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Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie on stage with supporters at a rally in Mississauga, Ont., on June 14.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario Liberal leadership front-runner Bonnie Crombie attracted pointed questions from her rivals in the race’s latest debate, defending her shifting position on the province’s Greenbelt lands and her fundraising success with real-estate developers.

Ms. Crombie, the mayor of Mississauga, Ont., was clearly flustered Wednesday after candidate Nate Erskine-Smith, a Toronto federal Liberal MP, asked her if she would swap land out of the protected Greenbelt for development as premier. Ms. Crombie told The Globe and Mail in June that she was open to doing so but has since recanted that view.

She suggested this kind of questioning could end up used by the other parties in political ads targeting whoever wins.

“I am not going to attack or put my fellow candidates on the spot, because we’re all Liberals, and we’re all one family,” Ms. Crombie said. “I have been very clear that I believe in protecting and preserving our Greenbelt as we all do, and you know, I wouldn’t want to be in an ad in case you’re leader, criticizing you.”

The debate, held at Toronto Metropolitan University and moderated by Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn, was the second so far of the race to lead the Ontario Liberals. The party was trounced both in last year’s vote and in the 2018 election, when premier Kathleen Wynne led the party to a staggering defeat after 15 years in power at Queen’s Park.

Party members will choose a new leader in a December vote to replace Steven Del Duca, who resigned after the June, 2022, election. Five candidates are in the running: Ms. Crombie, Mr. Erskine-Smith, former Ontario attorney-general and current federal Liberal MP Yasir Naqvi, and sitting MPPs Ted Hsu and Adil Shamji. Ms. Crombie is widely seen as the frontrunner for leading her rivals both in fundraising and in the signing up of new Liberal members in advance of the vote.

The Liberals have just nine MPPs in the legislature and so they lack official party status – and the money and staff that come with it. And many Liberals have been candid that their party still needs to rebuild support across the province.

But it has won two recent by-elections in Toronto and Ottawa. And public opinion polls reliably show it neck-and-neck or slightly ahead of the Official Opposition NDP in the popular vote – although still trailing Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives.

While the next election is not until 2026, some Liberals see opportunity knocking: Mr. Ford is facing heavy political fallout from his move to open parts of the protected Greenbelt for housing in a process the province’s Auditor-General says handed a small number of connected developers an $8.3-billion windfall in increased land values.

Ms. Crombie, who called the Greenbelt “sacred” in her remarks at Wednesday’s debate, also faced criticism from Mr. Naqvi, who accused her of accepting money from the same kinds of developer donors that back Mr. Ford.

“Would you return that money back, and how do we expect a different result from you than Doug Ford, who’s given away our Greenbelt to his buddies?” Mr. Naqvi said.

Ms. Crombie, who has raised more than $900,000 – more than all of her rivals combined – responded that the party needs a leader who can raise a “war chest” and that her campaign is following all fundraising rules.

“I’m very proud of my fundraising record,” she said. “We need a leader who can raise money.”

While Ms. Crombie was clearly a target, much of the debate was cordial and consisted of criticism of Mr. Ford, not just on the Greenbelt – which was created by the Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty in 2005 – but on the staff shortages harming the health care system, his plans to expand the role of private clinics, and a funding shortfall for universities and colleges.

All of the candidates, including Ms. Crombie as of Wednesday, have released housing plans, a topic that came up repeatedly in the debate. Ms. Crombie faced a question from Mr. Erskine-Smith about whether she would force Mississauga to loosen its zoning rules to allow for more units in areas now reserved for single-family detached homes before she takes a leave from her municipal post next month. She said her city was already addressing “exclusionary zoning” rules.

Questioned by the moderator, all five candidates said they would work with the other parties in the legislature if necessary to defeat Mr. Ford were he to return after the 2026 election with the most seats but denied a majority. None said they would agree to prop up a minority PC government.

With a report from Laura Stone

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