When Doug Ford’s government was sworn in at the end of June, I watched as a parade of mostly rookie cabinet ministers read the oath of office.
Having seen dozens of these kinds of ceremonies, I immediately started wondering which ministers in this Progressive Conservative government — the first in 15 years — would make for the most interesting stories.
There were some obvious choices. Caroline Mulroney, Laurie Scott, and John Yakabuski were all second-generation politicians. Plus, Yakabuski had spent his entire 15-year career as an MPP on the opposition benches, never getting a sniff of the government side. His father, Paul, had almost exactly the opposite experience: 24 years at Queen’s Park with only two years in opposition.
Vic Fedeli was sworn in as finance minister — having spent seven years criticizing every budget the Liberals put out, he’d get to write the next one.
But what really caught my attention was the man being sworn in as the new minister of community safety and correctional services. He didn’t shake Ford’s hand when it came time for their photo op — he hugged him. He seemed to catch the premier by surprise. None of the ministers who preceded him had hugged the new premier.
But Michael Tibollo, MPP for Vaughan–Woodbridge, did. I needed to find out what was behind that day’s one and only hug.
Tibollo has been a commercial and corporate lawyer for 30 years, but his story is probably unlike that of any lawyer you know. Ten years ago, he decided to take Fridays off from his practice to volunteer for a couple of organizations that treated people with mental-health and addiction issues. He job-shadowed the executive director of one of those organizations for a year. And when that employee retired, Tibollo assumed the role for zero salary, putting the money he would’ve been paid into hiring five more front-line staffers.
His passion for the issue eventually led him to enrol as a PhD student at the University of Southern California, where he specialized in clinical psychology.
Tibollo first met the Ford family when he was president of the National Congress of Italian-Canadians (NCIC), which hosted a 2010 Toronto mayor’s debate.
“I saw Rob Ford speak from the heart and befriended him,” Tibollo told me during a phone conversation on Thursday. “I could see after he became mayor that the stress of the job was awful. And he was using alcohol to cope.”
Tibollo said he pleaded with the mayor to check into a program and get help. Shortly after offering that advice, he met the mayor’s brother Doug. Another friendship with the Ford family was born.
“I wish I could have helped Rob earlier,” he told me. In the end, of course, it might not have mattered: Rob Ford died in March 2016 of liposarcoma, a rare form of cancer.
Through his work with the NCIC, Tibollo got to know many people in the previous provincial government — and he was never convinced that the Liberals were prepared to commit to tackling mental-health and addiction issues system-wide, rather than on a ministry-by-ministry basis. So he decided, at the age of 58, to run for office and try to make the improvements he’d spent a decade working on as a volunteer.
“I was the first person in the legislature to give [Minister of Health and Long-Term Care] Christine Elliott a standing ovation when she said we were going to take an integrated approach across ministries dealing with kids, education, community-based programs — everything,” Tibollo said.
Tibollo is one of just five cabinet ministers with no prior experience in electoral politics. In fact, when one of Ford’s officials called Tibollo to assign him his community safety and correctional services portfolio, “I had him say it twice,” the rookie MPP told me. “I didn’t know what it was.”
The night before his swearing-in, Tibollo, having been sworn to secrecy about his new responsibilities, found himself at an event honouring front-line officers from five different police services. Toronto chief Mark Saunders and York Region chief Eric Jolliffe were sitting at his table.
“I remember thinking, ‘These guys have no idea I just became their boss,’” he said with a laugh.
Overseeing community safety and correctional services will give Tibollo the opportunity to help enact government policies on addiction and mental health.
Tibollo, who has a fifth dan black belt in taekwondo, has already felt the sting of brass-knuckle politics. In July, Opposition New Democrats accused him of racism when he mentioned in the house that he’d worn a bulletproof vest during a police ride-along through Toronto’s Jane-Finch corridor.
“It is absolutely unacceptable to make an insinuation that going into a highly racialized community is going to necessitate the wearing of a bulletproof vest,” NDP leader Andrea Horwath said. “It is a racist comment, and it’s one that he should apologize for and withdraw immediately.”
A Toronto police spokesperson later said that the force likes to “err on the side of caution” and often provides vests during ride-alongs.
“Any attempt to spin my comments … is petty partisan politics,” Tibollo tweeted in response to the controversy. Even two months later, Tibollo can’t believe the fuss. He told me sarcastically, “I’m a well-known racist, as you know.”
And about that hug he shared with Ford?
“I hugged him because I’m Italian and because I have that family tie to him,” Tibollo said.
And in case you’re wondering: the PhD at USC is on hold for now. Michael Tibollo has a more pressing mission to accomplish. We’ll be keeping a close eye on his progress.
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