Behind “Ford Nation”: What Rob Ford reveals about the shortcomings of the Canadian political system

September 9, 2014 • Glimpses, Print • Views: 836

By Lindsay Uniat

The release date of Benjamin R. Barber’s highly anticipated book, “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dys- functional Nations, Rising Cities”on November 1, 2013 came at an ironic time for Canadians. The central tenet of the book — that the key to more effective worldwide governance would be extending the power of city councils — became hard to imagine in light of Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s admission three weeks earlier to having smoked crack cocaine. While this story catapulted Ford into the international media spotlight, it was certainly not his first indiscretion in office. Ford has become the subject of jokes around the world, and as a Canadian, I’m obligated to explain how he managed to hold onto executive power in Toronto and what this reveals about the shortcomings of the Canadian political system.

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Rob Ford, Toronto’s scandal-plagued mayor. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

Since being elected mayor of Canada’s largest city in October 2010 with 47.1 percent of the vote, Ford has crossed nearly every boundary of decent and acceptable behaviour for a public official. In addition to the cocaine scandal, he has written letters of recommendation for two convicted criminals and was accused of groping a female political rival. He unfoundedly suggested that a reporter had molested children and he made shocking, cringe-worthy sexual remarks about his wife to interviewers. He violated the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act after having used mayoral stationary to solicit funds for his football charity, and most recently, his antics involved physically crashing into another councillor during a heated debate and knocking her to the ground.

Yet despite committing these numerous political faux-pas, Ford remains Toronto’s chief magistrate. What’s more, on January 2nd, he filed his papers to officially run for re-election in the fall of 2014 — and with current approval ratings of approximately 40 percent according to an Ipsos-Reid poll (a top Canadian poll), he actually stands a chance of winning.

Though hard to believe, the mayor has strong backing in “Ford Nation” (also the title of a TV show co-hosted by Ford). Low to middle-class residents of Toronto’s suburbs continue to support Ford’s fight for lower taxes, and Ford has been instrumental in extending subway lines to the suburbs and in reducing city councillors’ office budgets. But support is far from universal: in November 2013, the 44-person city council voted overwhelmingly to ask Ford to step down. When he refused to do so, the council voted to restrict his power and to transfer some mayoral duties to the deputy mayor, Norm Kelly. However, now that asking politely in true Canadian fashion has failed, there are few mechanisms by which Ford can be formally removed.

As noted by Julie Lowenstein ’16, a Toronto native, municipal recall elections do not exist in Canada, whereas in 19 American states they are an effective way to remove an elected official. In Canada, the only way to remove a mayor is to convict him of a crime, and surprisingly Rob Ford cannot currently be convicted: there is no hard evidence of him using cocaine and his admission was not under oath. Lowenstein said that the situation in Toronto illustrates the necessity of recall elections. “In order to prevent similar calamities in other cities, recall elections must be universally implemented,” Lowenstein wrote in a recent Yale Daily News column criticizing Ford’s leadership.

In the absence of any policy that would force Ford to step down, he will not relinquish his office without a fight. He refused to declare a state of emergency and elicit help from the army during the pre-Christmas ice storm and its aftermath — an action which, according to Canadian Adam Goldenberg LAW ’15, “cemented his reputation for stubbornness.” His reason for not doing so: the city council voted in November 2013 to remove Ford’s mayoral authority if a state of emergency was declared. Had Ford declared a state of emergency, he would have lost power. Lowenstein echoed the sentiment of many Canadians when she said she felt Ford under reacted to the storm, which left approximately “a third of Toronto without power or heating for days in -20 degree weather.”

Unfortunately, Ford’s continued presence is effectively holding the city government hostage. Goldenberg noted that the council cannot legislate effectively while Ford is mayor. “If he is re-elected, which is a remote possibility, we’d look at four more years where the mayor of Toronto and the city of Toronto are loggerheads and unable to push through any kind of agenda,” he said. Even non-municipal politicians are refusing to work with the embattled mayor. During the height of the storm, Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne bypassed Ford in her communication with Toronto authorities, instead channelling discussion through the deputy mayor. In an interview, Wynne said she was working with the Toronto City Hall’s “decision-makers,” raising questions about who is now calling the shots in the Ford Administration.

Goldenberg said that he thinks Ford’s chance of reelection is slim. He cautioned that the 40 percent approval rating does not translate to a commitment to vote for Ford in the next election. “More than in the United States, Canadians are willing to separate the public and private lives of their political leaders,” Goldenberg said. “That 40 percent may represent people who think he has not completely screwed up the government, but it doesn’t mean they are willing to vote for him again.”

It isn’t often Canadians find themselves at the center of attention. But news outlets and political satirists have now exhausted the topic of Toronto’s mayor and the jokes have grown old. Thankfully, the Ford fiasco may soon come to an end. As of January 6th , 21 candidates have registered to run in the upcoming municipal election on October 27th . While many Canadians, including Goldenberg and Lowerstein, expect Ford to lose, there are two factors that could lead to his reelection. One such condition would be a split opposition — especially one between left-leaning candidates who generally appeal to downtown Torontonians rather than suburban residents. Additionally, Ford’s diehard fans may find it in their hearts to forgive his outrageous behaviour. As Goldenberg puts it, “as far as we can tell, the worst is behind us now. It’s possible that the story will get worse, but it’s unlikely that there will be a new revelation.” One can only hope so. But the election is ten months away, and as Ford has shown, lots can happen in that length of time.

Lindsey Uniat ’15 is an English in Saybrook College. She can be reached at lindsey.uniat@yale.edu.

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