FOI request finds no proof of work from Mark Saunders as Ontario Place special advisor

Opposition leaders grilled the Ford government on its 95-year deal with Therme, the company behind a planned luxury spa at Ontario Place. As Tina Yazdani reports, the NDP is also questioning the role of a special advisor on the controversial project.

By Tina Yazdani and Meredith Bond

A Freedom of Information Act (FOI) request from NDP MPP Chris Glover found that there were no recommendations, reports or advice from Mark Saunders to Premier Doug Ford or the Minister of Tourism while he was a Special Advisor on Ontario Place development.

The former Toronto police chief was appointed to the role on Feb. 25, 2021 and his term lasted until just before the June 2022 election.

He later launched campaigns to become a Member of Parliament and to replace Mayor John Tory in the Toronto byelection, an election in which Premier Doug Ford endorsed Saunders.

As a part of the FOI request, a search was undertaken for any copies related to work done by Saunders during his time in the role, but the Ministry could not locate any records.

Saunders reportedly was set to be paid up to $171,000 for the position.

A government source tells CityNews Saunders was in fact paid $70,000 in the year and four months he spent in the role, and he wasn’t mandated or asked to produce any reports.

Saunders led a weekly Ontario Place meeting to facilitate a relationship between the premier’s office and the City of Toronto, as well as other stakeholders, like First Nations communities, while the government was developing and landing on the vision for Ontario Place.

Glover asked Premier Doug Ford during Question Period Thursday about the report, but he wasn’t present at Queen’s Park to answer.

“Can the premier show any evidence that his special advisor produced any advice?” asked Glover.

“What advice have they received from Mr. Saunders on his $170,000-a-year salary and there’s nothing, they can’t provide a single piece of information. So, I think Ontarians have a lot of questions,” NDP leader Marit Stiles said.

“This isn’t just anyone, this is a close ally of the premier’s,” she added.

At the time of his hiring, then-Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, Lisa MacLeod, said Saunders would be able to leverage his senior-level experience in a major organization, experience in large-scale transformation change management, and in the execution of complex project management initiatives to advise the government.

Ontario Place first opened to great fanfare in 1971 and was a popular destination in its heyday, but over the decades it has become dated and obsolete. It was finally shuttered in 2011 by Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government.

Earlier this year, the Ford government announced its vision for the landmark that included a new year-round stage for concerts from LiveNation, relocating the Ontario Science Centre to the waterfront property and a large water park and wellness centre operated by Therme Group.

However, some critics are opposed to the plans, in particular the Austrian company Therme’s plan, arguing a lack of transparency from the government, pointing out that no environmental assessment was carried out on the Therme design because it is a private project.

Opposition leaders also grilled the Ford government for more details on the 95-year-deal the province signed with Therme.

“They will not share the details of the deal with Therme … something just doesn’t sit right,” said NDP leader Marit Stiles.

The NDP also tabled a motion to cancel the deal altogether.

“Not only is the government looking at handing over this prime public parkland to an Austrian company for free but they’re also giving the corporation hundreds of millions of dollars, we want to see this deal cancelled,” said Glover.

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