Manitoba·Opinion

Rob Ford and Sam Katz No More: A hope for uninteresting times

There is a Chinese curse which is often misinterpreted as a proverb: “May you live in interesting times.” As Robert Kennedy observed in 1966, interesting times are replete with danger and uncertainty – times Winnipeggers and Torontonians have had in spades over the last several years.
Mayor-elect Brian Bowman could be a glimmer of hope for uninteresting times in Winnipeg. (CBC)

There is a Chinese curse which is often misinterpreted as a proverb: “May you live in interesting times.” As Robert Kennedy observed in 1966, interesting times are replete with danger and uncertainty – times Winnipeggers and Torontonians have had in spades over the last several years.

Hopefully, at least in the realm of local politics, these interesting times have come to an end.

Considering Winnipeg my home town, as I do, I followed the recent Winnipeg mayoralty campaign as closely as I was able. Likewise, living in Etobicoke for the last two years – the heart of Ford Nation – I have had no choice but to experience, up close and personally, the tabloid fodder that defined Rob Ford’s administration during the last couple years.

I have been ensconced in the Rob Ford saga; a trip to my brother-in-law’s for dinner takes me very near to the now infamous Dixon Road house where Rob Ford’s spiral out of control began and the fast-food steak house (yes, such a thing exists) where he drunkenly conversed in Jamaican patois is only minutes from my home.

It’s hard to convey just how profound a hold Rob Ford has over such a large swath of Toronto – if my local barbershop can be considered a microcosm of Etobicoke, the scuttlebutt is almost universally pro-Ford.

While the emotional right hemisphere of my brain has always appreciated Rob Ford for the sheer entertainment value he has provided, my logical left hemisphere could not but conclude that his shenanigans were manifestly injurious to the civic health of Toronto. Consequently, I had a profound personal interest in following the soap opera-esque Toronto mayoralty campaign over the last 10 interminable months. Both races have come to an end – blissfully in the case of the latter - and upon reflection I am astounded by the parallels.

In both cases, the previous administration was defined by a mayor – Sam Katz in Winnipeg and Rob Ford in Toronto - with a well-established local business and political legacy, who was marred by allegations of scandal, rumours of shady goings-on and downright skullduggery.

At the outset of the campaign, a woman thoroughly integrated into the New Democratic Party political apparatus - Judy Wasylycia-Leis in Winnipeg and Olivia Chow in Toronto – exploded out of the gate and seemed pre-destined for victory, only to see that support wane over time.  In the end, a centre-right lawyer with a CV that includes admirable political and civic engagement experience - Brian Bowman in Winnipeg and John Tory in Toronto, carried the day.

Amidst the usual cynicism of modern politics emerged two points of radiant light that have given me hope. In Winnipeg, Robert Falcon-Ouellette ran an earnest campaign remarkable in its integrity; and in Toronto, Olivia Chow’s concession speech in which she congratulated John Tory and offered a prayer for the health of Rob Ford, positively oozed class.

Of course the parallels are not absolute.  No one would confuse Sam Katz with Rob Ford at the airport, and while Mr. Katz has left politics, Rob Ford’s election in the Ward 2 council race means he isn’t going anywhere. His victory speech essentially announced his 2018 mayoralty campaign launch.

Happily for Winnipeggers, their election lacked the carnival side-show and interesting times that the Ford clan brought to Toronto’s electoral table. Brian Bowman emerged with a stronger mandate from his electorate with 47%, support as compared to John Tory at 40%, although presumably if the Fords had not been in the running most of their not-insignificant 34% support would have swung to Tory.

All that is to say that it seems the zeitgeist of both Winnipeg and Toronto is for a civic leader who is uninteresting.  That is not to say someone who is uninteresting is incapable, boring or unpleasant - quite the contrary.

Uninteresting means someone free of scandal - stable hand on the helm, a trustworthy soul - a trait that requires talent, integrity and dedication. Any buffoon can be interesting – they can spout off at the mouth, they can succumb to interest groups and political patronage, all grist for the media mill.

An uninteresting civic leader displays true leadership that requires discipline, commitment, a diligent work ethic and a conscious effort to take the high road – none of which makes particularly good gossip or sells a lot of papers.

An uninteresting mayor has to look for the right answers, not just the easy ones, and they have to put the city before themselves. It seems that in Brian Bowman and John Tory, Winnipeg and Toronto may have found their uninteresting leaders. Let’s hope they live up to it.

David Grebstad is an amateur historian and former Winnipegger now living in Etobicoke.