TORONTO — Steve Clark, Ontario's housing minister since 2018, has resigned from his role days after a damning report from the integrity commissioner found he violated ethics rules when the province opened up parts of the protected Greenbelt for development.
Clark apologized for his role in the Greenbelt fiasco on Thursday, but had the backing of Premier Doug Ford to continue in the job.
Two legislative watchdogs found the process to select which lands came out of the Greenbelt hasty and flawed.
The reports sparked widespread public outcry, with opposition politicians and First Nations chiefs across the province calling for Clark's resignation.
"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," he wrote in his resignation letter to Ford.
Ford thanked Clark for his years of service.
"There's still more to do as our government keeps building the homes our growing province needs," Ford wrote on social media.
"As we do, I have no doubt Steve Clark will continue to serve his community well as an important part of our team at Queen’s Park."
Last year, the province took about 2,995 hectares of land out of the Greenbelt to build 50,000 homes and replaced them with about 3,804 hectares elsewhere.
The moves were part of the government's pledge to address the housing crisis by promising to build 1.5 million homes over 10 years.
In his report, Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake recommended to the legislature that Clark be reprimanded.
"In a parliamentary democracy, the parliament is supreme, and the legislature will determine my ultimate reprimand," Clark wrote.
"As someone who has given my life to serving the people through our democratic institutions, I feel that it is my responsibility to adhere to the principles of ministerial accountability."
The integrity commissioner found Clark's chief of staff, Ryan Amato, was the driving force behind the land swap that benefited certain developers. He also concluded the minister failed to oversee his staff.
Ford said in 2018 he would not develop the Greenbelt after previously musing about doing so. But that changed after last year's landslide election win by the Progressive Conservatives.
Ford gave Clark instructions via a mandate letter to come up with a process to open up the Greenbelt. Clark told the integrity commissioner he delegated that work to his new chief of staff, Amato.
Wake found Amato, who resigned two weeks ago, selected 14 of the 15 sites that were removed from the Greenbelt. Wake called Amato's process "chaotic" and "deceptive that favoured certain developers.
The integrity commissioner found neither Clark nor Ford knew what 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 in his report, released last Wednesday.
The auditor general came to a similar conclusion about Clark.
Bonnie Lysyk said 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 property values rise by at least $8.3 billion, she found.
The opposition was swift to applaud Clark's resignation, but also reiterated demands to return lands to the Greenbelt.
"Now it’s time for Doug Ford to face the music," New Democrat Leader Marit Stiles said in a statement.
"Recall the legislature so we can restore these lands to the Greenbelt; and give Ontarians the transparency and accountability they deserve from a Premier."
Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser renewed calls for a legislative committee investigation on the Greenbelt moves.
"Minister Clark’s resignation today is the first step in what needs to happen to get to the bottom of this $8.3 Billion cash-for-your-land scheme," Fraser said.
"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."
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner called Clark's resignation a "step toward accountability," but reiterated calls for a public inquiry into the land swaps.
"The people of Ontario deserve honest answers to how a corrupt process could lead to $8.3 billion in windfall profits for wealthy, Ford-connected insiders," Schreiner said.
Ford has admitted to a flawed process in the Greenbelt deal, but has repeatedly refused to return those lands to the protected area.
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.
Clark has been in politics since the age of 22 when he was elected mayor of Brockville, Ont., in 1982. He served three terms as mayor and was also president of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario.
Clark entered provincial politics in 2010 when he won a byelection in Leeds-Grenville. He held several critic portfolios while in opposition, including municipal affairs and housing and ethics and accountability. He has been in cabinet as minister of municipal affairs and housing since the Ford government won its first term in 2018.
Part of his mandate as housing minister included introducing a controversial proposal that would reduce the size of the Toronto city council known as the Better Local Government Act. The Act was ruled as unconstitutional, and Doug Ford threatened to invoke the notwithstanding clause before the courts ultimately sided with the province.
He was also in charge of introducing Ford’s equally controversial Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act, which would grant extra powers to the mayors of Ottawa and Toronto and gave them extraordinary budgetary and veto powers that aligned with provincial priorities. The act was expanded in 2023 to include 26 more municipalities.
Clark said he intends to stay on as the representative for the eastern Ontario riding of Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 4, 2023.
— with files from William Eltherington
Liam Casey and Allison Jones, The Canadian Press