Politics

What happened to the old Doug Ford?

Say farewell, for now, to the overconfident, hyper-partisan version of Ontario's premier. Here's how the pandemic changed Doug Ford.

Doug Ford stood in a field in Mississauga, Ont., the site of a long-term care facility he promised would be built in record time, and lavished praise on everybody in sight. He called Michelle DiEmanuele, the CEO of Trillium Health Partners, “one of my favourites.” Bonnie Crombie, the city’s mayor, was “terrific.” And “nothing could get built,” said Ontario’s premier, without “phenomenal labour leadership.”

Ford thanked every MPP in the city, all of them rookies in his Queen’s Park caucus, for their local pandemic stewardship. Almost no one escaped gratitude that afternoon on July 21.

It didn’t matter that Crombie was once a Liberal MP in the area. The pandemic-times Doug Ford has no problem with Liberals. Senior party officials who know Ford best say he threw partisanship out the door when the scale of the public health emergency became clear. People who got things done, from CEOs to old Ottawa foes, became instant allies as he started making calls in March, making his cellphone a mobile command centre, typically late into the night.

Early reviews of the premier’s public performance through the pandemic were positive. After telling families to enjoy March Break—days before he shut down non-essential business—Ford got serious quickly. In his initial daily press conferences in March, Ford appeared uncharacteristically subdued, thanking the Prime Minister, urging people to social-distance and praising health workers.

READ MORE: The rising popularity of Doug Ford

There is of course plenty to criticize about Ontario’s response. More than 2,700 people, mostly in long-term care, have died. The premier’s messaging repeatedly conflicted with public advice his medical officer of health, David Williams, gave later in the day.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath tells Maclean’s that in a meeting with Ford in March, just before Ontario’s case count started spiking, Ford’s team talked mostly about hospital capacity. “It didn’t seem like the government was focused on anything else at that time.” The minister of finance, Rod Phillips, offered a short lecture on macroeconomics, she said. “But they weren’t talking about local issues.”

Horwath said her party co-operated in the legislature on passing emergency orders meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but the premier never again picked up the phone to consult the NDP leader. “He talks a big game about there being no Orange Team or Red Team or Blue Team,” she says, “but the government is not at all open to ideas.” (Ford declined an interview request from Maclean’s.)

The same day he was in Mississauga on an early leg of an eight-week summertime tour of his province, Ford’s Progressive Conservatives paused the legislative session until the fall. At a press conference the next day, Ford was asked how legislators could hold the government to account during an extended break when the pandemic’s trajectory was still so unpredictable. The premier’s response was classic Ford: “Every MPP has my number. They can call me.”

Ford’s government has made costly mistakes. The province’s per-capita coronavirus death rate was second in Canada only to neighbouring Quebec. Ontarians also learned the extent of a horrifying crisis in long-term care, including stomach-turning living conditions reported by deployed soldiers, only after hundreds of residents and staff had died.

But the pandemic also exposed Ontarians to a different, surprising version of Ford than the premier they’d watched bombastically stumble through most of his first two years in office.

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Doug Ford’s first blunder when the pandemic hit his province in earnest was to instruct Ontarians to travel for March Break. “Go away, have a good time, enjoy yourself,” he said on March 12. Later that same day, Ford’s government shuttered schools for two weeks.

The next day, the premier was in Ottawa for a first ministers’ meeting with a packed agenda. The coronavirus, which had earlier that week killed its first victim in B.C. and had just been declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, was just one of many issues on the table.

A couple of hours before Ford was meant to meet with Justin Trudeau, the meeting was abruptly cancelled and the premier’s team was on a flight back to Toronto. The next day, Canadians learned that Trudeau was in self-isolation after his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, tested positive for COVID-19.

That cascading series of mid-March events jolted the premier into taking the virus seriously. Ford’s pre-pandemic reputation bent toward overconfidence. He’d gotten in trouble for various patronage snafus, including when he appointed his friend as provincial police commissioner. But a senior government source at Queen’s Park said the public response to that March Break misstep “caught the premier’s attention.” That’s when it hit home that the province was paying close attention, and demonstrated, the source said, “how much people hung on to every single word.”

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Once the premier was back from Ottawa, taking on the coronavirus became a personal mission. “This is where Doug’s leadership kicked in, mostly from his instincts,” says Chris Froggatt, a long-time Tory insider who led Ford’s transition team in 2018 and heads up the Progressive Conservatives’ election readiness team. “When he was presented with the extent of what might happen, that’s when you saw a change.”

One of Ford’s first decisions was to turn off partisan blinkers—especially any lingering resentment with Liberals in Ottawa. “From really early on, the premier made a conscious decision that we were going to take political considerations out of the equation as much as possible,” says the senior source, who added the premier “took some flak internally” for teaming up with the feds.

“They just spent the last summer bashing us and running a campaign against us, and smearing our government any chance they got,” went the thinking. Why leave that water under the bridge?

The truth is the federal-provincial relationship was on the mend months before the pandemic, when after the federal election, which saw the Liberals ride a wave of anti-Ford sentiment in the GTA, Ford congratulated Trudeau and said they would work together. It fell to Chrystia Freeland, the newly minted deputy prime minister, to strike up a bond with her party’s foil in Toronto.

Shakir Chambers, who helped craft PC policy in the 2018 campaign—and once played football for Doug’s late brother and former Toronto mayor Rob Ford—says Ford’s co-operation with Freeland surprised a lot of people. “I don’t think there were very many people who thought he had it in him,” he says. “He didn’t take any of that stuff personally. That’s how politics is played.”

