But we did live through it, and so we know that it was neither a dream nor a fantasy.
It was something altogether real — the topsy-turvy four-year mayoralty of Robert Bruce Ford, a man known to Torontonians and most Canadians, not to mention many late-night television viewers across the continent, as just plain Rob Ford, a simple, unadorned moniker for a complicated and flamboyant man, who split this city’s residents into two mutually uncomprehending camps.
Some people adored him, others couldn’t bear him, and never the twain shall meet, not at least while Ford was alive.
Now he is gone.
At just 46 years of age, the former mayor of Canada’s largest city has died after a lengthy battle with cancer.
He leaves behind his wife, Renata, as well as two children, Stephanie and Douglas, and a host of other relatives, many of them already familiar to the people of this city.
His death provides a premature conclusion to a municipal drama that was part situation comedy, part medieval morality play and, finally, tragedy.
The Ford years were a crazy time to reside in Toronto, so crazy that novelist Margaret Atwood declared them to be a no-go zone for writers of fiction.
“For a fiction writer, it’s too improbable . . . ” she told the Star’s Linda Diebel. “Nobody would believe this and that is why people follow the story. They’re thinking: What next? What is going to happen next?”
With all due respect to Atwood, she got the questions right but missed with the answer.
In fact, the Rob Ford story was tailor-made for fictional treatment, a rococo plot whose larger-than-life anti-hero swanned through the corridors of municipal power, sounding at times like a male version of Eva Peron crooning the lyrics of an unwritten aria (Don’t Cry for Me, Toronto?).
Meanwhile, Toronto turned itself into a kind of municipal téléroman, an open-ended narrative of cliffhangers and plot twists, starring Rob Ford and co-starring his older brother, Doug, with repeated cameo appearances by sundry members of the Ford clan of Etobicoke, not to mention a succession of walk-on parts by a rogues’ gallery of memorable misfits.
Toronto’s 64th mayor was a walking, talking affirmation of the famous but probably apocryphal Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.
Both as a long-serving city councillor and later as mayor, Ford was surely interesting. He was also the polar opposite of dull and the mortal enemy of slick.
Most of the time, he was exactly what he seemed to be — a plain-spoken populist who wore his outsize heart on his rolled-up sleeve. At other times, he was another kind of creature altogether — a blitzed-out loner who found comfort in the company of criminal enablers, while smoking crack cocaine and spouting homophobic and racist slurs.
Even before the Star published details of the mayor’s infamous crack video, this city was well on the way to realizing its Ford-fuelled fate as an internationally recognized punchline for joke after joke, each more embarrassing than the one before and all recounted without mercy on late-night American TV.
People laughed, but it wasn’t funny, not when you considered that Rob Ford was in many ways a seriously troubled man.
But try telling him that.
When taken to task for reading or using his cellphone while behind the wheel of his Chevy Uplander minivan — later upgraded to a Cadillac Escalade — Ford seemed genuinely nonplussed by the criticism, unable to fathom why anyone would care. Yes, both practices are illegal and potentially deadly, his manner seemed to say. And, yes, the mayor is a role model for the city. But so?
Given a choice between stabbing him in the back — metaphorically speaking — and enfolding him in their arms, even his opponents would sometimes choose to sheathe their blades and opt for a hug, if only because Ford so often looked as if he could really, really use one.
He certainly had his devotees — the so-called Ford Nation — and they were passionately loyal. Many Torontonians, particularly those who revere Don Cherry — or else are Don Cherry — also revered Rob Ford.
“I say he’s going to be the greatest mayor this city has ever, ever seen, as far as I’m concerned,” the bombastic hockey pundit and right-wing gadfly remarked at Ford’s inauguration in 2010. “You can put that in your pipe, you left-wing kooks.”
