"What's with your mayor?"
— people from outside Toronto to people from Toronto, 2013
Are you sitting comfortably?
I am going to try to explain this in a way that might make sense to people outside of Toronto. This may not be possible, as it certainly doesn't make sense to many people inside Toronto.
Before we get into the Rob Ford saga, you must understand that it's been less than 15 years since metropolitan Toronto was amalgamated with its surrounding suburb cities. I've explained that a bit here and here. You must understand that the city is unofficially divided into "new" and "old" Toronto, and while there are exceptions, they tend to act as related but distinct wings of a family united by marriage. I'm going to do something cheap and quote from a previous writeup of mine because I don't know how else to describe it:
The short, uber-paraprased (and stereotypical) version of events is that
Torontonians on the outer edges of the city, many of whom commute into
the "old city" to work, see the citizens of that region as a group of
effete bicycling condo-dwelling left-wing hipsters, who then in turn
view the edge dwellers as SUV-driving rednecks with no respect for the environment or culture.
Ford owes part of his rise to power to discontent with his predecessor, left-leaning David Miller. Miller was accused of being too close to the unions and of being a bit of a spendthrift. People who liked him generally liked him a lot, though even supporters' patience wore thin when a city worker strike during his administration halted garbage collection for weeks — and he ultimately conceded to most of the union's demands. He originally planned to run for a third term, then announced he would not.
In the interest of full disclosure, I did not vote for Rob Ford — but neither did I vote for any of his opponents who had an even remote chance of becoming mayor. I was still in line when the polls officially closed on election day (we could still vote provided we were in line at the cutoff time) and the election was called for Ford within minutes. I voted for a candidate who placed towards the bottom of the (very large) heap because I liked his open data policy. I was going to vote for him anyway.
Then we'll begin.
Robert Bruce Ford, a three-term city councillor, was elected mayor of Toronto on October 25, 2010. As a city councillor, Ford had made a name for himself opposing fiscal waste. His mayoral campaign centered around his pledge to "stop the gravy train," which he said would save taxpayers untold amounts of money without the sacrifice of any services.
Ford won the election handily, propelled by support from the city's suburban edges. The downtown core voted overwhelmingly for his nearest opponent, former provincial cabinet minister George Smitherman, whom Ford trounced by nearly 100,000 votes. The campaign was not without scandal, as the press unearthed a recording of Ford agreeing to help a man get some OxyContin. About a month later, the Toronto Star ran a story stating that Ford was asked to not return to a volunteer high school football coaching position after an alleged physical confrontation with a player. Ford denied the accusation and maintained that he would not speak with the Star until the story was retracted and an apology was issued. This is important.
So Ford won and was installed as the city's 64th mayor. For reasons still unknown, hockey commentator (and former coach) Don Cherry was invited to speak at the installation ceremony. Mindful of the fact that Torontonians either loved or disdained Ford, he finished his statement by saying "I think he's going to be the greatest mayor this city has ever seen, and you can stick that in your pipe, you left-wing kooks."
This movie writes itself.
Ford's brother, Doug Ford, successfully ran for his old council seat. Doug Ford has the same political outlook as his younger brother. He also has ambitions of entering provincial politics.
Over the course of the next few years, Ford and his administration set about implementing their agenda, much to the delight of the citizens of the city's outskirts (by this point nicknamed "Ford Nation") and the chagrin of many of the citizens of the "old" city. Planned bike lanes were scrapped and existing bike lanes were removed. An extensive light-rail transit system plan was cancelled. Garbage collection west of Yonge Street was contracted out to a private company. A controversial vehicle registration tax was repealed, as was a fee the city had previously required stores to charge for plastic bags. The Fords and their allies launched a public relations offensive against another light-rail proposal, arguing instead for a new subway line.
Much ink has been spilled about the detriments and merits of these and other Ford initiatives. I am not going to get into either here.
Along the way, Rob Ford was caught reading a newspaper while driving. He allegedly flipped off a woman and her young daughter after she chastised him for speaking on his cell phone while driving. He failed to stop behind the open door of a streetcar, which is against the law. There is a publicly viewable spreadsheet of Rob Ford-related incidents, dating back to a hockey fight he got into in 1987. It includes a highly publicized incident at a Toronto Maple Leafs game, during which an intoxicated councillor Rob Ford made bizarre comments and personal attacks on some fellow attendees. He initially denied he was even at the game before owning up to the incident. This is important.
A citizen, represented by activist lawyer Clayton Ruby, argued that Ford was unfit for office due to a conflict of interest he exhibited when he attempted to raise funds for his football foundation using city letterhead. A judge agreed and ruled that Ford should be removed from office, but he won the appeal. This is important.
