The re­turn of Ford Na­tion

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - Globe T.O. -

It is a Fri­day night in Etobicoke and the tribe that calls it­self Ford Na­tion is gath­er­ing for its an­nual love-in.

Hun­dreds of Ford fans crowd the vast sub­ur­ban back­yard of the fam­ily seat on We­ston Wood Road. Some join the line for burg­ers that cir­cles be­hind the swim­ming pool. Others wait for plas­tic cups of beer near the statue of bronzed, to­p­less maid­ens hold­ing a gi­ant urn over their heads.

This is Ford Fest, “Canada’s largest back­yard BBQ,” where “Ev­ery­thing is FREE.” Big, blond Doug Ford is an­nounc­ing that he is run­ning for mayor of Toronto next year. Flanked by his mother, wife and four daugh­ters, he works the crowd into a nice lather with stan­dard Ford vows to end tax grabs, cut waste at city hall and stop “the war on the car.” John Tory, the cur­rent mayor is “all talk and bro­ken prom­ises,” he says. “To­gether we are go­ing to take this city back.”

For the third straight elec­tion, a Ford is af­ter the city’s top job. Can this re­ally be hap­pen­ing again? Could Toronto pos­si­bly elect another Mayor Ford?

At first it seems wildly un­likely. The chaos and scan­dal of the Rob Ford years are still fresh mem­o­ries. A sen­si­ble city would avoid his older brother like some­thing con­ta­gious. He may not suf­fer from the per­sonal demons that drove Rob to dis­grace him­self and em­bar­rass the city, but he is just as poorly in­formed, just as boast­ful, just as di­vi­sive. Doug, the glad-hand­ing leader of the fam­ily busi­ness, lacks the awk­ward, out­sider qual­ity that was part of Rob’s at­trac­tion.

Mr. Ford would be run­ning against an in­cum­bent mayor who can claim to have re­turned san­ity and ci­vil­ity to city hall, a point that Mr. Tory is al­ready press­ing when he is asked about a Ford chal­lenge. Very early polling for the Oct. 22, 2018, vote sug­gests that he would beat Mr. Ford eas­ily in a head-to-head con­test. And yet … It would be dan­ger­ous to write off the Fords and their fol­low­ers as a spent force. Events south of the bor­der show how po­tent that crude pop­ulism of their kind can be. Few thought a man such as Don­ald Trump could be­come pres­i­dent of the world’s most pow­er­ful coun­try, just as few thought Rob Ford could be­come mayor of Canada’s big­gest city.

» If their ap­peal is of­ten hard to un­der­stand, it is also easy to un­der­es­ti­mate.

Re­mem­ber that even right in the wake of the Ford scan­dal, Doug won 34 per cent of the vote when he took over from an ail­ing Rob and ran for mayor. Those re­cent polls put him around the same level to­day. A third of the city is in his cor­ner.

Any­body who has watched the Fords in ac­tion has to mar­vel at the loy­alty and en­thu­si­asm they in­spire. A ded­i­cated, fired-up base is gold in pol­i­tics. The fol­low­ing they built was the first real move­ment that Toronto pol­i­tics has seen since the re­form move­ment of the 1970s. It didn’t just dry up and blow away af­ter Doug lost to Mr. Tory in 2014. Rob Ford’s sad, early death from can­cer in 2016 gave his move­ment a mar­tyr.

The “mayor of heaven,” as his young daugh­ter called him, now hov­ers over ev­ery Ford Na­tion gath­er­ing. Ford side­kick Gior­gio Mam­moliti, a city coun­cil­lor, told the Ford Fest crowd that he talks to Rob in his prayers and “he wants us to fin­ish what he started.” Doug, too, said that Rob was look­ing down from above with a big smile on his face. “Rob,” he said as he an­nounced his run for mayor, “this one is gonna be for you.”

To the Ford crowd, it barely mat­ters that their late cham­pion was at the cen­tre of the most lurid scan­dal to hit Cana­dian pol­i­tics in re­cent his­tory. True be­liev­ers in­sist they could not care less about the in­fa­mous crack af­fair. No one is per­fect. Ev­ery­one has skele­tons in the closet. It was just a per­sonal mat­ter, with no bear­ing on his per­for­mance. He was a great mayor all the same. That is what they say.

It is tempt­ing to sneer at all this. More than tempt­ing: it is en­tirely jus­ti­fied. Rob Ford not only smoked crack co­caine while he was mayor, he con­sorted with crim­i­nal types while lec­tur­ing youths to stay out of trou­ble, ut­tered all kinds of vile slurs and mis­led the city for months af­ter the scan­dal broke, with Doug back­ing him all the way. The man who claimed to be the hard­est-work­ing per­son at city hall and the best mayor Toronto ever had was of­ten AWOL and only half-en­gaged in the job, even when he turned up for work.

These are the facts and it’s dis­turb­ing that so many peo­ple in this city don’t ac­cept them. But, in the end, sneer­ing won’t do much good. The Fords can’t be wished away. Bet­ter to try to un­der­stand their move­ment, where it came from and why it is still a force in Toronto pol­i­tics. The Fords tapped into some­thing real, a seam of dis­con­tent and even bit­ter­ness about the way this city, and by ex­ten­sion, our so­ci­ety, works. That sense of griev­ance is still out there, un­ap­peased.

