Minister Clark apologizes for Greenbelt fiasco

Steve Clark, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing and Member of Provincial Parliament for Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, apologized for his part in what he called “very clear flaws to the process that led to the removal of the lands being removed from the Greenbelt.” Screen captured image courtesy of CPAC.

Steve Clark, provincial Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing and Member of Provincial Parliament for Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, apologized on Thursday for his part in what he called “very clear flaws to the process that led to the removal of the lands being removed from the Greenbelt.”

The Minister said repeatedly that he “accepted responsibility” for his role, but he stopped well short of resigning and was evasive in response to reporters’ questions about what the consequences of that acceptance of responsibility should be.

Clark’s remarks were livestreamed on Cable Public Affairs Canada’s (CPAC’s) You Tube Channel, Thursday afternoon, Aug. 31, 2023, from the Queen’s Park Media Studio. The apology comes one day after a report by Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake, K.C. was filed with the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, determining that Clark contravened the Members’ Integrity Act, 1994. Earlier in August, Kingston and the Islands MPP Ted Hsu had called for a full inquiry into the changes made to the Greenbelt under the Ford government.

“I accept that I ought to have had greater oversight over my former chief of staff and over the process,” Clark said, referring to Ryan Amato, who resigned as Clark’s chief earlier this month after the province’s auditor general released a scathing report that showed property developers with close ties to the government influenced the decision to open up the Greenbelt, an area of protected land in southern Ontario, to their benefit. 

Clark then directed his remarks to Ontarians, saying, “I want to say very sincerely that I apologize that I did not [have oversight of Amato]. I’m committed to making sure that the flaws of the kind outlined in the report by Justice Wake do not happen again.”

Clark contravened sections 2 and 3(2) by failing to oversee the process by which lands in the Greenbelt were selected for development, leading to the private interests of certain developers being furthered improperly. The inquiry also established that Amato was the driving force behind the process by which lands in the Greenbelt were selected for development. Amato was involved in the selection of 14 of the 15 properties that were removed from the Greenbelt or redesignated, and he received information provided to him by certain developers.

The inquiry found that Clark misinterpreted the mandate letter in relation to the Greenbelt, particularly with respect to what was expected and by when, which led Mr. Amato to embark on a rushed and flawed process. 

The report notes that, since supervision of staff is incumbent on the minister, Clark’s lack of oversight led to some developers being alerted to a potential change in the government’s position on the Greenbelt, resulting in their private interests being furthered improperly. Minister Clark did not question or properly oversee Amato’s selection process before the matter was presented to the cabinet.

In view of this finding, Commissioner Wake recommended to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario that Clark be reprimanded for his failure to comply with the Act.

The press present in the Toronto studio were not easy on Clark. One called him out immediately: “You are a career politician. You’ve been at this for what, 40 years? You’ve always had a good reputation; people around here, even opposition critics, say you’re a decent man and a good politician. How is it possible that you’ve failed at this key role at this pivotal moment for your government on such a toxic, controversial file? How is it that you failed with all your years of experience?”

Clark again admitted, “I completely accept the responsibility that I was overly reliant on my chief and my staff… I regret that I didn’t provide sufficient oversight. I’m very mindful of Commissioner Wake’s recommendations. And I know as a government, we want to instill that trust back into Ontarians… I’m here to accept responsibility… 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, we’ve put a plan in place to create that trust and to regain that trust, as I said, as a result of the Auditor General’s recommendations.”

Another reporter pointed out the apparent inconsistency in Clark’s actions: “Why do you have a lesser standard of accountability for yourself than you did for a lot of Liberal cabinet ministers?” The reporter read aloud Clark’s own lamentation that “there used to be a time when ministers took their integrity seriously,” and “there’s never any shame, never any dishonour in doing the right thing.”

“You called on all sorts of Liberal cabinet ministers to resign, and they had not been found wanting in two successive reports from legislative watchdogs — so what makes you so special?” asked the reporter.

Clark again stated that he took the Auditor General’s and the Integrity Commissioner’s recommendations “very seriously… I’ve been very open with Ontarians today in terms of accepting complete responsibility over the process that took place in the ministry… I’m committed, as well as our government is committed, to ensuring that we do better moving forward. But you know, as I said in my statement yesterday, the buck stops with me, and I accept and regret that Ontarians have gone through this process.”

If, as Clark kept repeating, he accepted responsibility and accepted the recommendations of the report, which include him facing a reprimand, reporters wanted to know what the consequences should be. “What message does it send to Ontarians if their housing minister is not going to face any kind of consequences [for his actions]?” one asked Clark.

Clark was again evasive, saying he accepted the reports and regrets his actions, but not directly answering.

Clark was asked whether he knowingly “put his head in the sand” to avoid the political repercussions — a query that Clark answered somewhat confusingly, “I think the integrity commissioner’s report covered that: that the process that was directed from the Ministry should have been more directly related to myself, and I shouldn’t have relied on another individual, namely my former chief, in terms of how those properties were dealt with.” 

In fact, the Integrity Commissioner’s report used those exact words. Wake wrote, “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. This is partly understood by the fact he was busy during this period, he was aware that the outcome would be politically challenging for him given his completely opposite stance on the Greenbelt for the whole of the government’s first term, and here was Mr. Amato reassuringly offering to provide at least temporary relief from having to deal with it.”

Yesterday, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023, the Ontario government announced that it has begun the process of returning 765 and 775 Kingston Road East in Ajax to the Greenbelt, following the property owner’s decision to list these lands for sale in recent weeks, including listing some of the lands to be used for a business park rather than homes.

A media release from Clark’s office states, “At no time was the intention to sell or change the ownership structure disclosed to the government’s Office of the Provincial Land and Development Facilitator despite active and ongoing discussions. This lack of transparency raises serious concerns about the owner’s ability to meet the government’s expectation that homes be built in a timely manner, including the need to show meaningful progress before the end of year.”

To ensure that construction on the remaining lands proceeds without what the release calls “unnecessary delays,” the government says it will inform the remaining proponents that they are required to notify the Office of the Provincial Land and Development Facilitator of any potential transactions or actions regarding these lands, and ” Any actions that stand in the way of building homes quickly on these lands will not be tolerated.”

This is a developing story with more to come.

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