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Farm groups cancel election debates due to safety, liability concerns about protest

by David Meyer and Mike Robinson

WELLINGTON CTY. - Two all candidates meetings for the coming provincial election have been cancelled due to fears of protests and concerns for safety.

“It is with great regret and concern that the agricultural organizations of Wellington County have had to make the unprecedented decision to cancel its two scheduled all candidates meetings,” said an email sent to the Advertiser on Sept. 12.

The meetings would have covered two provincial ridings and have been traditionally held to allow farmers a chance to quiz candidates on agricultural policies. The meetings cancelled are:

- Perth-Wellington riding, Sept. 14 at the Arthur community centre; and

 - Wellington-Halton Hills riding, Sept. 20, at Aboyne Hall.

David Parker, president of the Wellington Federation of Agriculture, said on Monday morning his group, plus the local Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario and the local National Farmers Union, made the decision to cancel the meetings.

“Very simply put, emails were circulated by these protesters - and the rhetoric was beginning to step up,” Parker said.

He added his group prides itself on running “a civil meeting,” and such protests are “not fair.”

He said he was saddened when the board of a dozen directors decided to cancel, because “We have forfeited our right to speak on agricultural issues to politicians for the next four years.”

But he added “safety is paramount” when it comes to the members attending the meeting, and also the candidates, who have always attended the farm debates.

The press release stated, “We are being forced to take this step to ensure the safety of the candidates, the farmers entering the meeting, others using these public facilities and our event organizers. There are also issues of potential liability to the hosting agricultural organizations.”

And, Parker added, his group is against providing a protest venue.

“If these people choose to protest, they can pay for a venue,” he said.

Parker noted many of his group’s members are in their 60s, and he does not want to be responsible if something should occur. He noted the police have been informed about the emails and were asked to provide some protection, but he added that can now be cancelled.

Parker said there was “no direct threats. They just stepped up the rhetoric.”

The Advertiser obtained several of the emails. One of them had a poster of a boxer on it with the following caption at the bottom: “All colours of the political spectrum will be ‘duking’ it out ... It promises to be exciting.”

Other emails talked about waving placards and stated a group would supply them if people did not have their own. Parker said asking candidates and members to walk through a group carrying placards was unfair to them.

The emails themselves cited among the protesters’s grievance, harmonized sales tax, health premiums and industrial wind turbines. It is no secret much of the ire is focused on Liberal candidates, whose party has been behind all of those issues.

And Parker said of his group, “We have no training in crowd control.”

WFA secretary Lisa Hern called the issue “unfair,” particularly since it was a lot of work to simply organize the meetings.

“We really do want to get people’s opinions out there,” she said.

But she added it would also not be fair for young children going skating or to hockey practice at the community centre in Arthur to have to walk through a group of protesters.

“That doesn’t mean anything was going to happen,” she said. “Except, I don’t know how to handle it” if something did occur.

She said there was talk that another group might hold a candidates meeting, but she added it would be a general one and not one focused on farm issues.

Hern added, “We didn’t have pressure from anyone to cancel it ... Everybody has been more than willing to work with us.”

The farm groups’ press release added, “Our sincere thanks and apology goes out to the many candidates and their staff that have prepared for, and taken time out of their busy schedules to participate in these debates. It is unfortunate that the agricultural organizations have been placed in this position - organizations comprised of tireless volunteers.

“We will organize a meeting with the elected MPP in each riding to discuss the ag issues facing Wellington County farmers. Questions will also be forwarded to the candidates, and the responses will be posted on the Wellington Federation of Agriculture website at www.wfofa.on.ca.

The Advertiser attempted to reach the National Farmers Union and the CFFO but phone messages were not returned.

* * *

In a later development, the meeting in Arthur was still scheduled to take place - with Wind Concerns Ontario acting as the host for that gathering.

James Virgin, of Oppose Belwood Wind Farms Association, initially stated in an email the meeting was being hosted by the Arthur Chamber of Commerce.

He later suggested the chamber would be participating by co-moderating the event. He later confirmed Wind Concerns Ontario was the co-moderator.

The meeting on Wednesday was supposed to go forward as scheduled and be hosted by the chamber of commerce. As well, a rally was planned by citizens regarding industrial wind turbines in Arthur from 7pm to 8pm. 

In a telephone interview with the Wellington Advertiser, Arthur Chamber of Commerce president Wayne Baker said he initially perceived the all candidates meeting cancellation as an infringement on freedom of speech and democratic rights. After he was first contacted, Baker agreed the chamber would try to mitigate that cancellation.

However, because of a small volunteer base and the short time frame, it was unable to host the meeting.

As a private citizen, but not as a member of the chamber, Baker agreed to co-moderate the discussion that night.

He added that running the event would be in the hands of Wind Concerns Ontario and the local chamber would not be not involved.

In a press release sent to the Advertiser on Tuesday, Wind Concerns Ontario president John Laforet stated, “Wind Concerns Ontario believes in democracy and was sorry to see the WFA cancel this event prior to reaching out to protest organizers or the OPP for information on the planned activities.”

 

 

 

September 16, 2011

 
 

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