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In the quiet corner of a township, where farming families have tended the land for generations, a fierce struggle is unfolding. These families, who have relied on their land to produce dairy, corn and wheat, now find themselves pitted against a mysterious threat — a secret industrial project planned by the Region of Waterloo.

Landowners, farmers and advocates in Wilmot Township, about 120 kilometres northwest of Toronto, have launched an online petition that now has more than 30,000 signatures. They are demanding an immediate halt to the expropriation of 770 acres of farmland in the area, arguing that this “forced acquisition” by the Region of Waterloo would severely impact Ontario's food security, farmers' livelihoods and the environmental well-being of the community.

“Everything is, so far, in secrecy in this undisclosed project,” said Alfred Lowrick, who represents the affected landowners and concerned citizens of Wilmot Township. “We have an official plan for the Region of Waterloo that was confirmed in 2022 and no mention of this. And even if it was, this is a huge change and it should be brought forward in a very formal and transparent way to residents of the community so they can weigh in on this.”

Lowrick said last month, farmers and residents were approached by Canacre Ltd., representing the Region of Waterloo, with unsigned contracts to buy the land at a low price. People were told they had over a week to decide and sign, otherwise, their land would be subject to expropriation by the region, he said.

“What is worse is that this all came as a surprise to all of us. No formal notifications, meetings and consultations.”

Canada's National Observer reached out to Mississauga-based Canacre Ltd., for a response, but did not receive comments in time for publication.

“The reason for the secrecy is more economic because they (Waterloo region) think they can buy this very cheap,” said Lowrick. “We are not against economic development, but we are very concerned with the lack of process...”

Lowrick said after they were approached by Canacre Ltd., they immediately sought clarification from township staff, but were not provided any information due to confidentiality agreements. Landowners and farmers were later given the opportunity to attend the Region of Waterloo council meeting. But they were only given three minutes to speak and received no answers to their questions because councillors claimed they couldn't discuss the project. Later, the same response was given at the township council meeting.

Farmers and advocates argue that this “forced acquisition” by the Region of Waterloo would severely impact Ontario's food security, farmers' livelihoods and the environmental well-being of the community. Photo from Fight for Farmland website

In a presentation to the Wilmot Township council meeting on March 25, Lowrick stated, "We are deeply concerned because this action by the Region of Waterloo is so incongruent with so many of their environmental, sustainability and climate change initiatives — as well as inconsistent with all long-term planning.” The potential size, scale and location of this plant could jeopardize environmental goals and commitments outlined in the region’s visionary “Countryside Line” concept. It could also make it impossible to reach essential greenhouse gas emission reductions to meet federal, provincial and regional Paris Accord commitments, he added.

Farmers and advocates argue that the "forced acquisition" of 770 acres of farmland in the area by the Region of Waterloo would severely impact Ontario's food security, farmers' livelihoods and the environmental well-being of the community. #farmland

In response to a request by Canada's National Observer for comments, the Region of Waterloo sent a joint statement from the region and township. “The Region of Waterloo and Wilmot Township are partnering on land readiness to create shovel-ready sites to attract economic investments and create jobs. Land assembly is underway to create shovel-ready sites for large-scale economic investment to further support Waterloo region’s economic vitality as it grows to one million residents by 2050,” the statement reads. “Recent engagement with over a hundred local and global businesses highlighted the availability of shovel-ready lands was a significant need when evaluating locations for future investment or expansion.”

Responding to community members who reached out to her office, Waterloo Regional Chair Karen Redman emphasized that the region and township remain committed to balancing the protection of vital agricultural lands with securing significant economic investment to support a high quality of life for residents.

“While limited details can be shared at this time, more information and engagement opportunities will be provided as soon as possible and all necessary consultations will be conducted,” said Redman in a statement shared with Canada’s National Observer. “To ensure the privacy of the landowners, we are not able to speak specifically about the location or size of the area at this time.”

Redman stressed that the objective is to secure generational investments and create job opportunities for the future.

Kevin Thomason, a local environmental advocate, said this is a massive industrial mega-site. It is a planned development that has never had a single public meeting, study, research or protection effort conducted for it.

“For the farmers, some of whom have been on the land for generations, being told to vacate their homes, businesses and livelihoods within 10 days is devastating,” said Thomason. “Not only is this some of the best farmland, but it's also highly protected, chosen by farmers for its suitability for farming.”

In an online statement, Natasha Salonen, mayor of Wilmot township, and council members said they will continue to advocate on behalf of landowners, ensuring that the process is fair and equitable.

“As many know, the Region of Waterloo has been negotiating with some landowners in Wilmot regarding the sale of land. Those negotiations, like all real estate transactions, take place one-on-one. The township is not, and should not, be involved directly in those discussions and subsequent transactions,” reads the statement. “That said, we know there is considerable concern about the absence of information available in the public domain.”

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This whole approach smells of corruption, and I wouldn't be surprised to find Doug Ford hidden in the background somewhere besides Canacre Ltd. & Region of Waterloo. Why so much secrecy, which is truly suspicious in my books? Take them to court and at least force them to pay a reasonable value than steal the land for pennies. Shameful!

The Province having led the way in destroying environmental protection, regular planning, and public consultation, many municipalities have become entitled to do the same. We must revoke Bill 23, strong mayor powers, and other disastrous initiatives before the landscape is steamrollered and regional water quantity and quality are lost.

Canacre's approach sounds like typical predatory capitalism bs, in support of "land assembly" one of those beloved buzzwords universal to the so called development industry now dominated by hedge funds, real estate investment trusts and good old fashioned scam artists. At the very least the ambush offer accompanied by not so veiled threat sounds too much like extortion to let it pass without comment. Shame on Waterloo Region, shame on Canacre both trying to pull a fast one, run it up the flagpole and see who salutes. Are they surprised by the negative reaction and likely hostility? Ontario under Ford has modelled these bully boy tactics and politicians of lower rank seem to think this is how business is done these days. Very likely there have been similar land deals stinking of corruption, and self dealing in our past and nastily revived under this inept provincial government.

Where have we heard "shovel-ready" before? This smells of Ford.