Like Don­ald Trump, Rob Ford put to­gether a coali­tion of the re­sent­ful. Some are older sub­ur­ban­ites who think that the glit­ter­ing down­town gets all the at­ten­tion and money. They feel their whole life­style is un­der at­tack, as if their lawns and garages are some­thing they should feel ashamed about.

Others are new­com­ers to Canada scram­bling for a foothold on the lad­der of suc­cess. They like the Ford mes­sage of lower taxes and less red tape. The Fords come across to them as reg­u­lar guys who don’t put on airs, although the fam­ily is well off. Still others are sim­ply fed up with big gov­ern­ment and ready to vote for any­one who prom­ises to cut it down to size. It is a mis­take to dis­miss them all as de­luded zealots, even if a num­ber are pre­cisely that.

What­ever their back­ground or be­liefs, they feel as if they have been left out­side the tent: ig­nored by the pow­ers that be; dis­dained by the me­dia and pop­u­lar cul­ture; their views and way of life thor­oughly dis­re­spected. It’s not a good feel­ing. Shouty, know-noth­ing pop­ulism is not the an­swer – the Trump mess has proved that in a hurry – but their anger is gen­uine.

You don’t need to look very hard to en­counter it. The gate­way to Ford coun­try is the in­ter­sec­tion of Dun­das Street West and Scar­lett Road. Com­ing from down­town, the rail­way un­der­pass there is like a por­tal to another world. Pass­ing through, you leave be­hind the craft brew­eries, cof­fee bars and yoga stu­dios of the Junc­tion a few blocks away and find a rolling golf course, slab apart­ment tow­ers and street upon street of post­war sub­ur­ban houses with bas­ket­ball hoops in the drive­way. If you live down­town it’s easy to for­get that most of Toronto, in all its vast­ness, is like this.

Drive for a few min­utes and you reach a shop­ping plaza with a bank, pizza joint, coin laun­dry, dol­lar store and Beer Store. John Bosa, 47, a burly for­mer boxer who works as an air­craft me­chanic, is pick­ing up a cou­ple of beers. He liked Rob Ford – “he fought for ev­ery­body” – and thinks Doug would do a good job, too. The taxes, he says, are crazy. Gov­ern­ments “give with one hand and take with another.” An im­mi­grant from Uganda, he wor­ries about to­day’s new­com­ers. “I see them com­ing in ev­ery day. I don’t know how they’re go­ing to live. It’s a pow­der keg.”

Fork­lift driver Gary Byng, 61, is get­ting on his elec­tric scooter when he stops to talk. He says he is fed up with a world where the state tells ev­ery­one what to do and no one has an in­de­pen­dent thought. The Fords, he says, stand out. Un­like John Tory, who “al­ways has his fin­ger in the air” to test which way the wind is blow­ing, they say what they think and do what they say.

Out here, the condo canyons, clang­ing street­cars and all-night arts fes­ti­vals of down­town seem light years away. Many peo­ple worry about pay­ing for new run­ning shoes for their kids. They want the pot­holed roads fixed. They would like a break on their taxes. It makes them see red when city hall wants to put a bike lane – a bike lane! – on a street that is al­ready so crowded they can barely get to work on time.

It meant a lot to them that Rob Ford an­swered com­plaint calls him­self and even came around in per­son to see about a missed garbage pickup or a bro­ken el­e­va­tor in a public-hous­ing es­tate.

That may not have made him an ef­fec­tive mayor – he was ter­rif­i­cally in­ef­fec­tive, de­spite all his claims – but to them it meant he cared about the daily con­cerns of the aver­age per­son.

His brother is (knock on wood) a long shot for mayor. But there is still a mar­ket in Toronto for what he is sell­ing. An aw­ful lot of peo­ple think that gov­ern­ment keeps grow­ing and grow­ing and tak­ing and tak­ing, with­out much to show for it. An aw­ful lot think that most of what comes out of the mouths of politi­cians is mush. An aw­ful lot feel that a cozy lit­tle group sits on the top of the heap in this city.

It is hard to ar­gue that they are all wrong. Even if Toronto re­jects Doug Ford, it would be wise to lis­ten to Ford Na­tion.

MAR­CUS GEE mgee@globe­and­mail.com

CHRISTO­PHER KAT­SAROV/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

A pa­rade par­tic­i­pant greets Doug Ford dur­ing the Grand Pa­rade at Toronto’s Caribbean Car­ni­val in Au­gust.

DAR­REN CAL­ABRESE/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Rob Ford ad­dresses a crowd of sup­port­ers at his may­oral re-elec­tion cam­paign kick-off in April, 2014.

FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Stephen Han­dler, a Rob Ford sup­porter, waits out­side the then-mayor’s of­fice in June, 2014.

MATTHEW SHER­WOOD/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Rob and Doug Ford were able to draw a sub­stan­tial num­ber of sup­port­ers dur­ing pre­vi­ous elec­tion cam­paigns.

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