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The sober side of Rob Ford

The debacle involving Toronto's mayor was a reminder that democracy begins, not ends, with elections

By David Wilson

Late last spring, I ventured to a community council meeting in west-end Toronto to defend a healthy 150-year-old oak tree that a homeowner on our street wanted to cut down. Evidently, my one-minute deputation rubbed the brother of Mayor Rob Ford the wrong way.

Councillor Doug Ford ripped into me non-stop for five minutes, accusing me of being behind an online petition (I wasn’t, but so what if I was?) and not respecting the rights of property owners (in whose ranks I count myself). What Ford actually said came through as a venomous blur, but it amounted to this: “You and everyone like you are going down after the next election.” I’m not sure what shook me more — the tirade or the applause it prompted from the public gallery. Another councillor later assured me this was politics as usual in the heart of Ford Nation.

The incident was never far from mind during the Rob Ford train wreck at Toronto City Hall last fall. I laughed along with everyone else as the American late-night TV hosts lampooned the mayor and his jaw-dropping antics. But my laughter was half-hearted, tempered by the sobering realities the spectacle revealed.

One of those realities is the cheapening of forgiveness. As Rev. Christopher Levan points out in an essay this month ("A sorry spectacle"), Rob Ford seemed to think that the more he apologized, the more he was entitled to instant absolution. The fact that his core support seemed prepared to grant him exactly that suggested either a slackening of civic morality or social divisions so deep and raw that sins don’t matter as long as they’re committed by the right guy.

I think the episode also shone a light on the fragility of electoral democracy. The Fords championed the sanctity of elections, yet revealed a breathtaking disregard for the integrity of elected office. Brothers Rob and Doug became tag-team mayors even though only one of them was actually voted to the position. They bullied their opponents and reduced the complex business of governing to a few belligerent slogans. Instead of slinking away in disgrace after council stripped the mayor of most of his budget and power, the Fords promised “outright war” in the next election in October.

If nothing else, the Ford debacle was a reminder that democracy begins, not ends, with elections — the measure of democratic well-being is how candidates behave after they are in office. Democracy in the country’s largest city has been ailing, and that’s a concern for all Canadians. The next election will be a test of how badly Toronto wants its politics to be healthy again — a democracy where a vote is an expression of civility, not a weapon for inflaming divisions.

In the midst of the dispiriting events last fall, we got some good news: the city ruled that the oak tree down the street from us couldn’t be cut down. When I walk by it these days, I see not just a tree but a sign that maybe the roots of our better civic instincts run deeper than the bully politics of the moment.

* This year marks the 185th anniversary of The Observer and its antecedents. Each month, we’ll be spotlighting slices of the magazine’s history, beginning on page 39 of this issue. It’s part of a package of changes in the back third of the magazine that include a new column on church statistics (Reality Check), monthly profiles of innovative congregational outreach efforts, and columns on personal faith (Testimony) and spiritual practice (Soul Work). Enjoy.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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