Rob Ford's antics are nothing new to Ontarians, but since the crack-smoking scandal, Toronto's unapologetic mayor has become an international media obsession. CBC News looks at the forces that shaped this polarizing figure.
If Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has one defining trait, it’s his bluntness. To his supporters, it’s a mark of his honesty and authenticity. To his critics, it symbolizes his impetuousness and lack of polish.
Either way, it’s his candour and disdain of political platitudes that carried Ford from Toronto-area businessman to candid, often cantankerous city councillor to mayor of the biggest municipality in Canada. It has also informed his handling of media reports of an alleged video of him smoking crack cocaine, without a doubt the most controversial episode of his career.
As councillor for Ward 2 Etobicoke North, a suburb in Toronto’s west end, Ford developed a reputation for accessibility. Potholes, parking, policing — whatever your issue as a constituent, Ford endeavoured to return every phone call personally, even going so far as to give out his home number.
Ford also styled himself as a model of fiscal responsibility. He routinely decried the spending at city hall and trumpeted his own thrift – where some councillors logged $50,000 in yearly office expenses, Ford spent just $2.
“Hell will freeze over before I will spend taxpayers' money out of my office budget to support myself and my own enhancement in society,” he said.
It helped that the Ford family’s business, DECO Labels & Tags, enjoyed annual sales in the neighbourhood of $100 million, according to the Toronto Star. Yet despite his personal wealth, Ford set himself up as a champion of Joe and Jane Average, lobbying on conservative principles of low taxes and smaller, less intrusive government.
He often did so in a belligerent way.
Reporters who covered Toronto city hall during the 2000s recall a number of occasions when Ford personally insulted fellow councillors. He called one colleague “a slithering snake;” another, “a waste of skin.”
Despite his lack of verbal restraint, Ford’s crusade against the city hall establishment and dogged commitment to cost-cutting endeared him to many voters.
“Hell will freeze over before I will spend taxpayers' money out of my office budget to support myself and my own enhancement in society.”
In his 2003 campaign for mayor, David Miller made a sweeping appeal to Torontonians’ civic pride. Seven years later, Rob Ford was effectively rattling their wallets as a reminder of what the Miller years had cost them.
Ford has always prided himself on being a straight talker, and his 2010 run for mayor surely stands as one of the most unequivocal political campaigns in recent Canadian history. His message was almost comically simple, distilled in two pithy slogans: stopping “the gravy train” at city hall and restoring “respect for taxpayers.” Ford cast city hall as a den of unchecked spending, emphasizing the fact that during Miller’s seven-year stint, city expenditures rose by 39 per cent.
Two items got Ford especially angry: the $60 vehicle registration tax, a lucrative annual levy on car owners that he saw as emblematic of city hall’s stultifying bureaucracy; and Transit City, an infrastructure plan to expand public transportation through light rail (LRT) that was largely supported by left-leaning members of city council.
By the end of election night — Oct. 26, 2010 — it was startlingly clear that Ford had inspired more than just his base. He took 47 per cent of the vote, outpacing the closest candidate, former deputy premier George Smitherman, by 10 points.
To demonstrate he was a man of his word, within two months of taking office, Ford helped kill the dreaded vehicle registration tax and declared that “Transit City is over, ladies and gentleman.”
Transit City was dead, and Toronto was beginning to look a little like Fortress Ford.
Ford’s election was proof of a large contingent of active, engaged conservative Torontonians who shared his vision and had facilitated his ascension to office — the putative “Ford Nation.”
The emergence of mayor Ford split city council into opposing political camps: the right, which saw him as a corrective to downtown elitism and profligate spending, and the left, which seemed determined to thwart his every move.
Over the next few years, these divisions would lead to acrimonious debates, and often prolonged stalemates, on issues such as budget cuts, union negotiations, transit, even plastic shopping bags.