In the spring of 2013, Ford's erstwhile mayoral opponent Sarah Thomson alleged that he had groped her at an event. She said he appeared to be "on something." Ford denied this; his supporters and his brother in particular were quick to paint Thomson as wanting attention. Around this same time, the Star published a story claiming that Ford had been asked to leave a gala event honouring members of the military a month earlier because he was intoxicated. Weeks later, a story appeared quoting citizens who had encountered a highly intoxicated Ford on St. Patrick's Day at a downtown bar.
In May 2013, the U.S.-based website Gawker reported that it had seen and been offered a video of Rob Ford inhaling from what appeared to be a crack pipe. Two Toronto Star reporters immediately said they had also seen this video and that the Star had been told it could have a copy for $100,000 CAD. Gawker had also been offered the file for a fee, but both outlets had refused. Gawker started a Kickstarter campaign hoping to raise the funds to obtain the video. The fundraising goal was met, but the video's dealer (no pun intended) announced that the file had disappeared. Gawker donated the money to addiction treatment centres and a community centre in Toronto.
Ford's initial reaction was defiance. He claimed that this was another attempt by the Star to smear him (they'd done it before, he claimed — I said that was important) and that citizens who just couldn't handle that he'd won the election were trying to force him out through undemocratic means (they'd done that too, he claimed — I said that was important, too). He then made a statement saying "I do not use crack cocaine, nor am I an addict of crack cocaine. As for a video, I cannot comment on a video I haven't seen or does not exist."
The Globe and Mail published a story, heavily relying on people who were too afraid to be named, asserting that the Ford family had connections to the drug trade and that Doug had been involved in hashish dealing in the 1980s. Doug responded by saying that he did not take drugs, not even aspirin. This later evolved into admitting that he smoked pot in high school "like everybody else." (Nope.) Rob, too, admitted to past indiscretions with marijuana, but continued to deny crack cocaine use.
Ford abruptly fired his chief of staff; the story, which Mark Towhey has not confirmed, goes that Ford was irate at being told he could no longer coach a high school football team on a volunteer basis and wanted to retrieve equipment he'd donated to the school. Towhey allegedly tried to put a stop to this; whether or not that story is true, Towhey has confirmed that he was in fact fired. Other Ford staffers quit as well.
So then what?
Parts of Toronto (guess which parts) spent six months debating the Star's use of anonymous sources. They watched columnists attack the credibility of the reporters who'd claimed they'd seen the video, arguing that they'd made the whole thing up, and occasionally gleefully joined in. "If there's a video," they said in one collective voice, "let's see it. Otherwise, it's not real." The video did not surface publicly, so it was obviously not real. Logic.
<personal interjection> There is a valid and healthy debate to be had about the use of anonymous sources, and much of this debate was worth having. There was no place for some of the discourse that took place, no matter what one thought of the stories about the mayor. In an interview with Toronto Life magazine, Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle said she had received threatening messages. </personal interjection>
The Ford brothers have a radio show on a local AM station. They used it as a platform to deny the allegations over and over; Doug even took specific journalists to task for their "smears." He called one of the Star reporters mentally unstable. They were just two hardworking guys who love Toronto, working to save taxpayers' money. Would these infernal left-wing media never cease!
In the summer, Rob Ford showed up at the annual Taste of the Danforth street festival allegedly blitzed. There are still questions about whether he drove himself there.
In the midst of all this, one of Rob Ford's associates — a friend and "occasional driver" — was arrested for drug use. There had been a massive police investigation into, among others, the people who had allegedly shopped the supposed crack video to Gawker and the Star. The charges relating to this second arrest produced a lot of paperwork, which the city's media successfully lobbied to have released. On October 31, 2013, heavily redacted documents were shared with reporters. There were no smoking guns tying Ford to drugs, though there were a great many accounts of clandestine meetings and surreptitious handoffs between Ford and his associate.
Within hours, police chief Bill Blair was giving a news conference addressing the documents. He also mentioned that police had restored a video deleted off a hard drive seized as part of the drug network investigations. He had seen it. The mayor was in it. Its contents, he said, were consistent with what the media had reported. And he was "disappointed."
There was, he said, nothing in the tape that provided sufficient grounds for criminal charges against the mayor. The Fords' next move was to demand the release of the tape and, remarkably, to attack the credibility and objectivity of the police chief. On that week's radio show, Ford announced that he would be getting a driver (something he had rejected repeatedly after the reading- and texting-while-driving incidents, claiming it would cost taxpayers too much money) and issued a blanket apology for his behaviour. An hour into the show, he mentioned the Danforth incident as well as the raucous St. Patrick's Day. It had just recently come out, via a leaked security report, that the mayor and a small entourage had wound up back at his office, where he wandered around with a half-empty bottle of brandy and, among other things, leveled a member of his own staff.
