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

TORONTO — Ontario's housing minister offered an apology Thursday for the way the government removed land earmarked for development from the protected Greenbelt, a process two legislative watchdogs have said was hasty and flawed.
Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark delivers remarks at Queen's Park in Toronto on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. Ontario's housing minister has apologized for his role in the Greenbelt land swap that two legislative watchdogs have said benefited certain developers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

TORONTO — Ontario's housing minister offered an apology Thursday for the way the government removed land earmarked for development from the protected Greenbelt, a process two legislative watchdogs have said was hasty and flawed. 

But Steve Clark will stay on in his job – despite repeated calls by critics for his resignation – after Premier Doug Ford backed the housing minister and defended the province’s Greenbelt plan. 

"I want to make it very clear to Ontarians that I'm sorry that we didn't do a better job and that I personally didn't do a better job in terms of the oversight," Clark said at a news conference. 

The apology came a day after a scathing report from the province's integrity commissioner, who found Clark violated ethics rules during a process that was marked by "unnecessary hastiness and deception."

Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake found Clark's chief of staff — who resigned last week — was the driving force behind the land swap that benefited certain land developers, and that the minister failed to oversee his staff. 

Clark said he accepted responsibility for what happened but did not specify what new measures he would take to improve the situation, other than that the "process" would be different going forward.

"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.

Ontario created the Greenbelt in 2005 to protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area from development.

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 nonetheless said he had "confidence" in Clark.

The integrity commissioner 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," he said. The legislature is set to resume on Sept. 25.

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 Ryan 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 own 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.

Ford said Thursday that he was 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 opposition parties said the comments from Ford and Clark fell short. 

"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. Fraser said he wants Ford to waive cabinet privileges for legislators so they can participate.

New Democrat Leader Marit Stiles said Ontarians deserve better than "fake apologies."

"His words are meaningless without any action to back them up," she wrote in a statement. "Ontarians have lost all trust in this minister and he needs to go."

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the Greenbelt swap is not about housing. 

"It's about a government that is denying ordinary Ontarians access to the homes they need because wealthy elite insiders came calling," he said.

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.

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.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 31, 2023. 

Liam Casey and William Eltherington, The Canadian Press