Ontario Premier Doug Ford shuffled his cabinet hours after Housing Minister Steve Clark resigned from his post Monday in the wake of weeks of outcry over the process to select Greenbelt lands for housing development and a finding from the province’s Integrity Commissioner that he violated ethics laws.
Mr. Clark, who had repeatedly rebuffed calls to step down and was backed by Mr. Ford, said in a statement that he was becoming a “distraction” from work addressing the housing crisis and needed to “take accountability for what has transpired.” He added that he will stay on as MPP for Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes.
Later in the day, the Premier announced a suite of changes to his front bench, with former long-term care minister Paul Calandra becoming Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing – taking over his government’s most pressing political portfolio before the legislature resumes on Sept. 25.
Other changes include ministers Caroline Mulroney and Prabmeet Sarkaria switching roles, with Ms. Mulroney becoming Treasury Board President and Mr. Sarkaria taking over the Transportation file, which has been mired in disputes over project delays.
The controversy over the Greenbelt, a protected zone that arcs around the Greater Toronto Area, has dogged Mr. Ford’s government for weeks throughout the normally sleepy summer. And the resignation and cabinet shuffle on the September holiday are unlikely to satisfy criticism from opposition MPPs, First Nations chiefs and environmental groups who are demanding the land be returned to the Greenbelt.
In a brief statement announcing the cabinet changes, Mr. Ford did not address the Greenbelt issue, vowing instead that his “renewed team” will “deliver on the government’s promise to build Ontario.”
“As our province’s population and economy grow, it’s never been more important for us go build Ontario,” Mr. Ford said.
“We’ll never stop working on behalf of the people of Ontario to build homes, highways and public transit our growing communities need.”
Mr. Ford’s cabinet shakeup will include a high-profile role for Mr. Calandra, a former federal MP who once served as then-prime-minister Stephen Harper’s parliamentary secretary. Mr. Calandra, known for his bullish rhetoric in the legislature, often defends Mr. Ford against opposition questions and will stay on as Government House Leader.
Toronto MPP Stan Cho, associate minister of transportation, will become Minister of Long-Term Care.
Other changes include Rob Flack as associate minister of housing, with a specific mandate on attainable housing and modular homes; and Todd McCarthy as associate minister of transportation.
Nina Tangri, who was associate minister of housing, becomes associate minister of small business.
The province decided late last year to break repeated promises and remove 15 parcels of land from the Greenbelt.
Two independent government watchdogs concluded that the process for selecting the lands – spearheaded by Mr. Clark’s former chief of staff, Ryan Amato – was “biased,” “deceptive” and favoured the interests of a select group of developers.
In his report released last week, Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake found that Mr. Clark failed to properly oversee the process, which was marked by “misinterpretation, unnecessary hastiness and deception.” He concluded that Mr. Clark violated both the conflict-of-interest and insider-information sections of the Members’ Integrity Act and recommended that the MPP be reprimanded by members of the legislature.
In her last report as Auditor-General, Bonnie Lysyk found in early August that the process delivered favoured developers a potential $8.3-billion windfall. She also called on the government to revisit its Greenbelt decision – the only recommendation that Mr. Ford declined to accept.
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 on Aug. 22, a day before the OPP announced that it was referring a probe into a possible criminal investigation on the matter to the RCMP.
Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles called Mr. Ford’s shakeup an “11th-hour cabinet shuffle” and reiterated her call for the government to recall the legislature and return the lands to the Greenbelt.
“Mr. Ford can rearrange the deck chairs all he likes but it’s not going to change the fact that Ontarians are fed up with a corrupt government rigging the system to help a select few of their insiders get even richer – at everyone else’s expense,” she said in a statement.
“With his slapdash team in place, he has even less of a reason not to recall the legislature and face the music at Queen’s Park.”
Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said Mr. Clark’s resignation is the first step required “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.”
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.
Outside reviews of the Greenbelt affair continue. In addition to the potential criminal investigation, Mr. Wake said he would probe Mr. Amato’s conduct as a public servant after he completed the Clark review. Mr. Amato has not commented publicly, but in his resignation letter he said he has been unfairly depicted and is confident he acted appropriately.
Mr. Clark said in his statement that since the Integrity Commissioner’s report, he had been reflecting on his role and “obligations to the people of Ontario.”
“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,” he said, “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.”
Mr. Ford told reporters after the report was issued that Mr. Clark’s mandate was to build at least 1.5 million homes by 2031 to address the housing crisis. While he expressed displeasure with the way the lands from the Greenbelt were selected, he vowed to press ahead with his plans to build.
On Monday, the Premier thanked Mr. Clark for his “years of service in Cabinet,” in a post on the social-media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
“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.”
Multiple members of the Progressive Conservative caucus also publicly stated their support for Mr. Clark on social media Monday.
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.