Ford loved to present himself as a sort of workingman’s hero, the product of a hardscrabble upbringing, but in fact he hailed from considerable wealth. He was born to Douglas Sr. and Diane Ford on May 28, 1969, the youngest of four children — three sons and one daughter. His father, who died of colon cancer in 2006, was a businessman and sometime politician (he represented Etobicoke-Humber as a Conservative MPP from 1995 to 1999) who truly possessed a stirring, up-by-the-bootstraps back story. Rob, however, got where he did thanks in no small measure to Douglas Sr.’s self-made fortune.
The source of that fortune is a company called Deco Labels & Tags, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012. Now with manufacturing facilities in Etobicoke, Chicago and New Jersey, Deco is reported to generate more than $100 million in annual sales.
The company’s early success subsidized the construction of a large, six-bedroom house, complete with swimming pool, on a quiet street just off Royal York Rd. in Etobicoke. It was there that Rob Ford grew up, eventually attending Scarlett Heights Collegiate, where he played on the school’s football team, a sport that was to become a lifelong passion, a source of great pride but also no little controversy, not to mention much heartache.
Following high school, Ford headed to Ottawa to study for a bachelor’s degree in political science at Carleton University, while playing on the offensive line of the intercollegiate Ravens football team. Sort of. According to a 2012 profile by Toronto Life writer Marci McDonald, he failed to complete his degree and was played only sparingly — if at all — by the Ravens’ coaches during his one and only year on the team.
Ford returned to Toronto, where he was hired as chief financial officer at the family firm.
Trying times lay ahead, including a series of grisly episodes that stretched over more than two decades and centred upon Kathy Ford, eldest of the four siblings. She had made a series of poor life choices, one leading to a heroin addiction and another to the establishment of a common-law relationship with a man named Ennio Stirpe. They had a son together.
The relationship eventually broke up, but its consequences persisted.
In 1998, Stirpe showed up at a house in Caledon where Kathy Ford was living with her boyfriend at the time, Michael Kiklas. Stirpe produced a sawed-off shotgun, which he used to shoot and kill the new man in Kathy Ford’s life. For that, he was sentenced to 13 years behind bars. A decade later, while on parole for the shotgun killing, Stirpe would stab a female acquaintance named Angela Fantauzzi, blinding her in one eye and causing her intestines to protrude. Eighteen more years.
In 2005, another live-in boyfriend named Scott MacIntyre shot Kathy Ford in the face in what was apparently an accident. She survived but required considerable plastic surgery. In 2012, authorities charged MacIntyre with several offences, including threatening death and possession of heroin and cocaine, after he broke into the mayor’s Etobicoke home. Those charges were later dropped.
“Our family has been through everything — from murder to drugs to being successful in business,” Rob Ford told the Star in 2010. “Nobody can tell me a story that can shock.”
At times, Ford played a leading role in dramas of his own. While less sensational than his sister’s tribulations, they were nonetheless troubling.
In March 2008, his wife Renata called 911 about a domestic contretemps that led to an assault charge being laid against her husband. It was later withdrawn. Three years later, Renata’s mother phoned police from her son-in-law’s residence to complain that he was drinking excessively and also threatening to take his children to Florida against Renata’s will.
In another incident, Ford directed a tirade of abuse at a couple of visitors during a hockey game at the Air Canada Centre, a series of insults that included the suggestion that one of the pair of out-of-town visitors — the “little wife,” as Ford called her — might like to travel to Iran in order “to get raped and shot.” Apparently “tired and emotional” — to use the well-known Private Eye euphemism — Ford had to be escorted from the building. At first, he flatly denied the incident, but eventually he was obliged to concede that it was true. That done, he offered his apologies, describing what happened as “stupidity . . . a mistake that will never happen again.”
An earlier mishap in Florida did not come to public light till 2010, when the Toronto Sun published details of Ford being arrested in the Sunshine State in 1999. The future mayor was charged with possession of marijuana and with driving under the influence of alcohol.
At first, Ford flatly denied the Florida story. (“When I say no, I mean never. No question. Now I’m getting offended. No means no.”) Under pressure to come clean, he next provided a distorted version of the incident, one that was heavily tilted in his favour. Finally, with no other way out, he admitted the truth and vowed to do better in future.
