Ask A Canadian: How Did This Whole Rob Ford Thing Happen To Toronto, Anyway?

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 14  - Mayor Rob Ford at council meeting, November 14, 2013.        (Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Sta
TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 14 - Mayor Rob Ford at council meeting, November 14, 2013. (Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Over the past few weeks, Americans have gotten to know Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, and what they've gotten to know about him has not been particularly good! Back in May, global total awareness of Rob Ford and his antics got a huge boost when Gawker's John Cook got tipped about a video of Ford smoking crack cocaine. He jetted off to Toronto, met with sources, and eventually got to see this tape with his own eyes. Things, as they say, snowballed from there. What the world now understands about Rob Ford was best summed up by Daily Intelligencer's Dan Amira this week: "Rob Ford is simply, in every way imaginable, a human tornado of chaos and sleaze."

Americans, of course, have a template for the model crack-smoking mayor -- Marion Shepilov Barry, who served as the mayor of the District of Columbia from 1979 to 1991, and then again from 1995 to 1999. But Rob Ford seriously breaks the scale in terms of pure personal degeneracy. Americans, who tend to think of Canada as a land of very gentle and positive people, probably have to wonder, "How did this walking receptacle of pure, unholy debasement happen to Canada, the place that gave the world Sarah McLachlan?"

Well, when we have questions about Canada, we turn to the lovely people at Huffington Post Canada for answers. Here to explain how Rob Ford happened, and what's likely to happen next, is Michael Bolen, news editor of HuffPost Canada.


Eat The Press: Most Americans regard Canada as our very mild-mannered and affable neighbor to the North -- the calm raisonneur of North America. And from a tourist's perspective, anyway, Toronto presents itself as an upbeat, modern, cosmopolitan city. I mean, you guys have chip-and-PIN, which is so civilized! So how does a loud, loutish boor like Rob Ford come to be the city's mayor?

Michael Bolen: Torontonians often ask themselves the same thing. The short answer is: the suburbs. The provincial government (our equivalent of a state government) merged the administration of many of Toronto’s more populous suburbs with the downtown core in the late 1990s. As a result, Toronto now is composed of a red state and a blue state. In 2010, the suburbs voted overwhelmingly for Ford while the core voted overwhelmingly for his rival. Ford is from the 'burbs himself and styled himself as a blue-collar populist who would be lots of fun at your backyard BBQ.

I recently wrote a blog post about this. And you can see how dramatic the divide between the city and the burbs was in this map.

Eat The Press: Obviously, the crack situation is a new revelation. Did he have a substantial reputation for bad behavior in 2010, when he ran for mayor? And what did he do during his campaign to consolidate 47 percent of the voters' support?

Michael Bolen: Toronto was well aware that Rob Ford was a special guy when he ran for mayor. He had called Asian people “Orientals” who “work like dogs.” He had been arrested in Florida for drunk driving with a joint in his back pocket. He had verbally assaulted reporters. He had been removed from an NHL hockey game for being belligerent and seemingly drunk. He had said cyclists who are killed on the road have only themselves to blame. He had been charged, briefly, with assaulting his wife and uttering a death threat (they were dropped). He had suggested that council should conduct a “public lynching” for considering a homeless shelter in his ward. The pre-2010 list really does just go on and on.

Many of these events simply endeared him to the suburban voters who share his sensibilities, but Ford also hammered home an effective message: stop the spending. His campaign focused on putting an end to the “gravy train” at City Hall -- a slogan that was repeated ad nauseam. The previous more liberal mayor was widely considered to be profligate and Ford’s opponent, George Smitherman, had overseen the financial fiasco that was the province’s attempt to digitize health records. Sound familiar? They even used the same company, CGI, as HealthCare.gov. So Ford’s message resonated with voters and it’s his go-to whenever he gets in trouble.

Eat The Press: Do you think that by buying and using crack cocaine Ford may have finally crossed the line with the people who have supported him in the past? He seems pretty confident that he's going to win reelection.

Michael Bolen: The mayor has a devoted core of supporters known as “Ford Nation,” but pretty much everyone else has deserted him. The latest polling found 76 percent of Torontonians want him to step down. But the next election isn’t until October 2014 and a lot can happen in a year. Many worry that if two candidates split the liberal vote, Ford could still squeak out a victory. But the mayor is a global laughingstock. Canadians may yearn for attention from usually oblivious Americans, but this is the wrong kind. We’re all embarrassed and real work at City Hall has come to a halt.

Eat The Press: Obviously, some of what Ford has done can legitimately be called criminal behavior. Is there a criminal case in the works against Ford right now? And if so, how is that process likely to play out?

Michael Bolen: Soon after Gawker and the Toronto Star published their reports in May about the existence of a video showing Ford smoking what appears to be crack cocaine, the Toronto police opened an investigation. That operation recently resulted in the arrest of Ford’s sometimes driver and close associate Alexander ‘Sandro’ Lisi. Former staffers have stated they were concerned that Lisi was Ford’s drug dealer and police surveillance footage shows the mayor and Lisi exchanging a number of suspicious packages.The documents used to obtain warrants in that case have been released to the media and are the source of many of the recent salacious revelations.

Despite being in possession of the infamous video, despite the mayor’s own admissions of drug use and drunk driving, despite having footage of the mayor engaging in what appear to be drug deals, police say they don’t have the evidence to make an arrest. Many have criticized the force for not swooping in on one of these alleged drug deals as they usually would.

That said, Lisi has been charged with extortion in relation to an attempt to secure the infamous video (Perhaps this attempt.) If Ford is going to be arrested, it’s likely to be in connection with some sort of cover-up. Police Chief Bill Blair has said the investigation is ongoing.

