Looking past Rob Ford - Macleans.ca

Looking past Rob Ford

Toronto’s challenges go beyond its unfortunate mayor


Poor Rob Ford, for whom nothing can go right, may not have enjoyed 2012 as much as some. It was a year in which his influence waned, his budget was rewritten, his transit plan was scrapped and the one he tried to kill was revived. It was the year he fired the TTC chief who gave him advice he didn’t like, only to have his control over the agency stripped in retaliation. It was a year in which he accidentally banned plastic bags while trying to make them free, only to have to laboriously un-ban them later. A year in which in which he chased a reporter around a park and staged, then abandoned, a weight-loss challenge, only to fall off his industrial scale and twist his ankle after his very last weigh-in.

It was the year he tried responding to a horrific shooting by proposing that criminals be dumped over city limits, presumably to be told very sternly not to cross Steeles, even just to pick up a Wunderbar at 7/11. It was the year he was caught reading behind the wheel of his SUV on the highway, but still refused to get a driver. It was the year he endured unending flak for repeatedly blowing off work to coach a high-school football team, sometimes with office staff in tow, which was not helped by the time a busload of TTC riders got tipped into the rain so his football team could catch a lift. It was the year his new TTC chief, who he praised up and down the city, asked him to please stop calling. Now, in fairness, let us point towards his record on the city’s labour negotiations, which squeezed concessions from unions without a major strike. But, in the end, his football team lost the championship and he got thrown out of office.

With the remove of year-end retrospect, it’s hard to look at the man without wondering if he’s some kind of lightning rod for cosmic misfortune. Yes, he’s the author of his own misfortune, but what power compelled him to keep on writing? When you refine it down, this is some weapons-grade misfortune. By the end of 2012, nobody would have been surprised if, having wandered away from his job, Ford was found looking plaintively out the window at an Ikea parking lot, dressed in a very large shearling jacket: Ikeamayor.

But as 2013 dawns, Toronto is looking forward to a strangely daunting prospect: The world after Rob Ford. The mayor’s appeal is to be heard on January 4th. If he loses, he’ll likely face an uphill race in a by-election. If Ford is somehow returned, it seems unlikely it will come as a renewed mandate so much as yet another wearying tribulation cleared; if the process transforms Ford into a leader, it would be the biggest surprise of all. One way or the other, the city is going to stay leaderless well into the new year.

It’s all very engrossing in the moment: High office meets low comedy. The results weren’t just zany, but weirdly heartening. The city kept turning. The leadership void was filled with voices who started off partisan but became conciliatory: conservatives who broke ranks, socialists who broke doctrine. While the mayor’s office flooded the market (to say nothing of the airwaves) with partisan blither and made good sense scarce, good sense suddenly became a good worth selling.

It was moderates who put the city’s transit plans back on track, who curtailed a sell-off of public housing stock, who are driving the most promising discussions about alleviating the gridlock that’s choking the city’s citizens and economy alike. The year hardly represented a utopia of governance—a leaderless government, for all its collectivist romance, is liable to be directionless and reactive. But the city settled into something resembling equilibrium: Ford offered, if not leadership, then the unifying effect of a man bent on illustrating What Not To Do.

This can only take the city so far. Events will foist some items onto the agenda one way or the other. Toronto faces huge challenges in the year to come, some of which we’re talking about already, some of which we’re not. The crumbling Gardiner is about to foist a half-billion dollar infrastructure decision on the city. Toronto is going to have to decide whether or not to turn over its downtown core to one sort of mega-casino or another. The subject of paying for transit (read: you, paying for transit through new taxes or tolls) is about to take centre stage.

But just as Rob Ford was not the solution to Toronto’s problems, Toronto’s problem is not Rob Ford. Reactive leadership won’t address the challenges that can’t be solved with infrastructure alone: a city that’s becoming more polarized in income and opportunity, that’s pricing buyers and renters alike out of the market, that’s harder and harder to get around, and that can’t just exile its gunmen to the next town over. This is the challenge for the city’s leadership in 2013: Addressing the shape of the city that’s so big, so full of potential, and at such a critical juncture. Surviving Rob Ford isn’t enough.