This year’s “Ford Fest,” Rob Ford’s annual public barbecue, was not supposed to be fun. Weather forecasts called for heat and rain on Friday, July 5, and by mid-afternoon, Toronto was a muggy mess; drenched to the bone and grey as stone. Some of the mayor’s smuggest critics on Twitter attributed the dismal conditions to divine intervention: Not even God would permit the sun to shine on something so unsavoury. But the joke was on them. An hour before the event’s start time at Thomson Memorial Park, the skies cleared and the sun shone until the day was barely recognizable. Rob Ford, having dodged a conflict-of-interest scandal and allegations of crack-cocaine use, would dodge the deluge, too.
Scarborough, an unusual setting for the barbecue, was strategically chosen, some say, to bolster Ford’s support in Toronto’s eastern suburbs (the next mayoral election is less than two years away) and to promote his subway-expansion proposal for the transit-deprived region. Traditionally, the fest was held at his mother’s Etobicoke home—in a sprawling suburban backyard, complete with swimming pool and Grecian-inspired bronze nudes. In years past, local well-wishers mingled with Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. This year’s event, however, was light on Conservative heavyweights, and big on everything else.
Neighbourhood families of every creed and colour poured into the park in prodigious, hungry numbers. (The mayor’s older brother, city Councillor Doug Ford, would later announce, giddily, that more than 5,000 burgers were consumed.) Bouncy castles and carnival rides were erected for the kids and massive “FORD NATION” banners hung on the chain-link fence bordering the park. Happy citizens drank beer and ate burgers, all on the mayor’s dime. Jenny James, a Filipino-Canadian singer-songwriter wearing metallic Chuck Taylor running shoes and a white cocktail dress, sang classic rock covers under a white canopy. The parking lot—cars spilling onto the adjacent grass, tawny teens in matching T-shirts directing traffic—resembled visitors’ day at an overnight camp. Except on this particular day, only one person was taking visitors.
That would be the mayor. Rob Ford stood, for the majority of the evening, under a small carnival tent, in a black suit, dabbing his brow with a white hanky. He shook hands and posed for pictures well past dark, his small security detail gently curtailing anyone who was too enthusiastic. Too enthusiastic, you ask? About Rob Ford? The man who put Toronto on the map for all the wrong reasons? As hard as it is to imagine—especially to those who live in the downtown core—the barbecue was a love-in for the ostensibly reviled and ridiculed leader of Canada’s biggest city. The lesson was clear, and humbling. On the edges of the city—or in the heartland, depending on your view—Ford is still king.
George Rivera, a 51-year-old Filipino immigrant and Scarborough chef, even presented the mayor with an offering: a watermelon, halved, its innards carved out to spell “Ford Fest” in intricate cursive writing. “I was bored this morning,” he said, “and thought, ‘Why not make a Ford Fest watermelon?’ I showed it to the mayor. He liked it!” Rivera was skeptical about the allegations. “I don’t really buy it,” he said. “The media stirs things up.”
Revellers at Ford Fest could be grouped into three distinct categories: elderly white people in black-and-red Ford Nation garb waving Canadian flags (think Canadian Tea Party), local working-class families—many of them immigrants—and groups of teens hungry for burgers, not particularly fiscal change. Jamal, for example, a Scarborough teen, formerly of Rexdale—the neighbourhood in which Ford allegedly smoked crack—said Ford is more of an “entertainer” than a politician. “I like him as an entertainer,” he said. “That’s why I’m here.” He is convinced the crack rumours are real. “I heard it on the streets two months before it came out on the news. A rumour doesn’t start out of nowhere.”
For Ford Nation, this particular rumour is the stuff of liberal spin. “I really don’t know about the video,” 73-year-old Norman Turner told me, “but I know the Toronto Star has a vendetta.” Turner, a tall man, wore a Ford Nation T-shirt and a Tilley hat. Like the mayor, he used to coach high school football. “I love Rob Ford,” he says. “I used to go to city council meetings before he was mayor and he would never get a motion passed, and I thought to myself, ‘If somebody can’t get a motion passed, there must be something to him.’”
It was a sentiment shared by every Ford supporter on the property: better a genuine loner than a polished team player. Ford’s constant display of weakness—for food, boorishness and, allegedly, drugs, is shaping up to be his biggest strength yet. Those who don’t despise him, pity him. “I just wish they’d leave him alone,” said an elderly woman named Claire. “What you do behind closed doors is your own business.”
Edward Keenan in The Grid, a Toronto alt-weekly, foresaw this particular pity party. “The scandal parade,” writes Keenan, “only makes him stronger in the eyes of some, hardening their conviction that, even if he is a bit of a witch, he’s still the subject of a ridiculous witch hunt.” This might explain why Ford’s approval rating has increased five per cent since the crack allegations surfaced. One need only look south, at New York’s current mayoral primaries, to believe in the merits of personal debasement. (Anthony Weiner, anyone?)
Ford Fest climaxed around 9 p.m., when singer Jenny James performed an ’80s rock-inspired ballad called Mayor Ford: The World Will Remember. Her assistant handed out lyrics, and the crowd—brother Doug included—sang along (Mayor Ford / cost cowboy / rollback viceroy / Toronto’s defender / economic mender). A crush of people swarmed the stage chanting, “We want Rob!” A woman praised Jesus and Ford in the same breath. A guy in his early twenties bellowed out a frat-boy howl: “Robbie, Robbie, Robbie!” Ford spoke nicely about the nice people of Scarborough and, of course, the gravy.
At the end of the night, on my way out, I met an older woman wearing a T-shirt that read “The pen is mightier than the Ford.” Her name is Mary Hynes, a famous Ford crank. “Who’s gonna clean this up tomorrow?” she asked. “Who’s gonna pay for this?” She wondered about the ethics of holding a campaign event on public property.
But nobody cared. Those were questions for the core. The only political question that mattered in Scarborough that night—perhaps the only political question that ever matters at all—Which politician would you most like to have a beer with?—had already been answered.