Ontario Premier Doug Ford is standing by his Housing Minister after the province’s Integrity Commissioner found Steve Clark violated ethics rules over the government’s decision to remove select lands from the Greenbelt, leading to the interests of certain developers being improperly furthered.
In a 166-page report released Wednesday, Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake said Mr. Clark failed to properly oversee “an important initiative in his ministry” – 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.
That process, led by Mr. Clark’s former chief of staff, Ryan Amato, was marked by “misinterpretation, unnecessary hastiness and deception,” the report found.
“It shows that Mr. Amato advised Minister Clark to ‘leave it with me’ as he embarked on a chaotic and almost reckless process that I find led to an uninformed and opaque decision which resulted in the creation of an opportunity to further the private interests of some developers improperly,” the report said.
The Integrity Commissioner has also said he would probe Mr. Amato’s conduct as a public servant after he completed the Clark investigation.
In Wednesday’s report, Mr. Wake recommended Mr. Clark be reprimanded by members of the legislature for failing to comply with two sections of the Members’ Integrity Act. MPPs are expected to vote on whether to reprimand him when it returns in the fall.
Mr. Wake found that the minister contravened both the conflict-of-interest and insider-information sections of the act governing MPPs that prevent them from making a decision or using information not available to the public to further their or another person’s private interests.
Mr. Ford on Wednesday continued to stand by his minister. In a statement, his office said the government’s goal in the Greenbelt land swap has always been to build more affordable houses, particularly for young people and newcomers as part of the province’s efforts to build at least 1.5 million new homes.
“We’ve acknowledged areas where we need to improve; the Integrity Commissioner reiterated that today, and we’ll continue to work to strengthen the process moving forward,” said the statement.
In his own statement, Mr. Clark said he accepts the report.
“As minister, the buck stops with me and I accept the Integrity Commissioner’s findings. There were clear flaws in the process that led to today’s report,” he said.
The province’s decision late last year to break its repeated promises and remove 15 parcels of land from the Greenbelt to allow for development has been met with significant criticism from opposition politicians and environmental groups.
A report from Ontario Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk earlier this month found that the government’s process led by Mr. Amato was “biased” and “favoured certain developers,” delivering them a potential $8.3-billion windfall. All but one of the properties selected for removal was identified by Mr. Amato, findings confirmed by both Ms. Lysyk and Mr. Wake.
Mr. Amato resigned from his position last week, just a day before the Ontario Provincial Police announced that it was referring a probe into a possible criminal investigation on the matter to the RCMP.
Kathryn Marshall, Mr. Amato’s lawyer, said her client had no comment about the Integrity Commissioner’s report. But in his resignation letter, Mr. Amato said he has been unfairly depicted and that he acted appropriately.
Mr. Wake’s report focuses on Mr. Clark’s role in the Greenbelt affair. The Integrity Commissioner says Mr. Clark “misinterpreted” the timeline of a mandate letter from Mr. Ford calling on him to look at possible amendments to the Greenbelt last fall, which resulted in a “rushed and flawed process” led by Mr. Amato.
Both Mr. Clark and Mr. Ford have repeatedly said they were unaware of Mr. Amato’s process in selecting the sites for removal.
Mr. Wake said he is “satisfied” from the evidence that Mr. Clark was not aware of the various steps taken by his chief of staff last fall.
“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,” the report said.
Mr. Wake’s investigation also found typed notes from an October, 2022, meeting that said three Greenbelt sites brought forward for possible removal came directly from Mr. Ford. However, he determined it is likely Mr. Amato attributed this to the Premier to give more weight to the direction he was issuing to the public service and “not based in reality.”
The report says Mr. Amato told the Integrity Commissioner he did not communicate with Mr. Ford about the Greenbelt project, and that the Premier did not bring properties to his attention or give him direction, “with the exception of the general direction … that they were serious about the Greenbelt item in the mandate letter.”
Mr. Ford told Mr. Wake that “he was not involved in any way, directly or indirectly, with site selection and that he viewed the cabinet submission on the proposed site selection for the first time” last November.
Opposition parties have been calling for Mr. Clark’s resignation from his cabinet portfolio for weeks.
Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles told reporters on Wednesday at Queen’s Park that Mr. Wake’s report shows the process for selecting the lands was unfair, hasty and deceptive.
“We need to call it what it is: corruption. It’s been clear to us that Mr. Clark needs to resign. … Now it’s time that the Premier needs to do his job and kick him out of cabinet.”
Meanwhile, the government announced Wednesday that it has begun the process to return two properties in Ajax to the Greenbelt after the owner put them up for sale. The government said proponents of land removed from the Greenbelt must now notify the Office of the Provincial Land and Development Facilitator of any potential transactions.
“Any actions that stand in the way of building homes quickly on these lands will not be tolerated,” the government said.
A representative for the China-based investor who owns the land said this week that the matter is a misunderstanding and the owner was looking for a development partner for the land.