Rob Ford and the Two Torontos

Don't believe what you're hearing about the scandal-plagued mayor's supporters. The truth is much more complicated.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford leaves his office at City Hall on November 19. (Reuters/Aaron Harris)

Toronto has hit the big time. I mean, when Ron Burgundy sings Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend” on Conan in honor of Mayor Rob Ford, let’s just say T-dot is on the map. Sure, it’s for all the wrong reasons. But a shoutout on late-night American television can’t be ignored by the Canadian masses. My Facebook news feed runneth over.

Anyone who’s spent six minutes watching TV or browsing the Internet in the last few weeks has come across the Toronto mayor’s train wreck of a life: the admission to smoking crack; the invocation of a “drunken stupor” as an excuse for being high; the not having oral sex with a woman because he has “more than enough to eat at home”; his litany of apologetic non-apologies; and his national TV show with his doppelganger brother that lasted all of one episode. Now you can even hire a devil-worshiping comedy troupe in Toronto to take you on a bus tour of the most notorious sites in the crack-smoking scandal.

It would all be hilarious if it wasn’t so unseemly. And serious. There are ongoing allegations of domestic abuse and violence. The mayor appears to have an addiction problem. He also let a crack addict share a ride with his children while he himself was “out of it.” How often does that happen? Are those kids safe?

There’s been much handwringing about how Toronto got here. How did a city that’s one of the most diverse in the world end up with a mayor who makes both racist and homophobic comments? How did multicultural Toronto end up with a mayor who seems to revel in his lack of culture? How has Ford’s approval rating remained virtually unscathed, at 42 percent, as the scandal has metastasized?

What I’ve found most interesting in the debate about Rob Ford is the attempt to parse out “Ford Nation”—that seemingly monolithic swathe of voters living in the suburbs. The stereotype is that the suburbs are all about big backyards and SUVs and barbecuing on the deck, and that the people there are the Canadian counterparts of the American Tea Partiers. They are fiscal conservatives and just want to be left alone with minimal interference from big government. Ford Nation loves Rob Ford because Rob Ford is just like Ford Nation.

Sure, the suburbs have their share of million-dollar “monster homes” and upscale neighborhoods, just like there’s poverty in Toronto’s downtown core. But we don’t often talk about how, in large parts of Toronto, suburban also means poor and non-white. Without a discussion of that, any portrait of Ford Nation is ridiculously incomplete.

I left Toronto some years back and now live on just the other side of its northeastern border. But I grew up on the outer edge of what is now Toronto back in the days before amalgamation—before the ominously named “megacity” came into existence. Back then, Toronto referred only to a small region that comprises today’s downtown. Metropolitan Toronto used to be six separate municipalities which, in 1998, came together in one jagged, hulking mass called the City of Toronto.

In our hearts, however, the old municipalities live on, if not politically than certainly as part of people’s sensibilities. Culturally, Toronto still means downtown. And Scarborough—where I grew up—is still called “Scarberia,” a way to poke fun at its perceived distant and vast nothingness. (It was a perfectly nice place to live, by the way.)

Talk to people who live and work downtown about life in the suburbs and you’re bound to hear something, first and foremost, about how unreachable the suburbs are. If you do manage to find your way there, there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do. It’s all urban sprawl and cars. People in the old city of Toronto, meanwhile, are perceived as elites, living lives filled with frilly extras like museums and street festivals. They all ride bikes, drink lattes, and don’t worry about taxes because they have money to burn.

It’s worth keeping in mind that voter support for Ford in Toronto’s 2010 municipal elections was not crushing. Just over 800,000 people voted in the municipal elections (about 53 percent of voters), and almost half of them voted for Ford (47 percent). If you look at a map of the voter breakdown, you’ll see Ford won every single ward of every pre-amalgamation municipality (the suburbs). The candidate who came in second, George Smitherman—he was a member of the provincial parliament and a cabinet minister—lost by almost 100,000 votes, and dominated in the downtown core.

The divide between Toronto's city and suburbs in the 2010 election, with blue areas voting for Rob Ford and pink areas voting for his opponent, George Smitherman (the darker the color, the more overwhelming the vote differential). The dotted line shows the boundary of the former city of Toronto before amalgamation in 1998. (Zack Taylor)

The coverage now, like the conversations back then, has framed the 2010 mayoral race as one that pitted the urban cosmopolitan elite against the rednecks of the suburbs. It’s a convenient narrative, but it ignores the fact that Ford’s message resonated among those people who see themselves as the most marginalized: the non-white suburban poor.

In Toronto, the urban/suburban divide isn’t just about geography or ideology. It’s also about race, ethnicity, and poverty. If you look at Canada’s 10 most ethnically diverse federal voting constituencies, half of them are in suburban Toronto. We also know that the number of neighborhoods in Toronto’s suburbs with high levels of poverty has increased significantly, particularly in Scarborough where I grew up. The interesting twist on poverty in Canada—and we see it reflected in Toronto—is that the segment of the poor population that is non-white is often well-educated. Immigrants represent two-thirds of the non-white poor population in Canada.

My old neighborhood, 20 years ago, was mostly Italian and Greek. According to the last full census in 2006, the population is now overwhelmingly non-white—76 percent. Almost half of the total population is Chinese. The median family income there is about $30,000 less than the overall Canadian median family income of $76,000. Almost two-thirds of residents have post-secondary education.

In a snapshot, non-white poor people in Canada are often young, married, immigrants, highly educated, and unemployed. A 2011 study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives looked at data from the 2006 census and found what many people of color will attest to: race is a barrier to stable, better-paying employment. And these disparities don’t end with the immigrant generation. The wage gap continues into the next generation as well.

So, you may ask, what does all this have to do with Rob Ford?

Downtowners see Ford up close and personal. He's hostile, he’s angry, he’s a bully and a liar. This proudly unkempt, crass person is the face of their beautiful city, but he refuses to show up for the Gay Pride parade because he’d rather go the cottage. It's not just his slash-and-burn agenda that's repugnant; it’s all of him.

But out in the suburbs, the city center is a million miles away. People of color experience the city differently than the more affluent and mostly white residents downtown. Ford addresses these well-educated poor people who can’t catch a break as “taxpayers.” He’s going to respect an honest day’s work. He’ll keep more of your dollars in your pocket. For these voters, the problems of the downtown core seem frivolous. Who cares about opera houses and bicycle lanes and too many condos when it takes three bloody hours to commute by transit to your low-paying, temporary job downtown?

Ford ran for office promising to stop the gravy train. He said he’d slash councilors’ budgets and cut spending by increasing efficiencies. He was going to keep city services as they were, all without raising taxes. He promised to cut the vehicle registration tax and bring a subway to the suburbs. Despite his personal wealth, he gave the impression that he spoke the language of the marginalized. He returned their calls, showed up in their neighborhoods, commiserated.

And while Ford has since advocated cuts to public services that would adversely affect poor communities, his taxpayer-comes-first mantra continues to act like a salve (the mayor likes to say he’s saved the taxpayers a billion dollars, but it’s a figure he’s largely conjured up). As one Indian immigrant recently told PRI’s The World, “Number one, he’s [a] money-saver. The rest is whatever,” It’s not the first time people have voted against their own interests.

It’s worth noting that despite the long list of allegations against Ford, his disaster is primarily a personal one. It's not a spending scandal, for instance, which helps explains why Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly has said city council will stick with Ford’s fiscally conservative agenda. If the mayor manages to dodge criminal charges and take credit for the city’s successes, could the enduring differences between the needs of those who live "in the city" and those who live "outside the city" usher in yet another Rob Ford era?