This pattern of crisis management — deny, deny, deny; then dissimulate; then confess; then promise to make it up — was to recur again and again.
Meanwhile, Ford’s political career continued to unfold. Still, his decision to run for the Toronto mayoralty in 2010 caught many by surprise.
During 10 years on council, he had chiefly distinguished himself by paying his office expenses out of his own pocket, ostensibly in order to save his constituents’ money. This was hardly a model that most other councillors could be expected to emulate.
As for Ford’s voting record, he had opposed just about anything that (a) involved taxes, (b) contained the abbreviations AIDS or HIV, or (c) benefitted cyclists.
On repeated occasions, his was the sole dissenting vote. Stubborn to a fault, Ford insisted on going his own way.
“Cyclists are a pain in the ass,” he once declared.
On another occasion, he remarked, “The purpose of marathons is to create revenue for charities.”
After details of his 1999 Florida arrest became widely known, he acknowledged the incident with this observation: “A lot of people drink and drive. I got caught.”
(These and some other quotations in this article are borrowed from The Little Book of Rob Ford, published by House of Anansi Press.)
In keeping with his loner reputation at council, Ford ran for the mayoralty as an outsider, on a platform that chiefly stressed his determination to cut what he saw as unnecessary or frivolous spending at city hall.
“Stop the gravy train!” he cried in what would become his campaign’s highly effective mantra.
Confronted by mostly lacklustre opponents, propelled by the evident appeal of his campaign’s penny-pinching theme, and aided by a long festering antipathy between Toronto’s liberal-spirited downtown and the conservative inclinations of its outlying areas, the youngest son of Douglas and Diane Ford of Etobicoke soon found himself wearing the mayor’s chain of office.
He was the chief magistrate of Toronto, with a salary of about $173,000 and he meant business.
On his first day in office, without bothering to call a vote, Ford summarily cancelled Transit City, the light-rail transportation master plan devised by former mayor David Miller.
He was an outlier, but he was not completely alone.
In the same 2010 vote that vaulted Rob Ford into the mayor’s chair, his older brother and campaign manager, Doug, won election as councillor in the Etobicoke ward Rob had held for the previous decade.
President of the family firm, Doug donated his councillor’s salary to charity and quickly proved himself to be both a better and a worse politician than his kid brother. He was quicker on his feet, nimbler with a two-fisted handshake, faster at whipping out a business card, and more successful at putting his thoughts into words. On the other hand, he was abrasive much of the time and did not play well with others.
Despite their differences, the two men were also very similar, both crowned by fine blond hair, both saddled with a tendency toward corpulence, and both fervent advocates of a number-crunching political philosophy that seemed to reduce the conduct of human affairs to a purely utilitarian function of dollars and cents.
They soon began co-hosting a Sunday afternoon radio talk show on Newstalk 1010, in which they mainly conducted interviews with people who agreed with them and patted each other on the back.
“Let’s get the job done,” Rob Ford said repeatedly, in these or similar words. “It comes down to customer service.”
To a degree, perhaps it does. And yet, if you ran a city the way you’d run a convenience store, you’d wind up with a lot of tidy, well-stocked shelves and not much else.
A city is not a convenience store.
But try telling that to Rob and Doug Ford.
They wanted more space for cars; less freedom for bicycles; subways, subways, subways; plus a big casino and entertainment palace. A huge Ferris wheel down by the Port Lands would also be nice. They contracted out garbage collection to the private sector on the western side of the city, eliminated the personal vehicle tax, declared the TTC an essential service, and sacked the senior management team at the Toronto Community Housing Corp., all positive measures — or not — depending on your point of view.
It would be an exaggeration — but not an enormous exaggeration — to say both men seemed to regard downtown Toronto primarily as a place for people (who do not live there) to get into and out of as quickly as possible.
