BOWLING GREEN, ONTARIO — Ontario Premier Doug Ford received a polite welcome Tuesday at a rural and farm expo, but underneath the smattering of applause and cheers lay a quiet undercurrent of anger about his plan to open parcels of protected Greenbelt land for housing development.
Provincial politicians of all stripes made a trek to the International Plowing Match, which is a celebration of agriculture and rural living, and provides politicians with an opportunity to woo those communities.
Ford received some cheers and thumbs up as a tractor pulled him and his caucus on a wagon through the expo during an opening parade, and received polite applause during his speech, though several people silently held up signs urging Ford to keep the original promise he made several years ago not to touch the Greenbelt.
But afterward, some attendees grumbled about Ford's decision to remove protections from Greenbelt lands, 83 per cent of which the auditor general said is among the highest quality farmland in the province.
"Doug Ford, how can you come and promote the International Plowing Match when you're appropriating prime farmland?" said Mona Blain, from Rodney, Ont., near London. "He should be ashamed of himself...Farming affects us all. When there's no land left, where is our food coming from?"
Ken Reed, from Kitchener, Ont., said he generally supports the Progressive Conservatives, but it seems like the Greenbelt decision was done to benefit wealthy developers and he doesn't like it.
"I don't think he should have done it," he said. "It's the big money bunch that are involved with this. The developers are involved."
The auditor general found that more than 90 per cent of the land was in five sites passed on to the then-housing minister's chief of staff by two developers he met at an industry event, and the property owners stand to see their land value rise by $8.3 billion.
The legislature usually shuts down for the day so that politicians can attend the rural expo, but this year the return from the summer break was pushed back to next week to accommodate the plowing match schedule.
Ford in his speech did not mention the Greenbelt or housing, largely instead touting infrastructure investments including broadband and a reduction in the gas tax.
"We're always going to have the agriculture sector, the food sector's back, but most importantly, we're going to have the farmers' backs, the people that are out there day in and day out, working the backs off, and they're salt of the earth people," he said.
NDP Leader Marit Stiles, however, did mention the Greenbelt, and received many enthusiastic nods of support.
"Farmland like this is one of our most precious resources," she said. "I know and you know that those farm lands are at risk and that's why your Ontario NDP is working so hard to protect your farmlands and your Greenbelt."
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said his team was holding signs during the opening parade saying, "Hands off the Greenbelt, protect farmland," and he got a lot of positive feedback.
"I can't tell you how many people said to me, 'Keep fighting, protect our farmland, protect the farms, protect the farmland, keep his hands off the Greenbelt,'" he said. "I heard that throughout the parade route today. That's loud and clear."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 19, 2023.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press