Ontario Premier Doug Ford was met mostly with applause as he took the mic at the opening ceremony of the International Plowing Match in this Northern Ontario farming town on Tuesday, but there were a handful of boos still audible under the cheers.
Speaking to reporters afterward, the Premier blamed the barely noticeable boos on the NDP, claiming that provincial Leader Andrea Horwath and her MPPs at the event had orchestrated it – which she denied.
“I am so disappointed with Andrea Horwath and her team, who were absolutely classless to do that,” Mr. Ford said, adding that he also confronted Ms. Horwath about it. “Politics will be politics. I know the support that I have in the farming community is absolutely massive.”
But the NDP Leader, who was on the stage alongside Mr. Ford and other leaders, said neither she nor her party had anything to do with the booing. Ms. Horwath said people here in Verner and across the province are concerned about the government’s cuts to everything from its rural-affairs department to public-health programs and its plan to increase class sizes in schools.
Facing criticism for his government’s spending cuts and other controversies, Mr. Ford faced loud and sustained boos in June in Toronto, when he appeared at the Toronto Raptors’ NBA championship celebration in front of City Hall.
The annual plowing match has long been a political pilgrimage for Ontario politicians, allowing them to hop onto tractors and appeal to rural voters. It was held this year on a farm in Verner in West Nipissing, 55 kilometres west of North Bay. In addition to Ontario’s party leaders, federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, a former Ontario MPP, turned up on Tuesday to pose for selfies, hold babies and answer questions from reporters.
While Mr. Ford and his Progressive Conservatives performed well in rural areas in the 2018 election, Verner is represented by the NDP at Queen’s Park and the Liberals in Ottawa. It also has a large francophone population, a constituency that critics say Mr. Ford has alienated since coming to office by chopping a French-language watchdog and initially quashing plans for a French university – a move he just reversed.
The Premier used the plowing match as a backdrop to announce a trade mission to South Korea and Japan next month to help farmers seek new markets as they reel from China’s restrictions on Canadian canola seed, pork and beef. The mission will be led by Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman and Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli.
Earlier on Tuesday, Mr. Ford and his caucus were wheeled in on a trailer towed by a tractor as the plowing match’s opening parade snaked its way through the grounds. Small crowds lining the route greeted the Premier with cheers and raised smartphones seeking photos in the bright morning sun.
But one woman, high-school teacher Christiane McNeil from nearby Sturgeon Falls, offered a solitary boo. She said the government’s move to increase class sizes was hitting rural Ontario schools hard, forcing her to teach as many as 39 students at once, with some of them sitting on the floor.
“I’m on the front line and the cuts are hurting our students,” Ms. McNeil said in an interview, gesturing at the passing politicians. “They don’t know what we do every day.”
Speaking to reporters in a tent at the event, Mr. Ford also acknowledged that his government’s mandatory anti-carbon-tax stickers for gas pumps – derided as political ads by critics – were defective and peeling off. He said it was especially infuriating for him, as he ran the family label-making business before taking office.
“It’s like the shoemaker’s daughter not getting shoes,” Mr. Ford said, vowing that the problem would be fixed. He also joked that his family’s firm, Deco Labels & Tags, would not have made the same mistake, adding that the company was not even allowed to donate the stickers. “They had to pull me off the ceiling when I heard the stickers were coming off. They didn’t use Deco Labels, that’s why.”
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