PoliticsSocial Issues

The Ford-Toronto Complex

Just months after winning majority as the premier of Ontario, Progressive Conservative (PC) Party leader Doug Ford has made some ‘interesting’ promises in line with his conservative values, such as: 

  • An end to cap-and-trade policies on carbon emissions,
  • Cancelling 758 renewable energy contracts in attempt to save on hydro costs,
  • A ‘buck-a-beer‘ policy which will reduce the minimum cost of beer to one dollar and
  • Regressive changes to the sex-education curriculum

The Ford-Toronto Complex

Doug Ford with PC Politician Andrew Scheer in a meeting to discuss action against Justin Trudeau’s Carbon Tax. Image Source: Andrew Scheer

Typical of a Premier, most of Doug Ford’s promises stem from his campaign platform, and for this reason, voters and politicians anticipated his policy changes (some with dread, others with excitement). But on July 26th, Ford announced plans that seemed to come out of left field: to reduce the city council of Toronto from 47 to 25 councillors and alter ward boundaries, less than three months before the upcoming municipal election. 

Unpacking the City Council Cut

Ford calls his plan the ‘Better Local Government Act’ (but this name is a bit conceited, so from here on I will refer to it as the ‘City Council Cut’) and it was officially introduced on July 30th. If passed, the Toronto City Hall would consist of 25 councillors voted from only 25 electoral wards, rather than the existing 47 councillors and wards. This is nearly half of the existing councillors and ward boundaries and would mark an enormous change to the political atmosphere of the City of Toronto. His main arguments for the plan is that it would dramatically improve the cost, efficiency, and functionality of municipal government in Toronto. He also made the statement that he was “protecting the environment” since “It’s going to be 500,000 fewer sheets of paper” (ignoring the hypocrisy in that his plans to cancel the carbon tax would have a much greater negative impact on the environment). 

When Ford released his plans, it was met critically by many municipal politicians and voters, particularly in Toronto. Here are a few selected statements from relevant officials:

“The premier cooked up his backroom plot to steal power from the people and kept it hidden from 14 million Ontarians for the entire election campaign” – Andrea Howarth, NDP Leader of Ontario

“It shows absolutely zero respect for Toronto, for our residents and for our democracy itself”  – Mike Layton, Toronto City Councillor

“Something as fundamentally important as an election — a primary mechanism of civic democracy — should not be changed without public input and in the absence of a clear process or robust understanding of public impacts and costs” – John Tory, Mayor of Toronto

The Ford-Toronto Complex

Image Source: Harvey K

John Tory has also said that he is seeking legal action to prevent Ford from intentionally meddling in the upcoming election. Tory’s belief is that Ford’s plan was not mentioned in his campaign and was implemented with no consultation with the City of Toronto, which should have legal consequences. Indeed, the City Council Cut has already influenced the outcome of the municipal election: politician Glenn De Baeremaeker dropped out of the race on August 13th for reasons directly related to the proposed council cut. 

Nevertheless, there does seem to support behind Ford’s move from certain Ontario-based media outlets. For example, ‘The Spectator’ (a Hamilton Newspaper, mind you) had this to say about Ford’s decision: 

“Doug Ford cutting the size of Toronto’s bloated and dysfunctional city hall will save money, should improve governance, and is more democratic. It’s good news for the city, and taxpayers shouldn’t believe the self-interested voices telling them otherwise.” – Christine Van Geyn, Journalist 

The Ford-Toronto Complex

Image Source: Padraic Ryan

While both sides of the political spectrum have differing stances on the hypothetical efficacy of Ford’s City Council Cut, everyone appears to have been unprepared by its sudden appearance. 

But should it have really been a surprise? Some evidence suggests that we should have seen it coming. In particular, John Tory had apparently heard about Ford’s plan in advance (about two weeks before the announcement), but when confronted, said that “‘I didn’t think [the plan] was put forward in a serious way”. Because of this, Mike Layton criticized Tory on Twitter, having not prepared the city for what was to come. 

The Ford-Toronto Complex

Image Source: Post by Mike Layton on Twitter

I empathize with Layton, in that I think the residents of Toronto should have been informed of the plan much earlier. However, when we take a closer look at Ford’s politics throughout history, we can find clues that his involvement in Toronto politics perhaps should never have been all that surprising to begin with. To explain my case, I would like to go on a brief journey through Doug Ford’s complex relationship with Toronto.

A Short History of the Ford-Toronto Relationship

Doug Ford has always had deep ties to the City of Toronto. His Father, Doug Ford Senior, was born in Toronto and became a well-to-do businessman in the later years of his life. Doug Ford Senior and his wife Diane had four children, Kathy, Randy, Doug, and Rob, and together they lived on an impressive house in Etobicoke, one of Toronto’s outer suburbs. 

Ford Country: 1521 Royal York Road

A suburban park close to the Ford’s house has since been named after Doug Ford Senior. Image Source: Toronto Life

It was here, in this upper-middle-class suburban microclimate that Doug’s political involvement and opinions took shape. Growing up, Doug and his brother Rob began to take part in local politics, particularly conservative politics, following in the footsteps of their father who was a conservative MMP for the Etobicoke region in the late 1990s. Their recognition in Etobicoke as taxpayer friendly, family-oriented, neighbourly politicians helped them climb larger hills in Toronto’s political climate. Eventually, with help and motivation from Doug, Rob Ford ran for mayor of Toronto in 2010 on the platform of cutting wasteful spending and staff in government, as well as reducing annoying taxes for citizens (particularly those living in the suburban environment that relied on a car). While critics argued that his plans would not be sustainable and would result in fiscal consequences, his campaign proved successful. On December 1st in 2010, Rob Ford became Mayor of Toronto, having been voted in by a largely suburban population who felt disenfranchised by the inner-city politics of Toronto. Many of these voters, in addition to suffering from lack of connection, had far lower incomes than residents in the downtown core. To substantiate this claim, compare the following map, which shows the election’s outcome by ward…


Image Source: Torontoist

…to this map, showing the walk score (where high walk scores indicate high walkability, plenty of nearby services, and low car dependence) of areas in Toronto (four years post-election)…

The Ford-Toronto Complex

Image Source: BMJ Journals

….and this map, showing income level in 2012 (two years post-election).

