Andray Domise: The Rob Ford legacy that many refuse to confront

Published on Mar 23, 2016

In the fall of 2014, while campaigning against the Fords for councillor of Toronto’s Ward 2, I knocked on the door of a lady I’ll call Carmen. By this time the 2014 mayoral race had taken a turn for the bizarre, even by the standards of Rob Ford’s four years as mayor. For the first half of the campaign, Rob Ford’s nephew, Michael, was running for the seat until Rob was hospitalized in September with an abdominal tumour. Michael withdrew from the council race, and Rob subsequently withdrew from the mayoral track to campaign in Ward 2, the neighbourhood he'd represented for 12 years as a city councillor. In order to win the Ward 2 council race, I would have to defeat the mayor of Toronto.

At first Carmen refused to open the door, so I stood there in the hallway taking questions through a peep hole in patois-accented English about improving public housing. Eventually Carmen recognized my voice from a radio interview she’d heard, and invited me into her living room for a chat. I expected she was going tell me a story about meeting the ward’s longtime incumbent, Rob Ford, as many working-class Caribbean residents I’d spoken with in the area had. That’s precisely what she did, but her story was far from what I expected.

Carmen was a longtime tenant in a well-maintained Toronto Community Housing building in the Rexdale neighbourhood, an inner suburb in the northwest corner of the city. She was well-known among the building’s residents. On weekends when the maintenance crew was off duty, she’d mop the lobby floor — a way of keeping busy after her daughter left for college. Because she worked full-time and earned a decent income, she paid full market value for her rent. That is, until she was diagnosed with cancer.

Unable to work due to her condition and subsequent chemotherapy, Carmen had to file for disability income, which meant that her market-value rent was no longer affordable. When she requested that her rent be geared to her lower income, she told me the answer she received from Toronto Community Housing was that she could no longer live in that building. She would instead have to move with her daughter to one of two other addresses, both of which were dilapidated buildings in high-crime neighbourhoods.

After several frustrating conversations with TCH administration, Carmen turned to the one person with a reputation for coming through for Rexdale residents: then-councillor Rob Ford. While she was able to get in front of Ford and plead her case, he was having none of it. “He told me ‘beggars have no choice,’” she said. “I’ve been paying full rent here for over 10 years, and he called me a beggar.” Luckily, after Carmen’s doctor wrote a letter on her behalf, she was able to keep the apartment. She is currently cancer-free, and looking for work.

Unfortunately, Rob Ford’s own battle with cancer did not end well. It’s been little more than a day since the former mayor passed away, and there are more than enough stories occupying digital and print real estate testifying to his brash, pugnacious nature. There are as many that stridently condemn him for the divisiveness and sheer embarrassment he brought to the mayor’s office. There is validity to all of this, but there’s a deeply problematic consensus that Rob had one redeeming quality: his willingness to fight for the little guy. The idea of Ford as a guardian of the public purse, that he fought valiantly against Toronto’s freewheeling elite on behalf of the voiceless and disaffected, remains despite being patently untrue — especially for the Rexdale community he represented for the majority of his 16 years in politics.

It’s a common impulse to speak well of the dead, but the mythology building around Rob Ford speaks much less to who he really was, than what Toronto at large refuses to confront. It is simply not possible to speak honestly of Ford without speaking of the wreckage he left in his wake. Not just the political sideshow, or the public relations black eye Toronto suffered under his disastrous term, but real lives affected — some ruined — as a consequence of Ford lurching from one disaster to another while holding public office. I have lived and grown up in the ward Ford represented until his death, and it’s been impossible to watch this happen in silence.

For example, we speak of Ford’s preoccupation with “gravy” and “waste” without discussing the vital community programs he believed Torontonians should do without. While Ford was always eager to dance in the streets and mug for cameras during Caribana, he had no qualms about casting votes in council against funding the parade. Ford maintained his brand of retail politics by answering phone calls from constituents and visiting them at their homes, yet ignored the wider needs of Rexdale – poor transit access, food deserts and an embarrassingly high child poverty rate – and offered no viable remedy while the neighbourhood slid into dereliction. Ford diverted development dollars to the high school where he coached football, yet blocked access for the rest of the neighbourhood to similar funds, instead staking the financial future of Rexdale on a failed casino project. Rexdale was Rob’s fiefdom, and he was loath to allow us anything not offered from his own wallet.

We speak of Ford Nation — a collection of the aggrieved, the disillusioned, the fed-up taxpayers of Toronto – as though they constitute a legitimate political bloc. Yet we failed to collectively confront and reject what Rob Ford created: a final enclave for open bigotry in Toronto. Ford Nation was in many ways a prototype for the Donald Trump brand; the dying scream of nativism against the corrupting forces of multiculturalism and political correctness. As individuals, members of Ford Nation spoke fiercely of their respect for tax dollars. As a group, they spoke in blatantly racist language against mayoral candidate Olivia Chow during municipal debates. As a mob, they physically attacked protesters at Ford Fest, ripping up signs and even targeting a gay man for physical assault.

We speak of Rob Ford’s crack addiction somewhere between pity and anger, yet forget the name of Anthony Smith. Smith was one of the young men pictured with Ford in front of that infamous house on Windsor Road. He was later shot to death outside a downtown nightclub. Most articles mention Smith’s possible ties to the bombshell crack-smoking video, but it’s rarely mentioned that he was a bright student at Seneca College, well-liked by his peers. In any other context the story of a young man from around the way, working hard and making it into college, only to be killed in a shooting, would be tragic. Smith’s proximity to Ford erased that tragedy. Instead, he became little more than a visual marker for how far the mayor had fallen, an unwitting set-up to the “Mayor Hug-a-Thug” punchline.

In other words, we choose to believe a myth, rather than confront the reality of who Rob Ford was.  There was no crusader in the Mayor’s office, and there never was in the councillor’s seat. There was only the man who watched impassively as 14-year-old Anika Tabovaradan pleaded in tearful anguish to prevent her library from closing. There was only the man who believed the police have a duty to stop and question black and brown Torontonians without suspecting them of any crime. There was only the man who spoke patois slang at some times, then used the word “nigger” freely at others.

There was only the man who dismissed Carmen, who came to him in need, as a “beggar.”

Every life that cancer claims is a tragedy, and Ford’s is no different. His family deserves every warm thought and prayer sent their way, but the people he harmed deserve more than convenient lies by omission about the legacy he’s left. 

Andray Domise is a community activist and writer.

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