When Ontario Premier Doug Ford made a quick stop in Niagara last Thursday to talk about money for infrastructure, he couldn’t escape without questions about amalgamation, calling the number of politicians in Niagara “almost comical.”
Ford was at Beamer’s Hardware Store in Fonthill to announce that Pelham is the recipient of a $1.67 million provincial grant toward a nearly $8 million reconstruction of Pelham Street, one of 24 transit projects totalling almost $74 million planned for the Niagara Region, mainly in St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, Welland and Fort Erie.
Beamer’s Hardware owners Lloyd Beamer and his wife, Shirley, longtime Conservatives, were pleased to host Ford at their store, saying that a call had come earlier in the week from Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff, asking whether they were interested.
A few customers paid for items, seemingly oblivious to the growing number of television cameras being mounted on tripods, tucked behind a black velvet rope on the far side of the cash register.
“We ask that you stay on this side of the rope,” one of Ford’s communications staff told reporters as they arrived.
Shortly before Ford’s arrival, the front door was locked and a serious looking OPP plainclothes officer in suit and tie, standing near a stack of water softener salt, turned even more serious.
Entering from the back door, Ford, accompanied by Oosterhoff, strode past tubes of caulk, spray bottles of insecticide, and tiny tubes of Krazy Glue, to reach an acrylic lectern featuring a sign in Tory blue reading, “FOR THE PEOPLE.”
According to a Ford spokesperson, Fonthill was one of five stops that the Premier made on his swing through Niagara, ending with a $1000-dollar-a-plate Progressive Conservative fundraiser at a Beamsville winery, where he was greeted by protesters upset over the government’s planned changes in funding for those with autism.
Two protesters were also in Fonthill, and a third arrived after Ford’s departure. As the Premier spoke inside Beamer’s, Katherine Hunt and Joe Serianni, whose three-year-old son is autistic, stood on the sidewalk, holding signs and earning the occasional toot of support from passing motorists.
Inside, a handful of television crews recorded the proceedings, and three or four print reporters scribbled away. The event was closed to the public.
Asked by the Voice whether his recent flagging poll numbers had led him to rethink his government’s proposal to bring some form of municipal amalgamation to Niagara, Ford scoffed.
“Well, that’s the Toronto Star’s numbers,” said Ford. “I don’t believe the Toronto Star readership polls. I believe the ones at election time.”
Amalgamation, he said, was still on the table.
“[Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark] will be rolling that out over the next little while, and he’ll be able to speak to that. But let me speak to the people in the Niagara Region.”
Here Ford turned to Oosterhoff to confirm the number of office holders for Niagara’s 400,000-odd residents. Oosterhoff told him that it was 136.
“A hundred and thirty-six,” repeated Ford. “It’s almost comical. A hundred and thirty-six politicians for four hundred thousand people. Something’s wrong. That’s just wasting taxpayers’ money. But I have all the confidence in the world in Minister Clark to straighten out any of those issues, and make sure we respect the taxpayers, and run a leaner and more efficient government.”
Asked whether he would have any input himself, Ford said that, “like any decision we make,” the matter would go to caucus, to local representatives, to the people, and to cabinet.
“The most important people to us are the stakeholders, the people. The people make the decision. I can assure you — you go door-knocking and you tell the locals that they have a hundred and thirty-six politicians and that’s where their tax dollars are going—I’ve heard it, they aren’t too happy about that.”
Also asked about funding for the Canada Summer Games in 2021, being held in Niagara, Ford wouldn’t reveal anything definite, but said there would be good news announced soon.
With a concluding smile, Ford turned and headed back past the adhesives and insect killers to depart the way he had arrived.
Oosterhoff made a point of going out to the sidewalk to speak briefly with the pair of autism protesters who had remained throughout.
Serianni, who came from Welland to protest cuts for children with autism, said his major concern “is the current funding that was rolled out this year — not one family has received any funding that is on the wait list, and I do not understand why it takes so long for the government to release these funds they talk about.”
Serianni said his son was recommended to receive 10 to 15 hours a week of therapy, while the family can only afford three hours out of pocket.
Inside, as the TV crews silently packed their gear, at the register, two sales were chalked up to security staff — one cellphone charger, and one jug of deck wash.
The previously serious looking OPP officer was now all smiles as he held up the deck wash.
“This is gonna be my weekend,” he said, heading out the front door.