Toronto, that once sleepy capital of Canadian business, ‘New York run by the swiss’, a city widely seen as boring and ugly (esp. compared to its once-competitor Montréal) – has made global news: A crack smoking mayor! Match that, London, New York or Berlin! All the mainstream media here (and globally) are pretty unanimous in their call for Rob Ford’s resignation, or at least for him taking a break.
That in itself is a reason for suspicion. In my business ethics course this week I had a vivid exchange with my students. We were discussing discrimination and how it is unethical to apply criteria such as race, gender, sexual orientation, recreational habits etc. to job qualifications and hiring. On that note, calls for Ford’s resignation are not very convincing. After all, on many accounts, he has done a good job as Toronto’s major. The city’s finances are healthy; public services are running smoothly, key infrastructure projects, such as the construction of new subway lines have finally taken off; and the major successfully tamed the beast of an otherwise dysfunctional federal/provincial/municipal layered bureaucracy to get even more public infrastructure projects off the ground. This alone, in a city whose infrastructure is stuck somewhere in the 1970s, is reasonable ground to consider him a success on his job.
Of course, there were other things in the past, where arguably Ford violated the terms of his job. Toronto Star investigative reporter Daniel Dale – a former student of us - digged out a number of occasions where the mayor took advantage of his role for personal issues. But nothing really stuck.
As much as some have made an ethical case here against the mayor, I do not think these arguments really touch the heart of the controversy.
Two things spring to mind to any reflective observer. First, much of the vitriol directed at Ford in my view is just based on the persistent WASPy (as in White Anglo Saxon Protestant) subculture of North America. Ford likes to use recreational drugs, has all the wrong, politically incorrect friends and, yes, is probably an alcoholic. Mind you, at least it was not about sex. But in some ways his fate resembles the one of Bill Clinton or Elliot Spitzer: Ford does not live up to the public morality and style, which is deemed politically correct in Canada. It is worth noting that although possession of crack is illegal in Canada, the lack of concrete proof (in terms of physical substance) means that prosecution is unlikely. But the fact that Ford admits to it in public and simply continues with his job just infuriates all those who either have succumbed to this pubic consensus of stuffy morality or otherwise suppress it and live it out in private. After all, Canada’s alcohol consumption is twice the global average and him talking about his ‘drunken stupors’ as a regular occurrence probably just represents an average recreational practice in this country.
Little surprise of course, that much of the hunt on Ford – representing the right wing Progressive Conservative Party – is coming from the ‘liberal’ press here. It not only shows how small ‘c’ conservative even Canada’s liberal elites are but also reveals that all those who hated Ford as a mayor to begin with now take whatever moral resource as their disposal to finally finish him off.
This points to a second observation. Rob Ford epitomizes the aches and tensions of a country which has been the most relaxed and forward looking in terms of immigration. His constituency are the ‘905ers’ based on the area code of Toronto’s suburbia. That is also where he is from. These are mostly people with a first generation immigrant background coming from south and east asia. The other lot, who hate him and are currently fanning the flames of ousting Rob Ford are the ‘416ers’, those who live in the core downtown of Toronto. None of them voted for Ford and they never felt represented by a fat, white, uneducated, loud bloke from the suburbs.
Ford’s approval ratings have soared in the aftermath of him admitting his drug use. This is no surprise. He represents people who struggle to make ends meet; who are sick and tired of commuting to work in a city with the longest commuting time by far; who get little kick out of taxes being spent on things that do not relate to their everyday struggles; and who know from their own experience that fighting your way out of, say, Bangladesh to Brampton (a 905 suburb) – yes – takes determination, hard work and not too much concern for what their then constituency back home thought of them. Rob Ford, the small time entrepreneur, in his stubbornness just represents them.
So what does this amount to? On day one of his election I thought Rob Ford was a disaster. Mostly because I believe in Toronto’s potential as a great global city that deserves a mayor of a different stature and outlook. But at the same time I also believe that a mayor has to represent the city that voted him in. And boy, Rob Ford fits that bill. So rather than trying to get this ugly representation of what Toronto actually looks like out of sight, the real smart reaction to this scandal would be to say that Rob Ford – with all his preposterous faults – is the one that the people of Toronto chose to represent them. So lets allow him to continue to represent us. And if we don’t like what we see - until we can vote him out - maybe we find the courage to address the underlying issues. Rather than killing the poor guy who currently just displays them.
Photo by Eric Parker, reproduced under the Creative Commons license.