GODERICH – Glenn Fox got his first inkling of the deep anger simmering across rural Ontario at a funeral in the Niagara area three years ago.
The University of Guelph economist hugged his grieving relatives and shook hands, extending his sympathy to cousins on the loss of their father to lung cancer.
But when he reached one cousin, a photographer who’d moved from Toronto to the Barry’s Bay area, he was stunned at his relative’s first words.
“What do you know about wind turbines?” Fox was asked.
His cousin insisted on filling him in then and there.
“It was a stark indication of how strongly feelings run on this issue in rural Ontario . . . It is creating unrest and dissension across the province,” Fox said at a weekend meeting of an anti-wind turbine group in Goderich.
He said the Green Energy and Green Economy Act, passed by Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government, has turned out to be the most divisive policy he’s seen in his entire career as a professor at Guelph.
Meetings of opponents of industrial wind turbines are now drawing hundreds in small towns across the province.
In the village of Sebringville, near Stratford, it was standing room-only with nearly 300 people turning out for a session last Tuesday on a project that would see five turbines installed in the area.
Lambton Shores, a municipality with 10 wind turbines, but plans for 225 more, last week joined a list of municipalities demanding a moratorium on new wind farms in Ontario.
With just seven weeks to go until the Oct. 6 Ontario election, the Liberals’ energy policy has become the hot issue in rural ridings – and there’s a drive underway to make it an issue for urban voters as well.
Wind Concerns Ontario, a coalition of 57 citizen’s groups across the province, has targeted 36 ridings where it thinks it can make the difference in defeating the Liberal candidate.
“We are going to be active in the campaign to make sure the Liberal candidates or incumbents are losing their seats over this issue. I think it is going to be a huge asset for the Progressive Conservatives and will probably have them forming a majority government,” said John Laforet, president of the coalition and a former federal Liberal riding president for Scarborough Guildwood.
In the wider London region, ridings targeted by Wind Concerns Ontario include Huron-Bruce, Lambton-Kent-Middlesex, Elgin-Middlesex-London, Perth-Wellington, Chatham Kent-Essex, Essex and Brant.
While most of the anti-turbine concern is anchored in rural areas, Laforet said he expects spillover to urban voters in centres surrounded by communities with grave concerns about industrial wind development. That includes London, he said.
“We have groups on all sides of London, so when Wind Concerns Ontario ramps up its own election strategy I am sure we will be making lots of contact with urban voters about what this is costing and what it is doing to the lifestyle of rural Ontarians,” Laforet said.
“In Southwestern Ontario the Liberals are going to be lucky if they can keep the Greens from beating them in third place,” he predicted.
Wind Concerns doesn’t have money to spend on the campaign, but it has tens of thousands of members it can draw on, Laforet warned.
“The idea is to mobilize them to go door-to-door, supporting the Progressive Conservative candidate to defeat the Liberals over this issue.”
Laforet said he doesn’t see any chance for the Liberals to pick up votes with their green energy policies.
One indication is that 80 municipalities that represent two million people have now voted for moratoriums on wind farms.
“If it was such a good thing, these municipalities would be fighting for each other for these jobs. There aren’t the jobs and there isn’t the support for wind. It just isn’t out there.”
The move that cemented opposition to wind turbines was the McGuinty government’s decision to take planning control for the projects away from municipal councils, Laforet said.
It gave Wind Concerns Ontario a natural ally with councils against McGuinty’s agenda.
“A policy that made sense in downtown Toronto, but doesn’t spin anywhere else, did certainly fuel a lot of the opposition,” he said.
PC candidate Monte McNaughton, running in the sprawling Lambton-Kent-Middlesex riding, has been campaigning full-time since July 1, knocking on doors every day from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The cost of electricity is the top concern raised by residents, who connect it directly to the government’s subsidies for green energy projects, he said.
“The Liberals in Lambton-Kent-Middlesex are in serious trouble on this issue,” said McNaughton.
His Liberal opponent, MPP Maria Van Bommel, said she knows there are people trying to make it a top issue in the riding, but most people are still making up their minds.
“For the most part there are many people who are not sure. They are asking the questions, they are going to meetings, trying to get answers for themselves,” she said.
And there are farmers who have welcomed the wind turbines to their property, she said.
“It is diversification of their farm operation, it is additional income for them and they are anxious to be part of green energy.”
The real issue in the riding is jobs, she said.
The Liberals have come under fire for a $7-billion, untendered deal they signed with Korean industrial giant Samsung to generate green power – the price deeply subsidized – and create jobs with four new manufacturing plants to help produce the equipment needed.
Recently, the government revised the agreement critics called a “sweetheart” deal, giving Samsung more time to bring on the new green power but moving up the timeline for job creation. A 300-job wind-turbine blade plant in Tillsonburg, operated by Siemens Canada in a Samsung tie-in, is among the new plants promised.
In defending the wind turbines, McGuinty has been playing the jobs card. Recently he toured the planned Tillsonburg wind-turbine blade plant.
In all, the Liberals claim their green energy policies have already created 20,000 jobs and will bring another 30,000 jobs to the province within the next three years. Laforet says the job numbers are simply not true.
For Oxford PC MPP Ernie Hardeman, a 16-year Queen’s Park veteran, the wind turbine issue cuts both ways.
One one hand are the promised jobs for Tillsonburg, badly needed in a town rocked by automotive plant closings
On the other side are the wind turbine opponents and residents who blame the government’s green energy policies for higher power bills.
“There is concern about that and I am sure that will be an issue,” Hardeman said.
As for the wind-turbine blade plant, Hardeman said plant officials have said they’ll go ahead regardless of the election results.
Wind Concerns Ontario decided to back Hudak’s PCs because they’ve offered a clear path, Laforet said.
“We didn’t get everything we wanted from them, but we are getting a health study from a PC government and we are getting a moratorium. Local democracy will be restored and the economics of this will be cleaned up by getting rid of sweetheart deals through the feed-in-tariff contract with Samsung,” Laforet said.
It would be difficult at this point, but not impossible, for the Liberals to win the support of the anti-wind coalition if they had a change of heart, he said.
“Part of me thinks it’s too late but they have a month left of government. If they did put in place a moratorium and agreed to the terms of reference that Wind Concerns Ontario is looking for in a health study, I certainly think they would have a fighting chance.
“If they continue on their current path, they are certainly guaranteed to be losing these ridings.
“Our people aren’t fighting over abstract economic policies. These are people in the fight of their lives, fighting to protect their homes and their family’s health. No one gives that up without throwing everything possible at it. That’s where the Liberals really made their mistake,” Laforet said
It remains an open question, though, whether the political storm in rural Ontario will blow through urban ridings that make up the bulk of the seats in the legislature.
On Saturday, Concerned Citizens of Huron County, part of the Wind Concerns coalition, held a public meeting in Goderich aimed at attracting cottagers.
The hope was the urban residents would take the anti-wind message back to the city, but only about 50 people showed up.
“I’d have to say I’m disappointed,” said Anita Frayne, one of the organizers.
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