There were whispers of “Ford Nation” during the mayoral campaign, but the phrase acquired greater heft after Ford took office. In March 2011, Ford invoked his base to threaten the Liberal provincial government, under then-Premier Dalton McGuinty, into giving cash-strapped Toronto more money.
“If they choose not to help us,” Ford said, “then I have no other choice but to get out, as I call it, Ford Nation and make sure they’re not re-elected.”
If the concept of “Ford Nation” seemed confrontational, it soon became clear that it was also aspirational. Nick Kouvalis, a conservative political strategist who had served as Ford’s campaign manager, was already making noises about fostering a broader right-wing movement across the province — and beyond.
Evidence of that came in the summer of 2011, when Ford hosted a backyard barbeque for prominent conservatives that included federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
In a speech that contained a lighthearted allusion to a fishing trip he had taken with Ford, the PM thanked the mayor for shoring up conservative votes in the Toronto area during the 2011 federal election, which gave the Tories their sought-after majority.
“Rob is doing something very important that needs to be done here,” said Harper. “He is cleaning up the NDP mess here in Toronto.”
Many would say that Ford has made a mess of his own: political clashes in council, legal investigations and, more recently, admission of crack cocaine use.
Whether addressing his conflict-of-interest case or reports of public intoxication, Ford has cast them as part of a conspiracy led by more liberal councillors and the Toronto Star. By suggesting he is the victim of a sustained left-wing smear campaign, Ford has been able to keep many supporters on side.
The recent reports about a video that allegedly depicts Ford smoking crack cocaine have tested the resolve of Ford Nation.
If you needed evidence of Rob Ford’s deep family bonds, it was there during a much-anticipated news conference on May 24 — his first media appearance after reports of a video that allegedly showed him smoking crack.
At the end of his four-minute speech — in which he stated, “I do not use crack cocaine, nor am I an addict of crack cocaine” — Ford conveyed his gratitude to those who have stood behind him throughout the controversy, including the man who at that precise moment was standing right beside him.
“I want to thank my best friend, and I love him dearly, my brother Doug,” the mayor said.
The 2010 municipal election was doubly triumphant for the Ford family — not only did it make Rob Ford the chief magistrate of the City of Toronto, but it elevated the political status of his older brother. Doug Ford won Ward 2 Etobicoke North, the constituency Rob vacated for his mayoral run.
Four seats separate the brothers in the first row in the council chamber, but city hall watchers feel their professional relationship is cozier than that. Canadian novelist and Toronto resident Margaret Atwood, who has lobbied against proposed cuts to libraries and arts groups, has referred to them as “the twin Ford mayor(s).”
On more than one occasion, Doug has stepped in to defend or clarify positions held by his brother — whether it’s Rob’s decision to skip Toronto’s annual gay pride parade, to deny his culpability in a conflict-of-interest case or allegations that he was intoxicated at the Taste of the Danforth street festival.
That familial concern has become even more apparent during the crack-smoking controversy — after Rob read a prepared statement to a room full of journalists on May 24, for example, it was Doug who remained to field questions.
“I want to thank my best friend, and I love him dearly, my brother Doug.”
While Rob and Doug Ford have often come across as political outsiders, they aren’t complete strangers to public office. Doug Ford, Sr., who founded the family’s labelling business in 1962, served as a Conservative MPP under Ontario Premier Mike Harris from 1995 to 1999.
Anyone seeking public office will tout the importance of family — it implies trustworthiness, psychological solidity and an appreciation of traditional values. But American dynasties such as the Kennedys and the Clintons have demonstrated that some family members have the potential to become political liabilities — a prospect that dogged Rob Ford long before he became mayor.
His sister, Kathy, for example, has had links to drug dealers and has been in the middle of a number of bizarre and violent incidents. In 1998, Kathy’s ex-husband, Ennio Stirpe, shot and killed her then-boyfriend, Michael Kiklas. In 2005, Kathy sustained a gunshot wound to the face during an altercation between two men in the kitchen of her parents’ home; she survived the shooting but required major reconstructive surgery. In January 2012, one of those men, a convicted drug dealer and long-time common-law partner named Scott MacIntyre, was charged with threatening to murder her brother Rob at his Etobicoke home.
