PAIN COURT, Ont. – Ontario Premier Doug Ford vowed to stand up for the province’s farmers during a briefing on NAFTA talks in Washington this week, saying Tuesday that any version of the trade pact had to protect the agricultural sector.
Ford made his comments at an annual rural expo in the province a day before heading to the U.S. capital to meet with federal negotiators and the Canadian ambassador to the United States.
“Farm jobs are not a bargaining chip,” the premier said at the International Plowing Match in Pain Court, Ont. “Not now, not ever.”
Canada’s so-called supply management for dairy and poultry products has been a point of contention in the trade talks, which are expected to resume this week.
Ford said there should be no compromises on supply management at the talks, noting that he’d be conveying Ontario’s needs during his Washington visit.
“If you’re asking me, don’t compromise,” he said. “We have to protect the farmers. We have to protect the auto workers. We have to protect everyone in Ontario.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed to protect Canada’s supply management system against U.S. demands for greater access by its farmers to Canada’s dairy market. Trudeau also said earlier this week that a deal could be days or weeks away, but hedged a little on the grounds that the government won’t sign at any cost.
Ford said he knew the federal government was working hard on the trade pact.
“Sometimes when you’re negotiating a tough deal it takes a little longer but I’m confident we”ll get this past the finish line,” he said.
The discussion of NAFTA at the rural Ontario expo came as Ford and other politicians took a break from sparring at the legislature.
Members of all the parties took part in a parade at the event before Ford and the leader of the Opposition drove tractors to see who could plow a straight furrow.
It was a brief reprieve from weeks of tension at the legislature, where Ford’s Progressive Conservatives are working to pass a bill that would slash the size of Toronto’s city council in the middle of an election campaign.
Opponents have been highly critical of the bill, which is proceeding after Ford invoked a constitutional provision known as the notwithstanding clause to override a court ruling quashing an earlier version of the legislation.
A small group of protesters opposed to the use of the notwithstanding clause heckled the premier at the plowing match holding a large banner that said “don’t plow our charter”.
Ford dismissed their criticism.
“They hopped in their car from downtown, the NDP, and drove down here,” he said. “That’s what it was about.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said a number of people at the event had urged her to continue pushing back against the government’s council-cutting move.
“Certainly a number of people along the parade route … approached me to say good for you for standing up to Doug Ford,” she said. “This is the wrong thing to do.”
Mark Lunt, who had travelled to the plowing match from Hamilton, said he’s been following Ford’s decisions since he came to power in June and supports the cut to Toronto council.
“It’s the right thing to do, holding people accountable to do a more efficient job,” he said.
Lunt said if the cut doesn’t work out it could always be reversed by someone in the future.
“Nobody likes change,” he said. “At the end of the day I think you have to give (Ford) a chance. We voted him in. Give him a chance.”
Ford also used the event to hint at the upcoming release of a report into the previous Liberal government’s spending, saying observers would be “floored” by what an independent commission found.
The government has said the commission will help clarify the debt and deficit levels of the province.