But he would not resign, he said. He had too much to do. And he predicted that even though he had apologized, it wouldn't be enough for the media. He promised to curb his drinking, saying "I can assure people, hopefully it doesn't happen again." When Doug prompted him to explain how he planned to curtail his drinking, Rob said he would simply "drink less" and that he would stay home. Doug agreed that staying at home, in the basement, was a better plan than going out in public.
On November 5, 2013, Doug said he would be filing a complaint against Bill Blair. He said Blair's comments were befitting a "police state." Later that same day, he went to a media law class at Ryerson University and attacked specific reporters, going so far as to say one was "vicious" and "foaming at the mouth." He likened the media's treatment of his brother to the media's treatment of Diana, princess of Wales, making a specific reference to the night she was killed in a car accident after a chase with the paparazzi.
Shortly thereafter, Rob Ford came out of his office and told reporters that, yes, he had smoked crack cocaine, "probably in one of my drunken stupors."
So that's it, right?
No. Dear God, no. No, that is so not it. Rob Ford emerged from his office and admitted to having smoked crack cocaine, but when asked why he had lied about it six months earlier, said he had not lied. He had merely not been asked "the right question." (He had repeatedly been asked "have you smoked crack cocaine?" using those exact words, and never answered.)
He told a Toronto Sun reporter that he felt much better after having confessed, "like I have 1,000 pounds off my back." He had fessed up and apologized, and said he "can't change the past" and that it was time for everyone to move on.
He held another press conference four hours later. It was widely thought that if he still wouldn't resign, he would at least annouce a leave of absence to seek treatment. Instead he apologized again, insisting that he had to continue saving money for taxpayers. He noted that the people of Toronto would have an opportunity to decide whether they wanted him to stay on as mayor in the 2014 election, which is just under a year away at the time of this writing.
Many, many people who worked for and with Ford, who support his policies and his accomplishments, have called on him to step down or at least get help. This includes many of his own supporters, including an 81-year-old woman who called into his radio show and bluntly told him to get help for his family's sake. But there are people, and it needs to be said that these are not bad people at heart, who believe he is their best hope for lower taxes and reduced spending, and proper stewardship of public funds, and they'll take him and all his flaws over David Miller or any of his allies any day of the week.
CBC News sent a reporter and a camera out to Etobicoke, where Ford lives, to ask people what effect his admission had on their support for him.
"If he smokes and saves me money, I'll vote for him — even if he's a bum," one man said.
So that means...
Rob Ford cannot be recalled in the way that other jurisidictions' elected officials can. The provincial government can get involved but has not indicated that it will. Premier Kathleen Wynne has said that this is a matter for the justice system. City councillors have proposed legislation that would limit the mayor's authority (he can appoint people to and remove them from committees, but he is otherwise one vote on council). Most councillors, including his former conservative allies, have all encouraged him to step aside.
All four of the city's major daily newspapers have published editorials encouraging him to step aside. Peter MacKay, Canada's justice minister and attorney general, has publicly called on Ford to take some time for himself and get help.
Rob Ford insists that the "only thing" he can do is apologize and promise that it won't happen again. He has not once mentioned getting help and insists that he is not addicted to anything.
The best analysis, in my view, came from a column in the alternative weekly newspaper Now. I will preface this by saying that its author is no Ford National:
"I know that nothing I say will actually get either Ford out of office, but at least I get to express my disgust in a public forum, going on record as paying attention and being very unhappy with this shit.
But more than my own personal moral or political posturing, I simply don't want Rob Ford to die."
Update: Roundups of late-night reaction have been making the rounds on Canadian news all day. I had missed the account of Jon Stewart's thoughts on the matter, but he too sums it up well:
"Mayor Ford’s a lot of fun to ridicule, but my guess is, not a lot of fun to eulogize. And that’s where this thing’s headed."
Rob Ford entered a rehab program following the emergence of a second video showing him partaking in illegal drugs. Based on the tone of subsequent statements, he really did seem to have turned a corner as far as his addictions went. He spoke of overcoming addiction as an ongoing process and seemed to be on the right track. Then he became ill.
After he sought emergency medical attention for "unbearable" pain in his stomach, he was diagnosed with a cancerous mass in his abdomen and underwent rigorous treatment. He dropped his bid for re-election as mayor as a result, but ran for — and won — his old city council seat. His brother Doug ran for mayor in his place and finished second. As his health improved, Rob Ford resumed his city council duties and seemed to be his old call-returning, anti-spending self. Then cancer returned.
Rob Ford died, aged 46, on March 22, 2016. He is survived by his wife, two young children, mother, sister and two brothers.