They did not seem interested in abstract discussions about the evolving nature of cities, the transformational possibilities of urban design, the advancement of the arts in communal settings, the potential role of human settlements in combating climate change, or the root causes of urban troubles such as crime, broken families or physical blight.
In 2012, Rob Ford advocated using “immigration laws” to combat gun crime, presumably by deporting those convicted of firearms offences — an approach that, even if it were practicable, would seem to offer at best a short-term result. Longer-term strategies did not appear to interest him.
It sometimes seemed that what chiefly interested Rob Ford was coaching high school football.
This seemingly harmless passion — this potentially constructive and redemptive passion — was to contribute in many ways to the eventual implosion of Rob Ford, the politician.
His role as volunteer coach of the football team at Don Bosco Catholic Secondary School in north Etobicoke seemed to bring out both what was best and worst in Ford’s personality.
There can be little question that he cared deeply for the young men on his team, cared for them as individuals. He wanted to have a positive impact on their lives. All of this was praiseworthy and spoke to the best qualities of Rob Ford.
But in order to carry out his self-imposed obligations on the gridiron, he stole time, energy and other resources from his job at city hall. He abused the reputation of his political office by inappropriately soliciting money for his team. He mocked efforts by city council aimed at restricting or sanctioning his behaviour. Finally, he made a series of unfortunate public comments that seemingly disparaged students at Don Bosco, and so the school dropped him from his coaching position. Later, the Toronto Catholic District School Board announced that Ford would no longer be welcome as a coach at any of its schools.
At the best of times, those decisions would have wounded the mayor deeply.
But these were not the best of times. Ford received his marching papers as a football coach only a few days after the Star broke the now infamous Rob Ford crack-smoking video story.
Next, the police got involved, conducting a long and exhaustive investigation that confirmed almost all the bad news about Ford that had already appeared in the media.
Outrage followed pratfall; pratfall followed outrage.
Here was Rob Ford pantomiming a drunk driver during a raucous council session. Here was Rob Ford trundling across the council floor to accidentally knock over a fellow council member. Here was Rob Ford, in a disturbing fury, boasting on a cellphone video about how he was going to rip out the throat and poke out the eyes of some unnamed adversary. Here was Rob Ford publicly discussing his preferred forms of sexual intimacy. And here was Rob Ford appearing with his long-suffering wife in front of the cameras to apologize for the crude statement he had just made about her, thereby reminding everybody of the crude statement he had just made about her.
Eventually, an overwhelming majority of city councillors found a way to separate Rob Ford from most of his powers.
Meanwhile, additional incriminating images surfaced, showing Ford smoking crack cocaine yet again. This time, he took a leave from his job and sought help at an addiction clinic in Muskoka. Weeks later, on his return to the city and its politics, he looked healthier. He seemed more in control of himself. He refocused his energy on the campaign to win re-election, never mind that a victory for Ford looked more and more like a long-shot.
It might all have ended on election day in October 2014, with a majority of Toronto voters making a collective decision to thank Rob Ford for the memories while putting an end to his run as mayor.
But yet another plot twist intervened — the discovery of a large tumour in the mayor’s abdomen, later diagnosed as a rare form of cancer called liposarcoma.
Now, surely, Rob Ford’s real work was cut out for him — staying alive. As a result, the very public battle for the mayoralty would immediately be subsumed by one man’s private struggle for survival.
Or so you would have thought.
Instead, in a dazzling switcheroo, Doug replaced his younger brother as mayoral candidate and lost, while Rob entered the contest for his old council seat, and won.
In the wake of that vote, the brothers continued to talk about their political aspirations, while Rob Ford struggled valiantly against what eventually became his most dangerous foe, a disease called cancer. That struggle is ended now, and Robert Bruce Ford is dead, just midway through his fifth decade of life. He was a husband, a father, a brother, and a son. He loved this city with a passion all his own, and he worked hard in the service of his beliefs. Say what else you will about him, he made for interesting times, and he deserved a kinder fate.
Author: Oakland Ross