WEST GREY — Two weeks ago at TVO’s Toronto studio, Tanya Granic Allen stood behind a speaker’s podium looking caught off guard by a question that reporters would not drop.
A press conference had followed the first debate for Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership, and all four candidates then in the race — Granic Allen, Christine Elliott, Doug Ford, and Caroline Mulroney — each took a turn facing questions from assembled media.
A surprise candidate who seemingly came out of nowhere, Granic Allen had just introduced herself to voters with a snappy, assertive debating style that at times stole the show from the other candidates (who were regarded as the heavyweights of the leadership campaign).
But Granic Allen’s confidence faltered during the press conference when she tripped over one simple question that every leadership candidate must eventually answer: Where do you live?
At first, the pro-life activist and opponent of the province’s current sex-education curriculum offered a general location: Grey County, an upper-tier municipality of nearly 94,000 people that hugs the southern shores of Georgian Bay in western Ontario.
Stay up to date!
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.
Then, pressed to be more specific, Granic Allen gradually relented.
“I live in a little town near Dornoch, Ontario,” she said, her speech clipped and her tone exasperated. She’d prefaced the information with the disdaining prediction that the reporters in front of her wouldn’t know where Dornoch was. “You’ve probably never been there.”
Nevertheless, the reporter persisted. “What’s it called?”
“It’s the Pioneer Settlement of Welbeck,” she said.
“Pioneer Settlement of Welbeck?”
The exchange briefly focused attention on a place that’s little more than a crossroads, a community too small even to qualify as a hamlet. (Today Welbeck is part of the municipality of West Grey and is not an independent entity; the “Pioneer Settlement” mentioned on local signage is an unofficial recognition of its history.)
Where, exactly, was this community that the New Brunswick-born Granic Allen refers to as her “forever home?” For the president of the advocacy group called Parents As First Educators, what does Welbeck offer that Toronto — her home for years — had lacked?
A quick Google search easily satisfies the question of location: Welbeck is a 2½-hour drive northwest of Toronto, 13 minutes north of the former town of Durham (population 2,609), 30 minutes north of Neustadt — birthplace of Canada’s 13th prime minister, John G. Diefenbaker — and 20 minutes south of Chatsworth, birthplace of Nellie McClung, (the suffragette, writer, and MP). It’s also less than 10 minutes from the farm managed by Michael Schmidt, Canada’s best-known raw milk activist.
Yet Google can only go so far in answering the question of appeal. Aware the location would be unknown to the vast majority of Ontarians, we at TVO decided to hit the road to learn more about Welbeck and its concerns.
A place to relocate
Reaching Welbeck can be tricky during a mid-February thaw. It’s not on a provincial highway, and marshes that supply the nearby Styx River had flooded the access point a gravel township road that leads there from Durham.
When you physically arrive in Welbeck there’s not much to see, other than Mother Nature and private laneways. The settlement’s most prominent landmark is Welbeck Sawmill — a hardware and lumber store.
The community nestles in an area of southwestern Ontario that presents an appealing combination of isolation and remoteness to people who value their privacy. Not quite cottage country and too far from cities to attract many day-trippers, West Grey and its municipal neighbours (Brockton, South Bruce, Arran-Elderslie, Southgate) have long been home to at least two long-standing Amish communities and, in more recent years, Old Order Mennonite communities.
The area attracts residents from cities, too. Currently, it appeals to people nearing retirement who continue to work part-time. Many have family connections to the area, says Kevin Eccles, a lifetime resident and the mayor of West Grey (population 12,500).
In the 1970s and ’80s, the area became popular with artists such as Norman White, a pioneer in using electronics and robotics in visual art, and abstract painter Harold Klunder. They came because of cheap property prices, a picturesque landscape and access to old, large buildings that could easily be converted into studios. A new wave of residents began arriving in the late 1990s: Small plot farmers who sought — and found — affordable land so they could join the local food movement. Today, 15 farms in the area contract directly with local families to supply them with fruits, vegetables, and meat, says Cory Eichman, who farms less than five minutes away from Welbeck.
During those decades, a flurry of land severances helped make property affordable for newcomers to the area. And Eccles says farm severances continue to make affordable, small-acre recreational properties available for new residents in nearby areas of Grey County.
Every wave of new residents makes an impact. For instance, despite its tiny size, Durham is home to a noted public art gallery and has hosted countless arts events over the years, including the long-running annual Words Aloud poetry festival.
The influx of urban perspectives creates unusual expectations and tensions, too.
In 2016, when West Grey began discussing switching its streetlights to LEDs, residents with urban backgrounds came forward encouraging the council to reduce street lighting as much as possible to allow people to enjoy the stars at night. Council ended up striking a dark-sky committee to monitor the issue, says Eccles.