Ford’s niece, Krista, a personal trainer and former player in the Lingerie Football League, created controversy in 2012 with a Twitter response to a series of sexual assaults in the Toronto area. Advising women to “Stay alert, walk tall, carry mace, take self-defence classes and don’t dress like a whore,” Krista was criticized for blaming the victim in cases of rape. Krista later tweeted, “I didn’t mean to cause such an alarm and I apologize if I did. I just want women to be safe.”
One of the most damaging stories, however, concerns Rob’s “best friend” and closest confidant — brother Doug.
On May 25, the Globe and Mail published a cover story — quoting several anonymous sources and based on 18 months of reporting — that alleged Doug Ford sold hashish in Etobicoke in the 1980s.
In response to the article, Doug Ford spoke to several media outlets, utterly refuting the claims. "I have never dealt hash," the councillor told CBC reporter Jamie Strashin.
Perhaps the most enigmatic figure in the Ford firmament is the mayor’s wife, Renata. She can be seen in a photo taken on the night of Rob Ford’s election win but she has only appeared in public on a couple of occasions. Renata's personal details seem to be among the most closely guarded secrets in Toronto. No one appears to know her age, or even if she has a job.
What is known is that in 2008, a domestic dispute at the Ford residence led Renata to call 911. Rob Ford was subsequently charged with assault and threatening death. While the case went to court, prosecutors withdrew both charges, citing inconsistencies in Renata’s statements.
While she has shied away from the limelight, Renata was conspicuously at her husband's side during a press conference on Nov. 14, in which he admitted he was consulting with "health care professionals" to address his substance use.
In the thick of his 2010 mayoral campaign, amid animated talk of tax reform and trimming government spending, Rob Ford made a pledge:
If elected, he would cease coaching the Don Bosco Eagles football team.
Although he had been coaching the high school team on a volunteer basis for nearly a decade, Ford conceded that mayoral duties would likely make it impossible to keep up his commitment to student athletics.
Alas, giving up the gridiron proved to be an idle promise. In fact, Ford cut short an interview with Carol Off, co-host of CBC Radio’s As It Happens, the night after he was elected… so he could get back to coaching football.
That on-air encounter was more than just awkward radio — it foreshadowed just how much football would come to complicate his role as mayor. Ford became notorious for leaving council meetings early — or skipping them altogether — in order to make team practices.
But the most troubling episode was a conflict of interest case that nearly cost him his job. In 2010, before he became mayor, council found that Ford had improperly raised $3,150 for his private football charity using city letterhead. When the issue of reimbursement came to a council vote in February 2012, Ford voted against paying the money back, which contravened conflict of interest guidelines. An Ontario judge ordered him removed from office, but Ford won on appeal.
Ford’s football fixation has ultimately shown the difficulty of quitting a lifelong love affair. As a youngster, Ford dreamed of a career in professional football, and in the early ‘80s, his father sent him to a summer camp run by the NFL’s Washington Redskins (who won the Super Bowl in 1983). Ford also trained at Indiana’s University of Notre Dame, a storied institution in the realm of U.S. college football.
Ford applied those skills on the field at Scarlett Heights Collegiate, but his fledgling career seemed to stall at Carleton University in Ottawa where, according to a Toronto Life profile, he only played one season. (There’s also some question about the amount of game-time Ford saw.)
“I’m not going to stop coaching. These kids did fantastic. I’m not going to turn my back on these kids.”
While his own football career may have been dashed, Ford became heavily invested in cultivating young talent, many of them at-risk youth. In 2001, he established the football program at Don Bosco Catholic High School in northeast Toronto, donating $20,000 to pay for the team's equipment.
He also created the Ford Football Foundation, which has raised money from individuals and corporations to fund programs at other Toronto-area schools.
