On Tuesday, Rob Ford appeared before a throng of journalists, primed to answer The Question. Yes, the reports were true: He’d smoked crack cocaine. Reporters pounced. The Internet howled. Canadians hung their heads in shame. And now, as the week draws to a close, Torontonians are waking up to a bracing reality: Improbably, incredibly, Rob Ford is still their mayor.
“There used to be such a thing as resigning with some honor when caught egregiously lying or engaging in unethical activities, but apparently not anymore,” lamented Emmett Macfarlane, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, in an interview.
John Mascarin, a Toronto-based municipal law expert, tells me that’s because, under Ontario law, mayors in the province can only be removed from office for a specific set of reasons, including missing three consecutive months of city council meetings without authorization, failing to declare a conflict of interest (a stipulation that landed Ford in legal trouble last year), and being convicted of a crime and sentenced to jail (since prisoners can’t vote in city elections in Ontario, and only eligible voters can serve in city government). And while possessing crack cocaine is a criminal offense in Canada, lawyers have dismissed the notion that Ford’s announcement this week could serve as the foundation for a criminal charge. “It’s fanciful,” Julian Falconer, a Canadian lawyer, told The Globe and Mail. “Police prosecute based on actual possession.”
These roadblocks to unseating Ford have generated some serious soul-searching about Canadian democracy in certain corners of Toronto. A Toronto Star editorial, for instance, has called for changes to local law that would enable the city council to suspend or remove mayors who flagrantly violate Toronto’s code of conduct. (“In ancient Rome, [Ford] would have been banished, sent into exile and forbidden from returning to the city,” one columnist for the paper marveled, skipping over the fact that ancient Rome didn’t have too many crack scandals). Others have pointed to Quebec, where the provincial government, in response to a scandal involving one of its mayors, passed a law this year enabling judges to suspend city politicians facing serious charges.
In an op-ed for The Globe and Mail on Monday—a day before Ford admitted to smoking crack—Macfarlane called on Ontario’s legislature to grant impeachment mechanisms to the province’s municipalities—by, for example, enabling city councils to remove members by a super-majority vote (there are no political parties on the municipal level in Ontario, and mayors are elected directly). Others, including Toronto’s deputy mayor, have pushed back against demands for ambitious legislative reforms—especially ones that invite overreach from Ontario. “[T]here are 444 municipalities in this province and only one of them has the Rob Ford curse,” one editorial pointed out, adding that a new law could give city council too much influence over mayors, undermining the will of the voters in the process.
“Our standards [for removing someone from elected office] should be higher than not being charged with a crime,” Macfarlane tells me. “I don’t think we should reduce the concept of democracy and democratic accountability to just elections.”
This problem with Canadian municipal democracy, Macfarlane adds, isn’t confined to Toronto; the sitting mayor of London, Ontario, for instance, is currently facing fraud charges. And the impulse to implement impeachment procedures in municipalities in the wake of scandals isn’t limited to Canada—Californians called for similar measures when San Diego Mayor Bob Filner faced a movement for a messy recall election over sexual harassment allegations (he ultimately resigned).
Ford’s fellow city councilors find themselves at a similar loss to shepherd Ford out of city hall. Motions have been filed calling for the mayor to take a temporary leave of absence and to be stripped of his power to appoint and dismiss the deputy mayor and committee chairs. On Thursday, Councilor Denzil Minnan-Wong, an ally of Ford’s, announced that he would petition the provincial government to enact legislation removing the mayor if he refuses to take time off, noting that the council and voters were “handcuffed” and increasingly desperate. Ontario’s premier, who hails from the opposite end of the political spectrum as the right-of-center Ford, has said little about the scandal.
“It’s over. Ford Nation is a failed state and we’ll just have to wait for the next election, I guess, to see him disappear from politics,” Councilor Adam Vaughan said earlier this week.
Maybe so. But for now, Ford Nation is limping along—with Rob Ford still striding out in front of it.