A beaming Ontario Premier Doug Ford addressed thousands of party faithful from an outdoor stage on Saturday, highlighting the jobs created since he took power and avoiding any mention of the scandal that just cost him his most senior aide.
Mr. Ford’s remarks at his annual Ford Fest barbecue, an event organized by his Progressive Conservative Party and held this year at the Markham Fairgrounds north of Toronto, came just 24 hours after the sudden resignation of his chief-of-staff, Dean French, amid allegations of cronyism.
Mr. Ford never mentioned his move on Friday to rescind two six-figure-salary appointments handed to candidates with personal or family links to Mr. French, or his chief of staff’s subsequent departure later that day.
The diverse crowd, waving Ford Nation flags handed out as they entered the event, did not greet the Premier with boos, as those celebrating the Raptors win in Toronto did last week. Its only boos were for the media.
Mr. Ford alluded to unnamed opponents, calling them the “select few, they just can’t stand that we are taking their hands out of the cookie jar.” And he said he knew his supporters had his back.
“Those who will stop at nothing to bring us down, we know that when they come at us, we know that you are with us. And that is all that matters. Not the downtown insiders, not the media who criticize us at every single step. I call them the media party,” the Premier said to loud boos.
Mr. Ford said the event – which featured bouncy castles, a Tilt-a-Whirl and other rides and free food – attracted 10,000 people, a number also handed out by PC Party spokesman Marcus Mattinson.
Earlier in the evening, newly appointed Education Minister Stephen Lecce said that 6,000 people had pre-registered online to attend. York Regional Police, who were at the event, declined to provide a crowd estimate.
The event came just days after a large cabinet shuffle amid sagging public opinion polls. Many of Mr. Ford’s MPPs and new cabinet ministers attended, even new Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli, who was turfed in this week’s shuffle from his post at finance minister just two months after his first budget, which had set off a controversy over retroactive spending cuts to municipalities.
Many attendees drove long distances and came from diverse backgrounds. While many were PC Party members or volunteers, others professed loyalty just to Mr. Ford.
Long-time PC Party supporter Susan Blake, 58, and her husband Nicholas – who immigrated from Russia in 1993 – made the hour-long drive from their home in Barrie, Ont., with their two West Highland white terriers.
She said she had voted Conservative since Mike Harris came to power in 1995, when she noticed her tax bill was lower. She said Mr. Ford has to make spending cuts for several years to get the province’s deficit and debt under control.
“People have to understand. There is no money,” Ms. Blake said. “The province right now doesn’t have any money. Something needs to be done.”
There was no sign of protesters. However, the Ontario Autism Coalition, which has opposed the Ford government’s changes to funding for autism treatment, lined a road approaching the fairgrounds with signs that read: “Hey Doug! You screwed up! Our kids are still waiting.”
A chartered plane flew overhead, carrying a banner that read: “Public Education Cannot Afford Ford.”
New Finance Minister Rod Phillips told The Globe and Mail in a brief interview that Ford Fest was an important chance for the government to reconnect with core supporters. He said the cabinet shuffle was a chance put a new foot forward.
“I think what the Premier did this week was about keeping things fresh, keeping things moving,” said Mr. Phillips, who declined to answer a question about Mr. French’s departure.
Mr. French, who was named last January to the PC party’s “election readiness committee” for the 2022 provincial campaign, is now not expected to play any role in the next provincial election.
“Dean is returning to private life,” said Laryssa Waler, Mr. Ford’s executive director of communications.
With a report from Laura Stone
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