COVID-19 really has changed everything: An Ontario premier just laid into farmers

OPINION: In normal times, governments trip over themselves to champion rural interests. The pandemic has allowed Doug Ford to speak plainly about the province’s agri-food industry
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jun 23, 2020
Windsor-Essex is the last public-health unit in the province still in Stage 1 of reopening. (iStock.com/IMNATURE)

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Once a year, every year — with the exception of 2020, that is  — the Ontario legislature adjourns for several days in the middle of what would otherwise be a sitting week so that MPPs and party leaders can make a pilgrimage to wherever the International Plowing Match is being held. The agricultural fair/trade show moves around the province every year and is notable both because it’s how we get pictures of the major party leaders driving tractors and because it involves politicians making a very public and pious show of demonstrating their fealty to rural Ontario and to farmers, in particular.

It's not that farmers don’t occasionally take it on the chin when Queen’s Park makes policy — many were furious when the Liberal government introduced controls on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides under Premier Kathleen Wynne — but both Liberals and Progressive Conservatives have put an enormous amount of emotional labour into assuring rural Ontario that it’s never forgotten and always loved.

Until yesterday. Premier Doug Ford, in between repeated declarations that he loves and supports farmers, read the riot act to farm operators in Windsor-Essex. Due to COVID-19 outbreaks among migrant farm workers there, it’s the last public-health unit in the province stuck in Stage 1.

“Guys, you’ve got to help us here. You know we’re sending in units. I'm going to tell it the way it is: farmers just aren't co-operating there and sending out the people to get tested,” said Ford. “Like, I'm begging here for your support for the people of Windsor and Essex. What more do you want to do? It's frustrating, to say the least.”

Ford even said out loud what’s usually forbidden knowledge in Ontario politics: that cities and farmers sometimes have different interests. Asked whether it was fair that the city of Windsor should have to remain in Stage 1 because of outbreaks in Essex County farms (the head of Windsor’s downtown business improvement association called the region’s greenhouse growers a “very selfish group”), the premier said, in effect, that Windsor residents should go yell at their rural neighbours.

“Just co-operate, and we can get through this,” Ford said. “We'll do whatever we can to protect you, protect the workers, but it's not fair to the people of Windsor and Essex.”

It was a pretty extraordinary moment in Ontario politics — but we can note how out of the ordinary it was without overstating things. This government is still very much working on behalf of agri-food interests (although it would, naturally, prefer to say it “supports farmers”). Just last week, the PC majority at the legislature voted through Bill 156, the Security From Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act, with the support of three Liberal MPPs. (The New Democrats and Green MPP Mike Schreiner voted no.)

Critics, including both animal-rights activists and the Canadian Association of Journalists, panned Bill 156 as an attack on democratic rights to protest and report on animal abuse. The government says it’s about ensuring the security of the food chain and protecting farm properties, especially those belonging to family farmers whose business operations are also their homes. My point today isn’t to litigate that but to note that this is what “listening to rural Ontario” looks like in practice: farmers have actual interests they want to see government deliver on, just as much as urban voters or business lobbyists do. If it’s a scandal — and animal-rights activists certainly believe it is — then it’s a drearily predictable one.

It will be very interesting to see, however, whether the premier’s remarks on Monday actually manifest in any kind of change in attitude from the provincial government. There is a wide spectrum of powers the province could bring to bear on farmers, should it feel so inclined, and the new kinds of more intrusive inspections to ensure workplace safety for migrant workers are just the start. The province is deeply enmeshed in the agri-food sector, doling out everything from discretionary business grants to loans to farm-marketing boards. Any or all of that could, in theory, be called into question by a government that starts to see farmers are an impediment to addressing a real provincial emergency.

Which isn’t to say that any of that is the most likely outcome, only that the province has numerous levers it can pull to make the lives of obstructionist farmers difficult. It may not be likely, but, until yesterday, it looked almost impossible. Any farmers who think they can continue to gamble on infinite goodwill from the premier’s office, even in a pandemic, might consider that what we heard yesterday sounded a lot like what we were hearing from the premier about commercial landlords in May. That story ended with a clearly exasperated Ford bringing a commercial-eviction bill to the legislature, even though it went against many of the government’s ideological priors.

Maybe the story for greenhouse growers in Windsor-Essex won’t end the same way. But, if yesterday is any indication, Ford’s not in any mood to be tested.

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