“Many kids have nothing to do after school and for some that could lead to trouble,” Ford told the Toronto Star in 2009. “I have seen it happen and I've noticed a huge difference since we started football at Don Bosco. I'll go to bat for them anytime.”
Seeing those kids respond to the discipline and camaraderie of football is likely one of the reasons Ford found it so difficult to relinquish his coaching duties when he became mayor in the fall of 2010.
But over the next couple of years, Ford’s time commitments to Don Bosco became an increasing issue, as councilors and media raised concern about the number of council meetings Ford was missing in order to make football practice. (The Toronto Star has pointed out that his attendance record is still better than that of his predecessor, David Miller.)
To many observers, the most galling incident came in November 2012. Responding to a police request, the Toronto Transit Commission mobilized two buses — including one full of paying customers — to pick up Don Bosco players after a game at a north Toronto high school ended in a brawl. Ford said the bus dispatch “had nothing to do with me,” but there is evidence that he called TTC CEO Andy Byford personally that afternoon about transportation for his players.
While the controversy surrounding his football obligations intensified, Ford scored vindication in late November when the Don Bosco Eagles fought their way to the regional finals, making their first-ever appearance in the Metro Bowl.
With the city’s beleaguered mayor calling shots on the sidelines, there was considerable media interest in the 2012 championship game. To Ford’s frustration, Don Bosco was the second-best team in the Rogers Centre that night, losing 28-14 to the Huron Heights Warriors. While noticeably upset about the loss, Ford pledged his continuing commitment to the team.
“I’m not going to stop coaching. These kids did fantastic. I’m not going to turn my back on these kids,” he told the Toronto Star.
In late May, the Toronto Catholic school board ended Ford’s relationship with Don Bosco when it banned him from coaching at any school in the board. It wasn’t the crack scandal that prompted the move, board officials said, but rather an interview Ford had done with Sun TV, in which he had characterized many Don Bosco students as belonging to gangs or coming from broken homes.
In his May 24 address to the media about the crack scandal, Ford made a deliberate reference to his former players: “I would like to thank and congratulate all the young men that I’ve had the opportunity to coach and improve their lives in the last 10 years at Don Bosco.”
While he was stoic in public, the firing was no doubt an upsetting chapter for Ford – and a painful reminder of the risks of saying what you think.
As mayor of Canada’s largest city, Rob Ford has been extensively photographed. But one of the most evocative images is an amateur snap taken in the summer of 2012 on the Gardiner Expressway, a busy Toronto thoroughfare near Lake Ontario.
Taken from an adjacent vehicle, the slightly blurry image clearly shows Ford reading briefing notes while driving his Cadillac Escalade SUV.
Perhaps even more startling than the photographic evidence was the response it elicited from Ford. When a reporter asked him whether reading and driving was a recurring habit, he said, “Yeah, probably, yeah. I'm try[ing] to catch up on my work and you know I keep my eyes on the road, but I'm a busy man.”
Toronto police urged the mayor to hire a chauffeur; so did his budget chief, as well as his brother, councillor Doug Ford. The mayor demurred.
“They offered me a car when I first got elected. And a driver. And that was well over $100,000 combined. I think that’s a waste of taxpayer's money," Ford told a news conference a week later.
The episode symbolizes Ford’s outright rejection of orthodoxy — and his stubborn belief that he is always in the right.
For much of his time at city hall, Ford has defied the image of the entitled career politician. His refusal to take a chauffeur was very much in line with his refusal to amass office expenses or to accept a security detail – even after his sister’s common-law partner broke into the mayor’s home and threatened his life in early 2012.
The unwavering “respect for the taxpayer” mantra won him many fans as a city councillor, and lifted him to the mayor’s seat in the fall of 2010. But his refusal to budge on deeply held convictions — both political and personal — has led to a seemingly unending series of council clashes, legal scrapes and public controversies.