That’s actually just the tip of the legal iceberg, as many of the figures associated with the video were arrested in a major organized crime bust in June. It was in that raid that police obtained the computer that held the famous Ford footage.

Eat The Press: Beyond what could happen in the criminal justice arena, are there any options as far as removing him from office?

Michael Bolen: Not really. City Council has no power to remove a mayor. The province could pass a new law making it possible (and they signaled Thursday that could be possible), but the government is hesitant to do so for a number of reasons. The government is left-wing and the mayor is right-wing, so the decision could be viewed as political. It would set a dangerous precedent for future governments. The mayor of another Ontario city is currently facing fraud charges. He hasn’t resigned and the province has done nothing. Even if the province were to act, it would likely take months to pass legislation.

City Council is now doing everything it can to restrict the mayor’s powers. Friday, it voted almost unanimously to strip Ford of some of his executive functions. On Monday, it will vote on a motion that will essentially make Ford mayor in name only.

But for the foreseeable future at least, Ford is likely to remain mayor.

Eat The Press: Assuming Ford survives all of this long enough to stand for reelection, are there any candidates out there who could defeat him?

Michael Bolen: Olivia Chow, the widow of beloved federal NDP leader Jack Layton, is almost certain to run on the left. She is well known and previously served as the equivalent of a congresswoman, so she’ll have a good shot. That said, in the U.S. she would be labelled a communist and it isn’t hard to imagine her flopping in the suburbs. There are also rumors that John Tory may run on the right. An AM talk radio host, he’s likely to do much better than Chow in the suburbs. But he lost a mayoral race in 2003 and a provincial election in 2007, so he’s far from a sure bet. On top of that, Tory is about a nanometre right of center, so Ford would have a chance at maintaining his conservative base.

Eat The Press: Is there any Canadian politician in recent memory that stacks up to Ford when it comes to unapologetic debauchery?

Michael Bolen: I’m not sure there is anyone on Earth besides Silvio Berlusconi who can match Ford in debauchery at this point. The closest thing Canada has at the moment is recently suspended Sen. Patrick Brazeau. He’s at the heart of the other current massive political scandal in Canada over expenses in our unelected and largely powerless upper legislative body. Don’t confuse our Senate with your Senate, this beast is where party cronies and bagmen are appointed to serve near-life terms.

Wait, that actually sounds a lot like your Senate.

Brazeau was defeated in a heavily publicized televised boxing match with Justin Trudeau (the son of a former prime minister and now the leader of the federal Liberal Party). The weigh-in featured a Speedo-clad Brazeau bragging about the size of his penis.

He has long been embroiled in various spending scandals and had the worst attendance record in the Senate. But recently, things got much more serious when he was charged with assault and sexual assault. He is widely rumored to have substance-abuse issues.

He nearly matches Ford on the unapologetic front. After his arrest, Brazeau tweeted the following excerpt from a John Dryden poem (bear in mind that he allegedly pushed his then-girlfriend down the stairs):

I'm wounded not, but I'm not slain
I'm brusied and faint they say
Just let me lie and bleed awhile;
I'll not be long this way.

Class act all the way.

Eat The Press: Why were reporters pestering Ford so much about smoking marijuana? We were under the impression that was pretty kosher up there.

Michael Bolen: It’s actually been Rob’s brother, city councillor Doug Ford, who has been making most of the marijuana comparisons. Other city councillors have likely smoked pot, and the Ford brothers have tried to equate this with smoking crack, which is, sadly, probably not even the worst thing the mayor has done.

Earlier this year, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau told HuffPost he smoked pot while serving as an MP, so that may have something to do with it as well. Many think it’s inevitable Trudeau will be prime minister some day, so it was a big deal. Yet, polls showed few people cared.

The majority of Canadians support legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana, but historically the U.S. drug war has made it nearly impossible for us to change our laws. When we talk change, we hear threats about shutting down the border.

While the police here often turn a blind eye to pot use, the national Conservative government has been pushing a law-and-order agenda since 2006. Drug laws have actually become more strict of late.

So, believe it or not, many Canadians are actually pretty jealous of residents of Colorado, Washington state and California.

Eat The Press: What's likely to happen to the people who sold Ford his crack?

Michael Bolen: Well, we don’t actually know who sold Ford his crack. Former staffers have said Sandro Lisi may have been selling him drugs. He is currently out on bail, but faces a number of charges. It’s very possible he’ll end up in jail and who knows what he’ll say about Ford at a trial.

As for the three men in the photograph thought to be taken on the night the crack video was recorded, one was shot to death outside a nightclub in March and the other two were arrested in the massive drug bust I mentioned earlier. Those men, Muhammad Khattak and Monir Kassim, face drugs, weapons and gang charges.

Khattak wants to view the crack video and has been fighting in court to get access. He wants to clear himself of any connection to the tape or attempts to sell it. The judge has yet to rule.

Mohamed Siad, the man who showed Toronto Star reporters the crack video, was also arrested in the drug raids.

So, essentially, everyone closely linked to the crack tape has been arrested … except for Rob Ford.

Eat The Press: Off topic, but as you've probably heard, our most recent attempt to extend decent health care coverage to a majority of our citizens has hit a couple of snags. When you guys think about the American health care system, do you all just sort of roll your eyes at us?

Michael Bolen: Pretty much. Universal health care is great, you guys should try it. America has the most expensive system in the developed world and some of the worst health outcomes. Friends, you’re doing it wrong.

At the same time, most Canadians realize that wealthy Americans with good insurance get the best care on Earth. Luckily, those people aren’t in charge here. Did I mention corporations are banned from making donations to political parties? You guys should try that too.

Jokes aside, we realize America has a very different culture and that there are serious political obstacles to change. We just wish you would realize that waiting a few weeks for a non-essential test is a small price to pay for equality.

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