The first thing you see after leaving the baggage carousel at Toronto’s Pearson airport is an enormous photograph of Mayor Rob Ford. In it, the former high school football coach grins in his blingy regalia, teeth yellowed, one eye squinting in a semi-wink. His scalp is flushed and shiny through a receding blond hairline and his excessive girth spreads well beyond the frame. The overall effect is of a bloated albino lab rat on the wrong side of a thyroid drug trial. I always felt a bit sorry for him looking at it. Not any more.
Last week details of a video emerged that features the mayor, shirt unbuttoned, apparently smoking crack cocaine. In the 90-second film he reportedly sniggers, pants, catches his breath, calls Justin Trudeau, leader of the federal Liberal party a ‘fag’, declares himself ‘fucking right wing’ and proceeds to light up a glass pipe and get high as a Georgia pine.
Shot on a mobile phone, the video was shopped around the north American media by a couple of suburban Somali-Canadian drug dealers before being shown to three reporters — two from the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper and a publication with a history of dogging the scandal-embattled mayor, and the other from the New York-based gossip website Gawker.
The owners of the video reportedly tried to hawk it to the Star first, receiving an offer of $40,000 (Canadian) which they declined. They told Gawker they were holding out for six figures. Gawker, not a publication known for its subtlety, has since launched a ‘Rob Ford Crackstarter’ campaign, seeking to raise $200,000 (US) from its readers to buy the video. At press time they’d raised just under half. As pressure has mounted on Ford to address the scandal (his only response so far has been a scrum in which he called the reports ‘ridiculous’ and dismissed them as a smear campaign) the city has held its breath in suspense, wondering who would get their hands on the video first: the media or Ford?
When the story broke last week I was, like most Canadians, absolutely riveted — then mortified to the bone.
Toronto is my home town. I grew up in its downtown core, in a leafy neighbourhood called the Annex, filled with academics and media types in rambling old Victorian brick houses. My mother (then single) was a magazine editor. Our neighbours ran a theatre and grew their own pot. Jane Jacobs, the great urban activist and writer, lived just around the corner. Margaret Atwood was a bit further down the road. We were, and still are, the people whom Rob Ford hates most — ‘the downtown liberal elite’. Almost none of us voted for him. He knows this and has made it his business over the three-odd years he’s been in office to do everything he can to alienate us. And in a way, who can blame him?
But Rob Ford took his inverse snobbery to truly galling extremes. From racist diatribes at City Hall to painting over bike lanes to hanging up in the middle of an interview with the CBC’s flagship news show because he was busy coaching football, Rob Ford hasn’t done much in office apart from make clear that he really, really doesn’t give a crap what the bourgeoisie thinks of him.
Over the past few years every Toronto dinner party I’ve attended has been so glutted with unanimous moaning over Rob Ford that, after the vintage port and artisanal cheese, it began to seem like a course in itself. There was a perverse part of me that started to feel affection for him as a result.
Torontonians can be so smug about the city’s burgeoning food scene, it seemed almost refreshing to have a mayor who went to KFC. Last year, when Ford was caught on camera entering a fast food joint shortly after launching a charity weight-loss campaign with his brother (a similarly overweight city councilor named Doug), a small part of me cheered. He never lost the weight, of course. And now we know why.
Rob Ford lacks impulse control. He is an addict. Either that or he’s an idiot. And given the available evidence I think it’s probably safe to assume he’s both.
Back in 2010, Ford campaigned on a single slogan ‘Stop the gravy train!’ and promised to cut taxes or at least make the city safe for commuters and homophobic hockey fans. He showcased his commitment by refusing his right to a driver, despite a previous DUI, and was later photographed reading while travelling at over 40 mph. (His response to whether it was true? ‘Probably. I’m busy.’) Visionless and inarticulate, at the very least he seemed like a pretty regular guy. But regular guys do not smoke crack or hang out with drug dealers. Nor do they assault their wives, threaten to kidnap their children, or repeatedly get kicked out of social events for drunken behaviour — all of which Rob Ford has been accused of (if not convicted) during his time as mayor. In fact, late last year he was actually booted out of office when a judge convicted him on a conflict of interest violation. The decision was later overturned, but it’s not hard to recognise a ticking human H-bomb when you see one.
Perhaps the most depressing thing about the Rob Ford affair is the sense of quiet superiority it’s denied Canadians in general and Torontonians specifically. We know our city is fairly dull compared with more bustling metropolises like Manhattan, Tokyo and London, but at least it’s decent — that at any rate is what we like to tell ourselves. Now we have the indignity of Americans, with their silly gun laws and lack of public healthcare, challenging our sacred niceness. As Josh Barro of Bloomberg news recently put it, ‘Canada is supposed to be better than us. It’s an almost unbearably functional place, what with its non-collapsed banking system and strongly growing economy and harmonious, cosmopolitan society (Quebec excepted)…But I have bad news for you, Canada: Americans have learned about Rob Ford, and we’ll have no more of your smug superiority.’
Of all the things Rob Ford has sought to deny the downtown Toronto liberal elite, superciliousness is surely the most dear. Luckily, having grown up there, I suspect it’s a temporary thing. The city’s vintage port and artisanal cheese supply will long outlast our wildly incompetent, allegedly crackhead mayor — a mayor whose nine lives, mercifully, have all but come to an end.
Leah McLaren is a columnist for the Toronto Globe & Mail