The Ford-Toronto Complex

Image Source: Spacing

As you can see, there is an identifiable relationship between the so-called ‘Ford Nation‘ voters, the accessibility of their homes (in terms of walkability or car dependence) and income. Ford spoke to an audience that felt unempowered and distant from the wider political landscape (both by physical space and capital). 

Unfortunately for his hopeful voters, when Rob Ford became mayor, his campaign promises were dwarfed by a series of baffling remarks and scandals that gained Toronto momentary world recognition for having one of the strangest (dare I say most problematic) mayors in Canada. While several of Ford’s promises took shape, notably, tax cuts for vehicle registration, the city council eventually reduced his powers after a video of him inebriated on crack cocaine was released publicly. Though initially in denial, Rob Ford eventually admitted to having struggled with a cocaine addiction, and the story became global news. All the while, Doug supported his brother while pursuing his own political career as a City Councillor for Etobicoke (Ward 2).  

The Ford-Toronto Complex

Doug Ford (left) and Rob Ford (right) in Toronto City Hall Council Chambers in 2013. Image Source: National Post

Before the curtains had finally closed on Rob’s four-years in office, it was announced he would run for Mayor again in the next term, but this was withdrawn because of an abdominal tumour.  In his place, Doug took the lead on the campaign, running for the 2014 mayoral election of Toronto on a platform of low taxes, less focus on environmental sustainability, and a number of substantial infrastructure developments for Toronto public transit and highways. During the campaign period, it was announced by City Hall that Doug Ford had unusually terrible attendance, missing just under half of all meetings, and the majority all votes taken in 2014. In response, Doug defended his record, saying:

 “Did I miss a few votes about maybe a stop sign? Or about extending a lunch or extending a speaking time? I had one of the best attendance records for showing up, I was out lobbying. You don’t just sit in your chair in council when they pontificate about nothing.”

It’s clear that he was not a fan of the long-winded bureaucracy of municipal government. Journalists also speculated that his low attendance was related to feuds with City Councillors during Rob’s time in office.

In the end, despite the existing support from loyal ‘Ford Nation’ voters, he lost to John Tory, the current mayor of Toronto. 

Then came the year of 2016. Regrettably, doctors discovered the tumour Rob Ford suffered from was cancerous, and he died that March. A few months later, Doug Ford was found guilty by the City of Toronto for breaking its code of conduct after helping several business clients using his municipal political powers in Etobicoke. By this time, however, Doug was no longer a councillor, and so did not receive any sanctions. 

After a short hiatus, Doug returned to politics this March when he ran and won for the leader of the progressive conservative party of Ontario. It was from this position that he led Ontario into PC leadership, which will persist until 2022.

The Ford-Toronto Complex

Image Source: 680 News


Doug Ford as we know him today is a product of this history we’ve briefly discussed. If his life were mapped out in strings and photos (like what you might find in a crime show), we might see strings running back and forth between family, city councillors, businesses, developers, and voters, all strewn about over the big map of Toronto, particularly Etobicoke and its surrounding areas. It is perhaps no real surprise then, that Doug has taken a special interest in directly influencing Toronto politics by promising to cut City Hall by half its numbers. His whole upbringing, from childhood to recent political involvement, was centered around the political environment of Toronto. Going deeper, we also find that Doug was especially fond of a particular Greater Toronto Area (GTA) culture that stood against the bubble environment of inner-Toronto, the liberal changes to policy, and slow-moving bureaucracy. The maps from the 2010 Rob Ford election indicate that many suburban people shared the view that they felt out of the picture with their government at the time. Even while Rob was in office, Doug felt openly frustrated by the bureaucracy of both municipal and city governments. It is also probable that the failure to secure himself as Mayor of Toronto in 2014 has some influence on his ‘meddling’ in Toronto politics. Without the power to overhaul city council from the inside, Ford has decidedly made such arrangements from his position as a Premier.  

Like every other politician, Doug is a manifestation of his personal narrative. And because of this, his policies will have roots in his past experiences, both professional and personal. This is relevant not only for interest’s sake but with respect to the polarized political climate of Ontario today. From the left side of the political spectrum, Doug Ford’s decisions can seem obtrusive, surprising, and maybe even bizarre. But by looking at the world from the perspective of Doug Ford, and all of the historical baggage that goes with it, his promises come less as a surprise, and more as an explainable outcome of a conservative sociological phenomenon, particularly in the GTA. The City Council Cut is more than a hasty plan for change in government with the potential to meddle with local democracy. It’s a plan that has its roots in a disconnected demographic of voters living in and around Toronto. 

Next year I will be living in Toronto to study urban issues and infrastructure, and based on the opinions from professionals in my field, I’m skeptical that the cut will have any positive impact on the city’s government. But I think it’s important I keep my ears open to Doug Ford, along with the voices of Ford Nation voters. Only when I attempt to consider the world from their perspective (and look at wider societal trends) will I begin to understand their motives, beliefs, and effects on policy. 


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