For a while, it looked as if organizers of Toronto’s Santa Claus parade had dodged a bullet. Word trickled in that Mayor Rob Ford would forgo the annual crowd-pleaser—understandable, given the uproar surrounding his admission of crack use. But on Monday, the mayor’s office reversed the call, raising worry among parade officials that the event would devolve into more Cirque du Ford, with the scandal-ridden pol marching a six-kilometre gauntlet of boo-birds and catcallers, while tossing candy to bewildered children.
Their fears were justified. On Monday, Ford’s appearance at a Remembrance Day ceremony elicited jeers from the crowd and a snub from one veteran who said he refused to shake hands with a “druggie.” A parade crowd could be counted on to show a lot less decorum. Yet the mayor is a fixture in the Santa Claus parade and, since Ford remains the mayor, uninviting him never seemed an option. At first, event co-chair Ron Barbaro seem to settle on a plaintive-sounding call for decency: On this occasion, he reminded both Hizzoner and the parade-going public, “Santa is the celebrity of the day.” When it appeared that Ford wouldn’t back down, Barbaro took another step, writing a letter to the mayor‘s chief of staff to ask that Ford not participate in the parade in any official capacity.
Sad he would need to say so. But in Toronto, containing Ford-related fallout has become a grim necessity. Even as the parade organizers pondered their dilemma, city council was on Wednesday set to consider a motion to strip Ford’s authority to appoint and dismiss committee chairs—a significant curtailment of power in a town where most significant initiatives originate in committee. The idea was to encircle the mayor and neutralize his power, explained John Filion, a councillor for Willowdale and author of the motion. “It was clear that there was a lot more coming, that it was going to turn into a circus,” he says. But the move wouldn’t be necessary, he adds, if Ford would choose the logical path of a politician caught using hard drugs, lying about it, consorting with known criminals and, most recently, ranting maniacally on video about how he’d like to kill a man.
By last week, even Norm Kelly, Ford’s longtime ally and hand-picked deputy mayor, had seen enough. “I think that he’s got to get away from city hall,” Kelly said. “He’s got to address the personal issues in his life and his family.”
Ford, however, has declined, and his refusal has made him a case study in the politically unexpected. What do you do when your mayor goes rogue? Most provinces have no laws facilitating the removal of mayors, because no one anticipated one clinging to power amid his own personal disintegration. City councils are not parliaments, with the authority to dismiss governments through motions of non-confidence. And Ontario municipal law provides no impeachment procedure, short of a removal provision for politicians who are ineligible to vote (a mayor who winds up in prison, for example, can no longer hold office). On Wednesday, Denzil Minnan-Wong, a former Ford ally on council, is expected to table a motion calling for the province to remove the mayor if he won’t step aside. But most experts regarded that as little more than a pressure tactic. “It would require the government to pass some sort of stand-alone legislation,” notes John Mascarin, a municipal law expert with Aird & Berlis LLP, a Bay Street firm. “I don’t think [Premier] Kathleen Wynne wants to go down that road.”
Not when so many voters seem to accept Ford’s own judgment as to his fitness to govern. While polls consistently suggest a majority of Torontonians believe the mayor should take time off to sort himself out, the sense lingers among his hard-core supporters that he’s waging a justified war against an elitist, liberal establishment that is using his personal troubles as an excuse to get rid of him. Which might explain Wynne’s distinctly muted response to the entire fiasco. Ontario’s minority Liberal government is likely to face an election in the coming months, and could pay dearly in key suburban ridings by raising the ire of those voters. When asked last week about Ford’s crack admission, Wynne told reporters she’s as worried as most Torontonians by the damage the scandal has done to Canada’s largest city, yet insisted the onus to bring the whole sideshow to a halt lies exclusively with Ford. “He is going to have to take action that he thinks is appropriate for the city of Toronto,” she said.
Which is small comfort for anyone who thinks a man who has smoked crack has no business wearing the Chain of Office. Not to mention a few anxious parade organizers.