Arguably the most politically combustible issue at Toronto city hall these past few years has been public transportation. Ford’s decision in late 2010 to retire Transit City, a proposal favoured by many left-leaning councillors to increase the Toronto Transit Commission’s light rail (LRT) coverage, was the first step in his attempt to push through his own transit strategy.
One word that Ford likes more than almost any other is “subways.” While LRT lines are cheaper to build, underground transportation has been the central plank of Ford’s transit strategy. Many councillors have repeatedly questioned how the mayor plans to fund the $1-billion outlay required to dig additional subway lines, but Ford is adamant, to the point where he will chant “subways” like a petulant child.
In July, Ford won vindication for his single-minded strategy when Toronto city council voted voted 28-16 in favour of extending subway service in the east end. "I truly, truly believe that Toronto can count on the province and the federal governments ... as partners in this historic project," Ford told reporters.
While the transit debate has produced some memorable tantrums, Ford’s obstinacy in other political matters has produced some notable returns. Thanks to his budget-balancing efforts, city expenditures have stopped rising. He eked out a labour deal with the city’s major unions that eliminated jobs-for-life guarantees.
“They offered me a car when I first got elected. And a driver. And that was well over $100,000 combined. I think that’s a waste of taxpayer's money.”
But average citizens are more likely to remember his inflexibility on social matters, like his standing refusal to attend Toronto’s annual gay pride parade — one of the largest in the world, and a must-attend event for previous mayors — because it coincides with the Ford family’s annual cottage retreat.
An iconoclast politician can be a bracing thing, but many Torontonians have become furious not only with his list of gaffes, but his reliance on transparent lies to dodge the blame. In 1999 Ford was charged with DUI and marijuana possession in Florida; when it came up during the 2010 mayoral run, he claimed he had forgotten about the incident, and merely failed to give a breathalyzer test.
In 2006, then-councillor Ford was tossed from a Toronto Maple Leafs game for shouting obscenities at a couple in the stands; Ford responded by saying he wasn’t even there. (And yet he gave the couple his business card. Ford later apologized for his drunken outburst.)
Regarding the crack smoking accusations, public relations experts are almost unanimous in their criticism: he has handled the scandal poorly. "It just continues to be one of the most unconventional and mind-boggling communications strategies that I've ever seen in my life," says Toronto PR expert Bill Walker.
The departure of several Ford employees and advisors - including chief of staff Mark Towhey - suggests that this renegade mayor refuses to take advice, heeding one voice and one voice only: that of Rob Ford.
Itwas the confession heard around the world.
On Nov. 5, a visibly weary Mayor Ford exited the elevator on his floor at Toronto City Hall and was immediately encircled by a throng of journalists. Nothing terribly new there. But Ford was taken aback when one reporter asked him why it seemed that his brother, councillor Doug Ford, was doing most of the talking when it came to the mayor's alleged use of crack cocaine.
After an awkward initial exchange with reporters, Rob Ford made a startling admission:
"Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine."
The news immediately went viral — it lit up Twitter, made the front pages of CNN, BBC and the New York Times and garnered stories as far afield as Germany and China. It also inspired a Taiwanese animation video (featuring an underwear-clad Ford with an entourage of beavers) — as sure a sign as any nowadays that a scandal has gone global.
The fact that a big-city mayor was admitting to drug use was of course newsworthy, but what made the statement so stunning was that Toronto's chief magistrate had spent the last half-year vigorously denying that he had smoked crack — often suggesting that the accusations were the product of a media smear campaign.
But even before the crack allegations emerged in May 2013, there were intimations that the mayor had a substance abuse problem.
In 2006 Ford was escorted from a Toronto Maple Leafs game after shouting obscenities at a couple seated nearby. Ford later apologized, saying he had had too much to drink.
Then there was the St. Patrick's Day incident. According to an email written by city hall security staff on duty on March 17, 2012, Ford was at city hall at 2 a.m. that night and "it was quite evident the mayor was very intoxicated" and was seen headed to the security desk "with a half-empty bottle of St-Remy French brandy."
