The Ford government has backed off from a plan that was bothering rural Ontario: it will not move ahead with a proposal that would have allowed the severance of farmland so that more housing can be built.
It was one of two controversies boiling over in the Progressive Conservative heartland this week. The government is showing no sign of willingness to change its position on the other and halt the closure of the Minden hospital's emergency department.
In question period on Tuesday morning, Agriculture Minister Lisa Thompson said her government had listened to farmers and the severance issue is "off the table."
It came after the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, the National Farmers Union's provincial chapter, and the province's major producer associations had come out strongly against the move, warning it would fragment the agricultural land base, increase conflicts between neighbouring land uses, and increase farmland prices and land speculation.
As Thompson spoke, a group of business owners from a PC-blue riding were watching from the public gallery, preparing to make a last-ditch effort to change the government's course on the Minden ER.
In the afternoon, that group — mostly past PC supporters — made their case standing alongside NDP MPPs at a press conference: if there's one issue that would sway their community's vote, closing the emergency room is it.
"I'm extremely disappointed in Laurie Scott," said Dennis Pennie of the riding's PC MPP. "I thought she was there for us."
Scott has held the Haliburton riding for two decades years with one expectation: in 2009, she gave up her seat for then-PC leader John Tory, who ran in the byelection to replace her. Tory lost what was assumed to be a safe seat. Scott was re-elected two years later.
According to Pennie, owner of Minden Auto Care, Scott "hasn't raised her head" on the issue, hasn't invited the community to talk to her about it and, in question period that morning, gave the group of local business owners "not even a glance back" at them as they watched from the gallery.
Both controversies show that the PCs "could have a challenge at the ballot box," according to MPP Bobbi Ann Brady.
Brady knows something about challenging the PCs. In the 2022 election, she ran as an independent in Haldimand—Norfolk, which had voted blue since the mid-1990s, and won. It was her question that Thompson was responding to when she confirmed the government would back down on the proposal to allow the severance of farm properties.
On election night, Brady posed for photos holding a banana because a Ford government adviser had told her that her riding was one of the Conservatives' safe seats — so safe they could run a monkey there and win.
The independent MPP attributes her success to the principled people in her riding. The PC party had appointed a local mayor instead of her as its candidate, even though she was endorsed by the outgoing PC MPP, Toby Barrett, who she had worked closely with for years.
"And when they decide to dig their heels in, they dig their heels in," Brady said. "And they said: 'No, no, we're not going to do this.' You know, if we are a victim once, we will become a victim time and time again, and you're not going to take our vote, and you're not going to take our money for granted.'"
The Conservatives have always been the party of farm families and whether or not they'll stand by them depends on what they'll bring to the ballot box in 2026, she said. "It's whether or not they'll say, 'Hey Mr. Ford, and company, I remember what you did. You've paved over our farmland and we're going to look elsewhere this time."
Brady, and the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, consider the government's change of heart on lot severance an important win.
Ethan Wallace, a Huron country farmer and director at OFA, said it shows the democratic system working: the government heard their concerns and changed course.
That said, the severance issue isn't the agriculture communities' only concern with the Ford government's housing agenda and legislative changes that make it easier for farmland to be used for housing.
"None of us are naive enough to believe that another acre of farmland will ever be used to build a house on, but what we'd like to see is that it's used as efficiently as possible when doing that. And so it's higher, much higher densities in new development, rather just the sprawl that has been going on," Wallace said.
Wallace also said he believes the problem arose because an urban MPP or cabinet minister doesn't understand farmland like a rural one — they'll drive by and see empty land where housing can be built, rather than as a place for agriculture, "its greatest value."
But it's the PC party that has the most rural MPPs to listen to.
"Speaking more as a Huron County farmer than as a director of the OFA, I can say, for me, it's positive to have rural MPPs in cabinet and in the Conservative caucus, in the government caucus, because they can bring a different perspective," Wallace said. "It's not like in previous governments where all the rural ridings were held by the opposition, and then it's easy to ignore them. It's not, it's not as easy to ignore the rural voice if they're in your party and in cabinet and caucus."