Ontario government in turmoil after minister quits over land swap scandal

Ontario’s provincial government is in turmoil following the abrupt resignation of its housing minister amid accusations he breached ethics laws in a controversial land swap deal.

The Ontario premier, Doug Ford, defended his government’s conduct on Tuesday but said top officials would begin a review of deals to sell protected lands on the periphery of the greater Toronto area.

The announcement came a day after Steve Clark resigned as housing minister, following a scathing report into his conduct. In stepping down, Clark said he had become a “distraction” to the embattled government.

“Ontario is experiencing the most challenging housing crisis our province has ever faced,” Clark wrote on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. Clark’s resignation marks the most powerful political casualty to date in a scandal that dominated headlines in the province.

Ontario’s Greenbelt, established in 2005, spans 2m acres of farmland, forest, rivers and lakes around Toronto, and is meant to prevent unchecked urban sprawl and ensure protections for environmentally sensitive land.

Last year, Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government announced it would remove 7,400 acres from the Greenbelt in order to build 50,000 homes. The government said it would replace the land with nearly 9,400 acres elsewhere. But decision to develop Greenbelt lands marked a reversal of previous promises from Ford, who said that his government would leave protected areas untouched.

Ford’s government has justified the decision as part of a broader effort to address a mounting housing crisis in the province, promising to build at least 1.5m homes by 2031. Critics say there are other ways to increase housing that do not require building on protected lands, but on Tuesday Ford pushed back, suggesting the population of the province was growing at “breakneck” speed.

“Nothing is more important than building homes,” he said.

In a damning 30 August report, Ontario’s independent integrity commissioner, J David Wake, concluded that Clark had breached the law over the removal of lands from the Greenbelt and that the plan contained elements of “misinterpretation, unnecessary hastiness and deception”.

Opposition lawmakers, First Nations chiefs and environmental advocacy groups have called for the province to reverse course and return the lands to their protected status.

“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,” the province’s New Democratic party leader, Marit Stiles, said in a statement.

The integrity commissioner’s finding marks the second watchdog report that has found troubling details in how the province worked to remove parts of the Greenbelt.

Earlier in August, Ontario’s auditor general found that the government’s plan would benefit certain developers and landowners, adding C$8.3bn ($6.10bn) to the value of the properties. The report, which investigated how Clark’s chief of staff, Ryan Amato, led internal government efforts to select the lands for development, found most of the properties selected for removal from the Greenbelt were those suggested by developers.

Bonnie Lysyk, the auditor general, called the process “biased” and Amato resigned soon after, despite public support from Ford and Clark. Lysyk also flagged concerns over deleted emails and messages, as well as the way in which political staff used private emails to conduct government business. Ford said his government would apply all recommendations in the report, although he has stopped short of restarting the process of opening up the Greenbelt lands.

Amid mounting pressure for a deeper investigation, the Ontario provincial police said earlier in the summer it had received several requests from members of the public and advocacy groups to open a possible criminal investigation.

But in late August, the police force said its anti-rackets branch would no longer be looking into the issue because of a “potential perceived conflict of interest”, and the matter had been referred to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The federal police force initially said it had been asked to “investigate irregularities in the disposition of the Greenbelt”, but later clarified it was only “ beginning [its] evaluation of the available information” and would decide in the coming months if an investigation was needed.