It was weird enough in the spring of 2000. The wild-eyed eagerness with which Mel Lastman was promoting the city that year crossed into farce, straying into the outright offensive. First the moose, hundreds of them, motionlessly swarming the downtown core as Lastman stood to one side, cackling gleefully. You had to feel a little sorry for him. It seemed like the most transparent cribbing of all time, ripping off Chicago’s parade of brightly-coloured cows, but to Lastman it was worth it—both the price and the head-shaking perception, evidently. The Star, Globe, and other dailies quoted Mel’s hilarious fervour, telling bemused residents not to worry, squealing, “They’re going to love it!”
The same spirit of civic boosting emerged in promoting Toronto as host city for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Part of that bid included a trip to Kenya to meet with the National Olympics Committees of Africa. Astoundingly, the salesman mayor pitching the city’s candidacy told the media, “Why the hell would I want to go to a place like Mombasa?” He added: “I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me.” As jaws fell and the apologies spilled from Lastman’s mouth—”I’m sorry I made the remarks”; “I’m truly sorry”; “I’m very sorry”—you could almost hear this slow, rusty cranking, the nails-on-a-chalkboard sound of the coffin sealing shut on Toronto’s Olympic dreams. And after the disclosure of a skyrocketing budget, right up until long-time Lastman ally Tom Jacobek signed his nomination papers in 2002, it was also the sound of the Bad Boy’s plummet from the city’s grace. After he was gone, the sound just stayed in our ears.
The 2003 mayoral election could rightly be described as an attempt, in part, to excise the civic embarrassment of the Lastman era. Seven years and several leaps in municipal progress later, we’re about to face what we thought was impossible: a leader whose reign will make Lastman look like he presided over Plato’s academy.
Lastman was many things, but at least he acknowledged his manifold ignorance enough to apologize, politically motivated though that probably was. In late winter 2008, seven years after Torontonians thought they’d heard the worst, Rob Ford (then councillor for Ward 2, Etobicoke North), steadfastly refused to apologize for his own remarks: “Those Oriental people work like dogs,” he said, helpfully clarifying, “The Oriental people, they’re slowly taking over.”
David Miller demanded an apology. “We don’t stereotype people by [their] racial or ethnic background in this city.” Judging from the Star‘s coverage, it could be weakly suggested that Ford was complimenting what he saw as a superior work ethic, only in the most arrogant, belittling, guffawingly clueless way possible. His office, Ford’s staff said, received fifteen phone calls and twenty emails, and only one of them was negative. From that hefty cross-section of Etobicoke’s electorate, Ford surmised he was safe. “I don’t know why I should,” he said, about apologizing. “People aren’t asking me to.”
About a week later, a group of Torontonians arrived at City Hall for a word with Ford. “Essentially, we’re a group of people that’s working very hard,” quipped Kristyn Wong-Tam, the group’s organizer (and, as of Monday night, the newly crowned winner of Ward 27’s coveted council seat). Ford wasn’t on the premises. So the group of concerned citizens, all of Asian descent, took a seat, intently focused on that day’s work: wrenching an apology from Rob Ford.
They would have been better off trying to draw blood from a stone.
The sparring that followed was as embarrassing as anything Lastman left in his wake—and at that point, Ford was just a brash, ignorant, self-absorbed aberration on city council, not yet a brash, ignorant, self-absorbed contender for the most powerful office in town.
Deflecting the issue, Ford demanded to know why councillor Paula Fletcher let the group into City Hall. Fletcher fired back, “This isn’t Guantanamo Bay.” Still unaware of the colonialist—and yes, racist—overtones suppurating from the word “oriental,” Ford wouldn’t and didn’t make anything close to an apology. Faces met palms everywhere.
This, of course, is the same man who railed biblically against the faintest suggestion of a homeless shelter in his ward, said appalling things on record about AIDS and its victims, and spent most of his municipal career deriding cyclists and their infrastructure in one way or another—even going so far as to blame them for each and every fatal accident.
But earlier this summer, shortly after the G20, came the worst indication of who the man really is, the red-faced back-bencher championed by half of the city’s voters as their candidate of choice. After the last out-of-town busload of tactical cops had left the city, long after the beatings, arbitrary detentions, and egregious abuses of power alleged during that humid June weekend, Rob Ford chimed in with his thoughts about all that had gone down. “I don’t think there should be an inquiry or a review,” he said. “I think the police were too nice.” This followed a thousand arrests and the rainstorm kettling that left average Torontonians, urged to enjoy their own city, at the mercy of police for hours. “I would have had a zero-tolerance approach.”
One shudders to think what Mayor Ford will do with all the boots he wants patrolling the city, paid for with his magic pot of recession gold. Or if he really paid attention to what was happening that weekend at all.
For the man who would be mayor, there have always been two cities: his Toronto, and another, colder Toronto in which anyone who doesn’t like his policies can fuck off and die. This will be a mayor who has probably never ventured into Kensington Market except to gladhand in it. This will be a mayor who sees laneways splashed with street art as a public nuisance to be condemned, not a public expression of character to be cherished. This will be a mayor who sees cyclists as public enemy number one. This will be a mayor who sees our city as one big public-private partnership waiting to fail, not a living thing to be eased along after seven enviable years. He may, suddenly now, be making gestures at unity, but for the city he’s been charged with leading, Rob Ford may well be the ice at its core, about to split Toronto wide open.
For the rest of us, it’s just a little funny how embarrassed we were by Mel Lastman.