In February 2013, the Toronto Star reported that Ford had been asked to leave the Garrison Ball, a charity dinner for Canadian armed forces personnel, after he was seen speaking in a "rambling, incoherent manner" and upsetting other partygoers.
In March, former mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson claimed the mayor groped her at a party for the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee, adding that she had "never seen him so out of it." Ford said the claims were "completely false." Mark Towhey, his then-chief of staff, said the mayor had only drunk water that night.
In August, Ford was caught on video at the Taste of the Danforth festival behaving erratically. One witness told the CBC "he was not himself — he was drunk." Doug Ford later told the media, "He had a couple of pops, big deal, no one got hurt, everyone had a good time."
While he was deflecting accusations about crack and alcohol use, Rob Ford did own up to having used marijuana, telling reporters after a luncheon event in August that "I've smoked a lot of it."
After the incident on the Danforth, Toronto councillor Jaye Robinson said Ford needed to "take a leave of absence, address his personal problems and then come back to continue to act as the mayor of Toronto."
Robinson was hardly a voice in the wilderness. Other councillors, as well as newspaper columnists, had been advising for months that Ford take a break to work through his substance issues. In response, the mayor exhibited his usual bullish defiance, saying the reports were exaggerated and that they had no bearing on his ability to run the city.
“ I have nothing left to hide. ”
Rob Ford's rhetoric softened in November 2013.
A major prompt was Toronto police Chief Bill Blair's announcement on Oct. 31, in which he confirmed that police had the infamous crack video and that it corroborated what had been reported in the media.
Three days later, Ford went on his weekly radio show and apologized for his behaviour on several occasions, including getting "hammered" at the Taste of the Danforth and letting things get "a little out of control" on St. Patrick's Day 2012.
Many councillors and political watchers thought it only amounted to a partial apology. But Ford came clean on Nov. 5.
After the seemingly impromptu crack confession outside his office, Ford held a news conference later in the day in which he expressed his shame at having smoked crack and told Torontonians he was "sincerely, sincerely, sincerely sorry."
But regarding his fitness to remain mayor, he was clear: "I was elected to do a job and that's exactly what I'm going to continue doing."
Reflecting a growing concern about Ford's health and well-being, Toronto councillor Denzel Minnan-Wong said the province should step in to remove the mayor from his post.
"We have told him that he needs to find the exit. He doesn't seem to be listening," Minnan-Wong said. "So if he can't find the exit, I think we have to show him the door."
At his Nov. 5 news conference, Ford pledged that he had "nothing left to hide." That proved to be an idle guarantee. Two days later, the Toronto Star released another video. Shot in an undisclosed location, the clip showed the mayor in a highly excitable mood, uttering curses about some unspecified fight.
When reporters asked him about it, all that Ford could offer was that he was "extremely, extremely inebriated" at the time — without specifying the offending substance — and the caveat that "I hope none of you have ever, or will ever, be in that state."
It was undoubtedly one of the most explosive, jaw-dropping weeks ever at Toronto City Hall, and the numerous revelations provided tantalizing fodder for worldwide news media and late-night talk show hosts.
But amid the gleeful mockery, there was a growing sense of sympathy for a mayor who was obviously struggling with various substances.
On Nov. 5, Daily Show host Jon Stewart, ordinarily over-the-top satirical about Ford's exploits, sounded a cautionary note: "Mayor Ford's a lot of fun to ridicule, but my guess is, not a lot of fun to eulogize. And that's where this thing is headed."
Then, addressing Ford specifically, Stewart said, "Even though I will lose precious material, please go to rehab!"
1. Brett Gundlock/Reuters 2. Nathan Denette/Canadian Press 3. Mark Blinch/Reuters 4. Jon Blacker/Reuters 5. Chris Young/Canadian Press 6. Christopher Drost/Canadian Press 7. Chris Young/Canadian Press 8. Mark Blinch/Reuters 9. Mark Blinch/Reuters 10. 11. 12. Eric Foss/CBC
First published June 4, 2013