After Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives were swept into office in June 2018, ending 15 years of Liberal rule, newly minted Premier Doug Ford provided his cabinet ministers a new north star. He would run a government defined by ethics, accountability and a province that was strictly “for the people.”
In a series of mandate letters given to newly appointed cabinet ministers in 2018, Ford laid out in painstaking detail exactly what he meant by “for the people” — words that would eventually clash with the premier’s actions six years later with his government embroiled in the Greenbelt land swap scandal.
The content of Ford’s mandate letters have been closely and fiercely guarded since CBC News attempted to obtain them using freedom of information laws in 2018. In an attempt to keep the letters confidential, the Ford government fought the CBC all the way to Canada’s Supreme Court, arguing the letters should be considered cabinet records and therefore exempt from disclosure.
The Supreme Court has been deliberating since April whether the letters should be publicly released — a potentially precedent-setting decision for future governments across the country on whether private instructions to publicly paid ministers can be kept confidential.
In early September, however, Global News obtained the letters from a source not authorized to release them publicly, and then independently verified their authenticity.
For the first time since Premier Doug Ford’s election in 2018, his secretive letters to cabinet ministers can be made public in full.
‘This will not happen to us’
Shortly after being sworn into their new roles, in 2018, Doug Ford’s cabinet ministers would have received a letter that contained both ideological and practical instructions to be carried out during the government’s first term.
The premier said he was “adamant” his government would follow through on its election promise of being “for the people” and putting voters and taxpayers at the centre of every decision they made.
“For far too long, too many people have been neglected or ignored by previous governments who become entrapped in a bubble of elite interests,” Ford said in the letter. “I am determined that this will not happen to us.”
Several years later, during his second mandate after a landslide election in 2022, Ford came face to face with accusations of corruption and cronyism. His political foes levelled the criticisms after Ontario’s auditor general found “a few select developers” were granted “preferential treatment” during the government’s “biased” Greenbelt land swap.
Land swapped out of the Greenbelt at the end of 2022 increased in value by $8.3 billion, the auditor general said. With a handful of well-connected developers set to win big, Ford stood accused of the same things he vowed would not happen.
The auditor general later told the Globe and Mail the government had given voters the perception that “back door” access is the “way you get things done in Ontario.”
Back in 2018, Premier Ford seemed aware of that very problem.
“Before you take any action, be sure to ask yourself a simple question, ‘Is this good for the people?’” the letter asks. “Only pursue courses of action that, directly or indirectly, will make a positive difference for the kind of people who cannot afford expensive lobbyists.”
‘The highest ethical standard’
The 2018 mandate letters also spelled out detailed standards under which ministers would be held by Premier Doug Ford “personally” as he attempted to “restore trust and accountability” in Ontario’s government.
“I also expect you to hold yourself to the highest ethical standard, both on and off the job, and lead by example in fostering a culture of respect within your office and in your ministry,” Ford advised his cabinet ministers.
“We must show Ontarians why they can believe in government again and why they can trust their publicly elected officials,” the letter stated.
The first-term mandate letter stands in sharp contrast to the second-term Greenbelt scandal in which former Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark was found to have violated the Members’ Integrity Act for failing to properly oversee his staff properly during the land selection process.
Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner suggested Clark was attempting to “hide from accountability” by turning a blind eye to important policy decisions being implemented by staff.
Clark, who had been the minister since Ford’s first election in 2018, resigned from his post on Sept. 4.
‘We will be accountable for our actions’
In the 2018 mandate letter, Ford also suggests he would be keeping a close watch on his cabinet ministers, ensuring they would be kept in line with the new cabinet philosophy.
“I expect the opposition to hold us to account — and rightfully so,” Ford said. “But I will also personally be holding you accountable for your actions.”
Both Ford and Clark declared the “buck stops with me” as they defended their role in the land swap ordeal, with the premier repeatedly rebuffing calls to fire the housing minister.
