Robert Bruce Ford, Toronto’s contentious former mayor, has died at the age of 46 in hospital after a battle with a rare form of abdominal cancer.
In his more than 16 years working in Canadian politics, Ford built an army of followers behind his name. Known for his heavy-breathed rants and lumbering gait, his humanistic approach to city matters garnered a hard-and-fast following of Ford Nation supporters. From his first election as city councilor to his most recent admittance to the hospital, Ford’s fans stood firmly planted behind the politician who broke the mold, in every sense.
Born in Etobicoke in 1969 and the youngest of four children, Ford was raised in a family with both a political legacy and history of substance use. The Fords have been referred to as the “gatekeepers of Etobicoke”, the “Canadian Kennedys”, rich and popular. His father, Douglas Bruce Ford, Sr., was the late Progressive Conservative MPP, from 1995-1999. Ford Sr., a multi-millionaire who was raised during the depression, was a strict and demanding father, even going so far as to submit his children to lie detector tests after money had disappeared from the family home. Rob Ford stepped into politics just as his father left, a position meant for Doug Jr., but had been saddled with taking care of the business. It was the death of his father in 2006, according to former Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle, which would send Ford into a downward spiral of drugs and alcohol. A year before that, his sister Kathy, was shot in the head by her boyfriend, but survived the incident. In 1998, her ex-husband killed her boyfriend with a sawed-off shotgun, right in front of her. Kathy was a drug addict, Doug was a pot dealer in high school and recovering alcoholic, and Rob, too, had a history of drinking and substance abuse.
Raised in a privileged home, Ford dreamt of becoming a professional football player and attended several high profile sports training camps as a teenager. After graduating high school, he went on to attend Carleton University only to drop out a year later. While at university he made the football team, but never managed to make it off the bench. In 2000, Ford married his high school sweetheart, Renata Brejniak, and had two children. Police were called several times over the course of 2008 to 2013 in response to domestic disputes between the two, though no charges were ever laid. Ford lived out his childhood passion from the sidelines as a high school football coach. His first coaching job was with Newtonbrook Secondary School, which he was later dismissed from over a dispute with a player. Then, with Don Bosco Catholic Secondary School until the Catholic School Board dismissed him over evidence that surfaced in 2013 showing Ford’s drug usage.
Ford stepped on to the political field in 2000 when elected councilor for his local ward, Etobicoke North (Ward 2), a position he would not return to until after a tumultuous, allegation-riddled reign as Toronto Mayor. Here began the corpulent football coach’s first encounter with the harsh awakening, and a hard spotlight, that elected leaders face in politics. With his lack of regard for the political process and perpetual annoyances with reporters and other councilors, it was the perfect recipe for the making of a YouTube sensation. One of the first videos to surface was Ford’s verbal confrontation with Globe and Mail reporter, John Barber, who had mouthed a rude name aimed at Ford during a combative back-and-forth. Ford chased Barber to the elevator of City Hall, using his bulk to block the embarrassed reporter’s exit and berating him for an explanation.
Not long after, in 2006, the public began to see evidence of his self-titled “drunken stupors” after being ejected from a Maple Leafs game for intoxication and belligerence. A pattern of deflection gradually began to develop after each incident when questioned: a flat out denial until presented with hard evidence, followed up by an admission of guilt, complete with pettifogging and blame. Ford served as a councilor for a decade. Nearing the end of his last term as Toronto City Councilor, his political career was again overshadowed by personal turmoil when his wife of eight years, at the time, Renata, called police to her home on March 26, 2008. Renata pressed charges, accusing her husband of assault and death threats, which would later be dropped before his run for Mayor. These calls to the police would become regular occurrences at the Ford house.
