, will become Minister of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development, taking over from Mr. McNaughton.

Two-term MPP Andrea Khanjin, the deputy house leader, is being elevated to cabinet for the first time, taking on the role of Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks.

The Ontario Greenbelt controversy, Doug Ford’s role and what has happened so far

Mr. Rasheed is being replaced by Todd McCarthy, a former corporate lawyer elected in 2022 who was promoted in the early September shuffle to associate minister of transportation. MPP Vijay Thanigasalam, who represents a riding in Scarborough, will takeover that role.

Steve Clark resigned as housing minister in early September after backlash against the Greenbelt plan. Two top aides have also resigned.

In a statement on Friday, Mr. McNaughton said he had been “soul searching” over the summer months before deciding to step down.

“I realize that recent events will cause some to speculate about the reasons for my departure. I want those people to know that my decision is completely unrelated to those events,” he said.

“I support Premier Ford and am proud to have served in his cabinet.”

In a statement, Mr. Ford thanked Mr. McNaughton for his work on the labour file. Mr. McNaughton is widely credited with courting private-sector unions to support the Progressive Conservative government in the past two elections.

Opposition NDP Leader Marit Stiles said the latest cabinet shuffle delivers more questions than answers as Queen’s Park resumes Monday after summer break.

“The Premier has a new cabinet two days before the legislature returns for session. Ontarians are left asking: Is this government serious about solving the issues facing Ontarians? Or are they too busy reorganizing the deck chairs?” she said in a statement.

Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said the government was clearly reeling having now, in Mr. McNaughton’s resignation, lost one of the strongest ministers.

Mr. Fraser also said he will continue to press for accountability from the Premier for what he called the “Greenbelt gravy train wreck” and warned of the possibility of lawsuits from developers against the government.

Gee: Doug Ford backing down on the Greenbelt was a win for democracy in Ontario

A spokesman for Housing Minister Paul Calandra did not answer questions about the financial implications of the government’s reversal.

“No development agreements have been signed. The province will be returning the lands to the Greenbelt as soon as possible,” Alexandru Cioban said in an e-mail.

In a report last month, Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake said the Provincial Land and Development Facilitator had “reached agreements in principle or draft agreements” for eight of the 15 sites removed from the Greenbelt.

In response to questions about the reversal, development industry lobby groups issued statements about the need to build more homes.

“Regardless of the decision, Ontario’s housing supply and affordability crisis remains. Governments of all levels and industry must work together to build the 1.5 million new homes the province needs by 2031,” said Justin Sherwood, spokesman for the Building Industry and Land Development Association.

Dave Depencier, president of the Ontario Home Builders’ Association, said his “members stand ready to work with this government and municipalities to develop the right policies to get this big job done.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he is reversing his plan to open the protected Greenbelt lands for housing development and won't make any changes to the Greenbelt in the future. (Sept. 21, 2023)

The Canadian Press

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