Sometimes people from cities buy property in the area because they don’t like rules, says Terry Burns, who lives near Chatsworth and is the former artistic director of Words Aloud. “They’re under the mistaken impression that if they have a piece of property in the country, then they’ll be able to do whatever they want,” she says. New residents are using the country road she lives on as if it were their own private ATV trail. “It takes them a long time to learn about neighbourliness.”
For others, however, that “neighbourliness” — the opportunity to be a part of a closely-knit community — is a main attraction. Granic Allen highlights community as one of the reasons that motivated her family’s decision to move here last year. “We wanted to change our lifestyle a little bit. We have four young children, and we just felt the rural setting would be idyllic,” she says in a phone interview.
Granic Allen, her husband Jonathan Allen, and their children, live on a 100-acre farm property that includes a five-acre hops yard. It’s close to property that Jonathan’s family owns in nearby Bruce County.
Granic Allen says she enjoys being able to walk and wave to neighbours, chatting with them at the grocery store in nearby Durham. “We’ve been blessed to make so many new friends. I know these are friendships that are going to last a lifetime.”
TVO didn’t find anyone in West Grey who could recall meeting her. “I’ve talked to a number of people; nobody really seems to know who Tanya Granic Allen is,” Eccles says.
Bonnie Kraus, owner of Welbeck Sawmill, can’t recall running into Granic Allen either. “I haven’t met her personally, but I read in the paper what she stood for and … I know that they [her family] come here and they shop here.”
Even Bill Walker, PC MPP for Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, wasn’t aware that Granic Allen lived in the area until she mentioned it in the news conference.
As she begins to meet more of the area’s residents, Granic Allen will likely encounter some support for her efforts to repeal the province’s sex-education curriculum implemented by the Liberal government in 2015. Nearly everyone interviewed acknowledged there are pockets of people in the area who share the leadership hopeful’s concerns about the appropriateness of the curriculum, which introduces students as early as in Grade 3 to different sexual orientations and gender diversity. The area contains a large Christian population that’s “very strait-laced” and has trouble coming to terms with different sexual orientations and gender diversity, Eccles says. “There is still a huge stigma [over sexual diversity] in rural Ontario.”
Eichman, the farmer, believes the area’s Catholic school community is especially uncomfortable with the curriculum. He personally supports it, believing broad-based generally agreed-upon sex education within the school is better than “leaving it totally up to the parents.”
Yet other issues are much higher on the local priority list. The economy is growing but workers are increasingly hard to find, Eccles says. In January, unemployment rate stood at 4.4 per cent in the Stratford-Bruce Peninsula economic region — below Ontario’s overall rate of 5.2 per cent.
Moreover, as in many rural communities in Ontario, the closing of schools is the major concern, as are continued worries about the delivery of long-term care and mental health treatment. Hydro rates also continue to rankle residents, despite the Liberal government’s recent adjustments. Says Walker, the local Tory MPP: “If you start to connect the dots, most of the complaints or concerns that are brought to me are certainly related to government services.”
Not a single-issue candidate?
And despite some support for her stance on the province’s sex-ed curriculum, area residents wonder about the single focus of Granic Allen’s platform. “I would say it was the last thing I’d ever think of somebody jumping into politics about, but hey that’s our democracy,” says Kraus, who moved as a young child with her parents to Welbeck in 1947. She says although she leans conservative when it comes to politics, she hasn’t made up her mind which candidate she’d like to see head the provincial party.
Walker cautions against his party becoming too linear or “special interest” in its focus to avoid losing sight of all the other issues that “the bulk of people” are talking to him about. He says the current Liberal government has lost its balance by allowing an urban perspective to drive its approach to policy-making. The slant “has really started to erode and lose, if you will, the voice and the respect of rural Ontario.”
Granic Allen recognizes that to gain support for her campaign, her platform has to appeal to Progressive Conservative party members from across the province. She vehemently denies being a single-issue candidate. “As I made very clear at the debate [at TVO] with Mr. Paikin, repealing the sex-ed is one of my priorities, no carbon taxation is another, [as are] no increase in taxation and no new taxes,” Granic Allen says. “Those are the main thrusts. I believe we need to preserve health care spending and we need to invest in education.”
Whether Granic Allen runs for a seat at Queen’s Park may depend on whether she wins the PC leadership contest. Voting runs from March 2 to 8, with the new leader to be announced March 10.
Even if she wins the leadership, Granic Allen likely won’t represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound: Walker, the current MPP, has already laid claim to the PC candidacy for that territory. So it’ll be back to the map again, this time to find a patch of Ontario to call her political home.
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.