Despite consistently landing in the eye of controversy, ranging from his comments regarding “Oriental people” to his pitchy outbursts at City Hall meetings, Ford overcame criticism and ran for Mayor in 2010. His harsh criticism of city spending and his promise to “always answer the phone” made him relatable to the voters. Ford would spend hours a day walking through the worst neighborhoods of Toronto, knocking on doors and talking to residents about bad transit and cracked sidewalks. If you called his office, Ford would answer the phone. If you left a message, Ford would call you back. He was a politician that had time for his people. Ruddy-faced, ungainly and perpetually sweaty read as ‘human’ to many voters, while the ability to command his voice among a din of shouting was seen as endearing. Ford was anything but the classic cutout politician that ran alongside and before him. To the people, he was one of them, coining terms like “stop the gravy train” and “respect the taxpayer”. Running on a platform that axed streetcars, gridlock-causing marathons, and about half of the city council staff, all while claiming to save $2.8 billion over four years, Ford won.
His four years as city Mayor played out much like his time as city councilor – a domino effect of public intoxication, slurs, slanders, lies, admissions, city council violations, police calls and topped off with a drug scandal. Ford’s abuse of the inner workings of city council aggravated and embarrassed members on all levels of the political institution. City Hall became a harshly divided battlefield with Ford steamrolling through backlash to pass improper, even technically illegal, policies. Numerous attempts to try and curtail Toronto’s wild mayor failed and only gave him more power as a naysayer. A violation of the Council’s code of conduct when using his official letterhead to solicit donations for his charity, the Rob Ford Football Foundation, would be the sign of things to come as Ford used his power to pull personal strings. From diverting TTC busses to pick up his football team, leaving passengers stranded in rush hour, to expediting drainage and road repairs in front of Deco Labels, his family-owned business, Ford continually misused his position for personal gain.
The platform he ran and won on, as an average man of the people slowly began to crumble around him, too. How he treated the public quickly went from patient and perseverant to discriminatory. The public heard Ford speak out in revulsion against a number of marginalized groups present in his city, but nothing was quite as prevalent as what would be deemed his war on the LGBT community. It began in 2005, when he announced to council that he didn’t understand the need for grants for transgendered and transsexual people. This clear discomfort with Toronto’s diverse and growing community carried on when he became the first Mayor of the city to not attend Pride in 2011, at first blaming a commitment to an annual trip to a family cabin. He would not attend any of the parades for all four years in office, and very purposefully failed to attend a Pride flag raising ceremony.
None of this was nearly as polarizing as the crack scandal. The city became divided, between those who believed the allegations, and those who called it rumour. In May of 2013, Gawker published a story revealing the existence of a video in which the Mayor of Toronto was smoking crack cocaine amidst a homophobic rant. The Toronto Star backed the story saying two reporters, Robyn Doolittle and Kevin Donovan, had seen the video. It wasn’t until November, after the police had raided the home of the man who shot the video, that Ford stood in the middle of a news scrum and urged the reporters to ask him the question they had posed to him a few months prior again.
“Yes. I have smoked crack cocaine.”
It was a scandal that captivated the world. Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart were among many television personalities who helped transform Rob Ford into a household name across North America. After Ford refused to resign, he was fired as a football coach, a slew of Ford’s staff resigned and a protest at Nathan Phillips Square was organized calling for his resignation.
In 2014, Ford ran as incumbent mayor, only to withdraw his bid on September 12 after being hospitalized with an abdominal tumour.
Instead, Ford ran for the position that first started him on the 14-year long journey under Canada’s media microscope. In a last attempt to maintain the grasp of Ford Nation, Doug entered the mayoral race. The older Ford didn’t command the forgiving heart of the voters quite like his younger brother and lost by a long shot to John Tory. The self-titled straight shooter took a hard backseat after such a public run as Toronto’s most controversial mayor.
After running face-first into a CityTV camera and passing it off as an attack, it is easy to see Rob Ford didn’t receive a kind view from the reporters he referred to as “maggots”. He would race from his car to the front door when he saw cameras and microphones waiting to question him on the latest fiasco. Ford went so far as chasing down and mugging Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale while the curious journalist scouted out a park Ford had planned to purchase and fix up. Despite his perpetual annoyance with the press, however, there were brief moments where a glimpse of the bombastic mayor’s efforts shone through the unforgiving headlines.
On St. Patrick’s Day of 2012, a passerby encountered Ford, “stumbling down the street” and took the chance to tell the city’s visibly intoxicated leader that he was “the worst mayor ever.” Ford allegedly walked over, kissed her on the forehead and responded, “I know, but I try.”