Ontario PC leader Doug Ford says he believes Stephen Lecce is “sorry” about participating in a fraternity “slave auction” 18 years ago and will remain the party’s candidate in King-Vaughan despite calls from the opposition for his removal.

“He’s sorry,” Ford told reporters at a stop in Kitchener on Thursday morning. “This is something he did when he was 19 years old in university.”

In 2006, Lecce led the Sigma Chi fraternity at Western University and participated in a “slave auction,” where donors could hire fraternity members as “slaves” to perform activities as part of a charity fundraiser.

The news was first reported by PressProgress on Sunday.

Lecce apologized for participating in the event in a statement released Tuesday night, saying it “in no way reflects who I am as a person.”

Black NDP members and other community groups, education union leaders and anti-racism advocates said the event and others like it trivialize and mock the suffering endured by racialized people during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The NDP called for Lecce’s removal as a candidate, something Ford said was not necessary.

“Let me tell you something about Stephen Lecce,” Ford said. “He’s been one of the strongest advocates about combatting racism in schools – and he has my full support.”

Lecce is one of the PC’s leading incumbents seeking re-election, serving as education minister for much of Ford’s first term as premier.

Amid a tumultuous term as education minister, featuring labour contract negotiations and the ups and downs of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lecce has taken action when confronted with allegations of racism in public schools in the province.

He ordered an outside supervisor to take over the Peel District School Board when parents brought forth reports of racism in schools there.

He also oversaw the de-streaming of math, science and English courses in early high school, something observers say disproportionately impacts racialized students.