Political spectators have short memories. Since the election of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in November, the media has been awash with praise for America’s northern neighbor, particularly in the midst of a tumultuous election year.
While Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has fueled his campaign with bombast and provocation deemed sexist and racist by his critics, the well-coiffed Trudeau has spent his first months in office personally welcoming Syrian refugees and proclaiming himself a feminist.
The juxtaposition has prompted some Americans to contemplate moving to Canada. How quickly these Trump detractors seem to have forgotten that the same country that bred Trudeau also created former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, better known to the world as the “crack mayor.”
He passed away on Tuesday following complications from malignant liposarcoma, a rare cancer. Ford’s four years at the helm of Canada’s largest city produced a fraught legacy, one that made global headlines after it was revealed that he had been caught on tape smoking crack cocaine.
After a string of initial denials, Ford admitted to the act — with a couple qualifiers.
“Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine,” he told a gaggle of reporters in 2013. “But no, do I, am I an addict? No. Have I tried it? Probably in one of my drunken stupors.”
Ford’s disclosure quickly became the stuff of Internet memes and easy punchlines, but even in the shocking revelation there was a glimmer of the Ford that Torontonians had been enraptured by during his 2010 mayoral campaign. He was plainspoken, like the average citizen. And unlike the average politician, he ceded nothing to political correctness.
If Trudeau is the anti-Trump, Ford was his closest high-profile counterpart north of the border.
In 2001, a columnist for Canada’s National Post called then-city councillor Ford’s speeches “outrageously incoherent.” In 2006, he was removed from a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game after accosting a couple sitting in front of him. “Are you some kind of right-wing Commie bastard?” he reportedly asked the man. “Do you want your little wife to go over to Iran and get raped and shot?”
The National Post’s Richard Warnica summarized Ford’s contradictions on Monday:
In his brief, tumultuous time in office, Ford never stopped surprising. He provoked anger. He provoked disgust. But for a large subset of the city — through it all and certainly to the end — he was the guy, their everyman savior, the one who’s looking out for ‘us.’
Notably, a large portion of those who counted themselves among this “us” belonged to categories to which Ford decidedly did not: immigrants and visible minorities.
The son of a successful label magnate, Ford was born into wealth and dropped out of college after one year. His vocabulary was strewn with racial slurs, from the N-word to “Paki” to “Oriental people.” Italians were “wops,” Jews “kikes,” Poles “Polacks” and so on.
“Those Oriental people work like dogs…they sleep beside their machines,” Ford said of Asians in 2008. “The Oriental people, they’re slowly taking over.” He refused to apologize for his comments, because “People aren’t asking me to.”
Six years later, as mayor, Ford was caught on camera spewing invective in a combination of imitation Jamaican Patois and drunken English.
And in an audio tape obtained by the Toronto Star, Ford declared himself a “racist” while noting the paradoxical allure he held for minorities in a city where half of the population is foreign-born.
“Nobody sticks up for people like I do, every f—king kike, n—ger, f—king wop, dago, whatever the race,” Ford was recorded saying to someone in a phone call. “Nobody does. I’m the most racist guy around. I’m the mayor of Toronto.”
The people he insulted were the same ones that voted for him.
According to the Canadian Political Science Association, 80 percent of the votes that got Ford elected in 2010 came from Toronto’s inner suburbs, home to the city’s highest concentration of immigrants and visible minorities. Urban planning and governance scholar Zack Taylor found that many continued to support him after his addiction came to light, choosing to overlook his debauchery in favor of his commitment to saving public dollars.
“Number one, he’s a money-saver. The rest is whatever,” Indian immigrant Jarnal Grewal told PRI in November 2013, months after Gawker and the Toronto Star reported on a video showing Ford smoking crack cocaine.
“He’s drinking. He’s driving. Whatever he’s doing, he’s doing in his own time. Not on our time,” Grewal said.
This was the pervading sentiment among Ford’s working class supporters. Sure, the mayor’s behavior was dubious, but what mattered was that he wasn’t asking the public to pay for his — or anybody’s — personal problems. His focus on cutting taxes assured them that the government’s hands wouldn’t be wandering into their wallets; it seemed fitting to grant him his autonomy as well.
“A lot of us see ourselves in Rob Ford,” political commentator Andray Domise, a second-generation Jamaican immigrant, told Toronto Life in 2014. “He’s vilified, chased after by the media for his drug habits, attacked for his personal life.”
Ford had gotten elected on a simple promise: to “stop the gravy train” of public spending in City Hall, and it was this message that remained with many immigrants even after the scandals spilled over.
Before Ford’s cancer forced him to abandon his reelection race, a 2014 Toronto Life column titled “My Chinese immigrant parents will vote for Ford” explained: “Peeing in public is bad, but raising taxes is worse.”
During his term, Ford had indeed kept his campaign promise to eliminate the vehicle registration tax that previously contributed around $64 million annually to the public budget. He also slashed city councillors’ budgets by 40 percent, and was looking to cut the land transfer tax — which brought in $344.5 million in 2012 — during the second term that never came to be.
For all his public ignominy, Ford’s fiscal conservatism made him the impossible “everyman” in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world.
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