When Steve Clark was first tapped to be Ontario’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing in 2018, his directions from Premier Doug Ford were clear: his ministry was not to touch Ontario’s Greenbelt and instead Clark was explicitly instructed to protect the 2-million acres of land around the Greater Toronto Area.
Four years later, amid a housing shortage crisis, the Ford government tore up that pledge, throwing itself into a scandal that forced Clark and his chief of staff to resign.
Global News obtained the 2018 mandate letters which contain the specific instructions given to the Ontario cabinet ministers by Premier Doug Ford after his inaugural election.
For five years, the Ford government has fought to keep these letters private, asserting that they related to internal cabinet deliberations and should be kept confidential.
Global News can exclusively reveal, for the first time, the contents of the letters in a new series, ‘Mandated.’
Housing and the Greenbelt
Premier Doug Ford’s election in 2018 marked a sea change moment in Ontario politics.
The Liberal government, which had been in power for 15 years, was brought to a crippling end, ushering in a people-centric government that was determined to not lose sight of ethics and accountability.
In the build-up to the 2018 provincial election, Ford was forced to alter his campaign after touching what could be considered one of the third rails of Ontario politics: the Greenbelt.
In February of that year, Ford was recorded on video promising his government would “open up a big chunk” of the Greenbelt for affordable housing developments.
“I’ve already talked to some of the biggest developers in this country,” Ford said of his conversation with builders. “I wish I could say it was my idea, but it was their idea as well.”
The revelation, during the election campaign, created a firestorm of controversy that quickly led to a political retreat.
“The people have spoken — we won’t touch the Greenbelt,” Ford said.
The mandate letter Ford later gave to Minister Clark showed that the government intended to keep that promise.
“Review various government legislation – including the Planning Act and Places to Grow Act – to reduce red tape, shorten approval timelines, and increase housing supply while simultaneously protecting the greenbelt,” read the first bullet point from the letter to Clark.
Ontario’s integrity commissioner determined that while this was the government’s “official position throughout its first term,” there was a dramatic shift after the 2022 provincial election.
Senior staff to the premier recently testified to the integrity commissioner that they were always aware that the Greenbelt was a “lever to pull” in order to build more housing and that the government decided to use the option after sluggish housing starts in early 2022.
The second-term mandate letter, which Ford said he “discussed” with his cabinet ministers, included a clear instruction to open the Greenbelt for housing construction.
“In Fall 2022, complete work to codify processes for swaps, expansions, contractions and policy updates for the Greenbelt. In addition, conduct a comprehensive review of the mandate of the Greenbelt Council and Greenbelt Foundation. This should include a comprehensive plan to expand and protect the Greenbelt,” a portion of the 2022 mandate letter, included in the integrity commissioner’s report, read.
The letter, given to Clark 27 days after the re-election, launched a “chaotic and almost reckless process” that furthered the private interests of some developers “improperly,” the commissioner found.
Clark resigned as Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing in September 2023, saying his role in the Greenbelt scandal had become a distraction for the government.
Ford targets rent control
In addition to reviewing official growth plans, Premier Ford also instructed Clark to target renters in Ontario.
“The housing sector has seen many fundamental changes in recent memory,” the letter said. “Review these changes to ensure that they are fulfilling their stated purpose without having a negative effect on housing supply.”
It added, “This includes re-evaluating the future of rent control while not removing any protections for any current renters.”
Clark quickly made good on the mandate by scaling back the province’s rent control measures and eliminating it entirely for rental units created and occupied after Nov. 15, 2018.
Strong mayor powers
Premier Doug Ford’s mandate letter to Clark also reveals that the government wanted to usher in a strong mayor system years before it actually formalized the policy, in the middle of a municipal election.
Clark was instructed to “review the role of the Mayor and council in Ontario’s municipalities” and target any “structural impediments” that would interfere with what the premier viewed as a well-managed municipal government.
Clark was told to start with a study of the City of Toronto Act before expanding the review of the new governance model to other municipalities “as directed.”
While it’s unclear how long the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing had studied the policy, the Ford government chose to announce the plans in the middle of the Toronto municipal elections in 2022 after closed-door discussions with then-mayor John Tory.
The new powers would give the mayor the ability to set the municipal budget, hire and fire top civil servants and overrule city council when those decisions didn’t align with provincial housing priorities, like housing set by the Ford government.
After the election, the government enhanced those powers to give mayors the ability to push files through city council with just one-third support — which critics decried as anti-democratic.
Those powers were then extended to major Ontario municipalities and continue to be rolled out to mayors across the province.
Some, including Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow, have rejected the powers, opting to govern by consensus instead.
Mandate letter: municipal affairs and housing
The following is a list of instructions given to then-housing minister Steve Clark in July, 2018:
- Review various government legislation – including the Planning Act and Places to Grow Act – to reduce red tape, shorten approval timelines, and increase housing supply while simultaneously protecting the greenbelt.
- The housing sector has seen many fundamental changes in recent memory. Review these changes to ensure that they are fulfilling their stated purpose without having a negative effect on housing supply. This includes re-evaluating the future of rent control while not removing any protections for any current renters, reviewing the recent changes to the Ontario Municipal Board to ensure that new housing can be built in a timely fashion, ensuring zoning in Ontario is regularly updated by municipalities, and fixing the Residential Tenancies Act to make it work properly for tenants and landlords.
- Explore options to increase social and affordable housing in Ontario including working with your fellow Cabinet colleagues to help invest in supportive housing as part of our $3.8 billion mental health commitment. This should also include exploring the donation of land to municipalities for new affordable housing builds and exploring opportunities to develop and repurpose the province’s existing real estate portfolio.
- Develop a strong working relationship with Ontario’s municipalities and their municipal associations. Create a process to properly inform Cabinet colleagues of municipal issues that address their portfolios.
- Work with the Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure to assist with regional transit planning and municipal relationships surrounding the subway upload proposal.
- Ensure that Ontario moves forward with increased gas tax redistribution plans for Ontario’s municipalities. As the current uploading agreement expires, review the previous agreement and work with municipalities to ensure a new agreement is in place that delivers results for Ontario taxpayers.
- Take the lead in working with the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services to ensure municipalities in Ontario have proper emergency services resources. This can include reviewing volunteer forces and consolidation with the Ontario Provincial Police where requested.
- Review the role of the Mayor and council in Ontario’s municipalities and any structural impediments to effective municipal government. Begin this work with a study of the City of Toronto Act and expand that review to other municipalities as directed.
- Work with your Cabinet colleagues to reduce the burden of municipal reporting to the province. Ensure these reports are processed and necessary, that information is not being duplicated across reports, and that our smaller municipalities are able to properly process their requirements.
- Introduce legislation to exempt Ontario’s Royal Canadian Legions from municipal property taxes.
- Work with the Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure to sell air rights above transportation hubs and above other government assets to increase housing and office supply.
This story is the second in the new Global News series ‘Mandated.’ Over several days, a series of stories will reveal the contents of the Ford government’s first set of mandate letters, handed to ministers after the party formed government in 2018. The letters have been kept secret since Doug Ford’s first election — a battle that has gone all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Photo illustration by Janet Cordahi