However, the scandal has cost Steve Clark and his then-chief of staff Ryan Amato their jobs after the auditor general and integrity commissioner uncovered deep flaws in the process of opening up the Greenbelt.
Premier Doug Ford refused to fire Clark or call for Amato to be fired.
Following are portions of the mandate letter Ontario Premier Doug Ford provided his cabinet ministers in 2018. Some words are bolded for emphasis.
Welcome to your new role as Minister of ____. Thank you for accepting this position.
As we embark on the responsibilities of government I want to begin by emphasizing one point, we ran for election on a plan for the people. I am adamant that this will be a government for the people. Let me explain exactly what this means.
For far too long, too many people have been neglected or ignored by previous governments who become entrapped in a bubble of elite interests. I am determined that this will not happen to us.
As you assume the accountabilities of your portfolio you will be asked to make many important decisions. Before you take any action, be sure to ask yourself a simple question “is this good for the people?” and only pursue courses of action that, directly or indirectly, will make a positive difference for the kind of people who cannot afford expensive lobbyists or a career in full-time activism. These people will only have one voice in government — and that voice will be you.
Our plan for the people was rooted in five core commitments to Ontarians. They will touch on different Ministries in different ways. I expect every single member of my Cabinet will know all five commitments by heart.
We will put more money in your pocket by scrapping the carbon tax, reducing gas prices by 10 cents per litre and giving real tax relief to lower and middle class families.
We will clean up the hydro mess by firing the CEO of Hydro One and lowering Ontario hydro bills by 12%.
We will create good jobs by sending the message that ‘Ontario is open for business’ and by bringing quality jobs back to Ontario by lowering taxes, stabilizing hydro bills and cutting job-killing red tape.
We will restore accountability and trust by ordering a line-by-line audit of government spending and by bringing an end to the culture of waste and mismanagement in government.
And, we will cut hospital wait times and end hallway health care by creating 15,000 new long-term care beds over the next five years and adding $3.8 billion in support for mental health, addictions and supportive housing.
As Premier of this province, I expect that each ministry and its respective minister maintain our commitment to bringing relief to families and making Ontario a place that is open for business again. As minister, I trust that your ministry will adhere to the program-spending guidelines that have been established. It is my duty to inform you that the President of the Treasury Board – in collaboration with the Minister of Finance – will be working alongside you and your new fellow ministers to ensure that our new government will achieve the fiscal positions that we have committed to. Ultimately, we will return the province to budget balance as quickly as possible.
I also expect you to be accountable for your promises and to work collaboratively with officials from my office to ensure that our government will always speak with one voice in delivering on our shared plan. I also expect you to hold yourself to the highest ethical standard, both on and off the job, and lead by example in fostering a culture of respect within your office and in your ministry.
We must show Ontarians why they can believe in government again and why they can trust their publicly elected officials. I expect the opposition to hold us to account – and rightfully so – but I will also personally be holding you accountable for your actions.
Throughout the next four years, we will get this province back on track. I am committed to this goal, and I know that you are committed to this goal as well. Together we will once again make Ontario the economic engine of Canada. We will use a growing economy to provide high-quality services that are the envy of the world. And we will govern as a united team who are loyal to one another and to the people who elected us.
While the policies I have listed in this letter will be your top priorities, I ask that you be ready to deal with challenges that will inevitably arise during our mandate. As minister, your ministry may be responsible for carrying out other objectives that we establish while we move forward with our plan for Ontario. With this mandate letter, you can begin to lead your ministry in achieving the policy objectives that we have established, and those that may eventually arise.
Our new government is committed to undoing the damage that was done by the previous administration. Therefore, I request that you work on building effective working relationships with the Ontario Public Service, the broader public sector, various levels of government, and the private, non-profit, and voluntary sectors.
We will be accountable for our actions. We will deliver results. We will fulfill our promises. I look forward to working in partnership with you, so that we can get this province back on track and deliver our commitment to respect the great people of Ontario.
Premier Doug Ford
This story is the first 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