Instead, say sources close to the premier, Ford talked to anybody who could help fight the pandemic and took a hands-on approach to crisis management.

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In the early days of the pandemic, it became clear that Ontario’s stockpiles of personal protective equipment (PPE) were running dangerously low. “We were in a precarious place, days away from running out of PPE,” says the senior government source. “Things could have turned in a very different direction. The premier felt the weight of that on his shoulders.”

Ford talked to CEOs of suppliers whose product was in high demand. “He was indiscriminate. He didn’t care who it was,” says the source. “If that phone call could help move the ball forward, he was making that call all day and all night.” He played interlocutor, too, connecting suppliers directly to Freeland or Quebec Premier François Legault, who was also in dire need of the same protective gear.

READ MORE: In Doug Ford’s Ontario, knowledge is sorrow

He also answered the call, literally, when Dental Brands, a medical supplier, texted him in March with an offer to donate tens of thousands of masks. Ford got in his pickup truck and drove to the company’s facility in Markham, Ont., intent on picking up the masks himself. To many it smacked of a photo op. Those close to him insist it was all about the masks.

Another time, Ford was asked at a press conference in March about how he could help return high school students from King City, Ont., who were marooned in South America, struggling to find flights home from Peru. His staff thought they’d failed to prepare him for the query. But he’d actually been on the phone with one of the student’s mothers, “who somehow got his phone number”—and had already made calls to the feds and Air Canada on their behalf.

Horwath gives the premier some credit for decisiveness. But one man and his cellphone can only do so much. “It’s naive to think a province as big and complex as Ontario can simply have its problems solved by the premier picking up his phone,” says Horwath.

Indeed, by April the coronavirus was running rampant in a province that needed to take drastic measures to avoid a disaster on the scale of Italy or New York.

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Ford made some big news in his early daily press conferences. He announced emergency spending packages and economic shutdowns. He took drastic measures: a state of emergency on March 17, the closure of thousands of non-essential businesses on March 23, the province’s COVID-19 death projections on April 3, and a reaction to a horrifying long-term care report on May 26.

Ford rarely hid his emotion when he had bad news for the province. His voice appeared, at times, to waver. “What you saw from him reflected the burden of responsibility he had on him, but also the empathy for what people were going through,” says Froggatt. “In the early days, I don’t think he read from notes.”

Melissa Lantsman, the PC war room director and chief spokesperson in the 2018 campaign, said Ford thrives when he’s not at Queen’s Park. “I think it was probably pretty frustrating to not be out there in Ontario, and instead behind a podium communicating what is very serious public health advice,” she says. “That is not a sweet spot, but he made it so.”

During his daily press conferences, Ford’s voice wavered when he had bad news for the province (Photograph by Brett Gundlock)

During his daily press conferences, Ford’s voice sometimes wavered when he had bad news for the province (Photograph by Brett Gundlock)

Behind the scenes, the premier wrestled with Ontario’s machinery of government. When testing levels weren’t adequate, he got on the phone with senior public health officials to pressure them to increase testing until numbers rose. A senior Tory source familiar with the day-to-day crisis management said Ford led a 10 a.m. meeting every day for two months that focused “the entire Ontario government on the PPE supply chain.”

And the premier forced a massive change to testing in long-term care homes. A senior source at Ontario Health,who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, says the decision to test every single resident and worker was thanks to the premier’s “relentless” effort, which encountered sustained resistance by public health officials. The thinking was that testing everybody, including asymptomatic individuals, was not sound outbreak management, but it proved an important shift. David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, lamented the lateness of that widespread testing. “It took weeks for Ontario to do a testing blitz,” he says.

Nobody in Ford’s government denies the appalling conditions were largely a blind spot until the Canadian Armed Forces published its eye-popping May report on five hard-hit homes. The premier has since repeatedly taken “ownership” of the issue, but Horwath scoffs at the claim. “The government was bragging in early April that there was an iron ring around long-term care,” she says. Hundreds died in the weeks that followed. And the government has only announced an independent review of the system—not a full public inquiry, with more power to dig more deeply, that Horwath demanded immediately.

Fisman says Ontario got “the biggest thing of all exactly right” in the pandemic’s early days by abruptly shutting down non-essential businesses. But the province could have avoided the disaster in long-term care, he says.

B.C.’s experience in similar homes, where that province’s outbreaks started, offered a “road map.” But Ontario let its own simmering crisis persist. “That created a tremendous amount of pain,” says Fisman. “Those residents died alone, cut off from their families.” The province’s senior public health officials, says Fisman, “have a lot to answer for” about the crucial mistakes they made protecting those vulnerable residents. They could have distributed PPE more aggressively, he says, and earlier widespread testing would have allowed healthy residents to be separated from the infected.

If Fisman had his way, the premier would have different advisers. He noted several regional officers of health—Vera Etches in Ottawa, Eileen de Villa in Toronto and Nicola Mercer in Guelph, Ont.—who have been “fabulous” and “brave” as they dispense advice. “I’m puzzled as to why [Ford] wouldn’t want to have the very best public health guidance you can find in the province.”

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It’s no secret that Ford’s first year in government was at times disastrous. After making major spending cuts, including serious rollbacks of autism funding, his approval rating was in the tank. Dart and Maru/Blue pegged his approval at 30 per cent this past March, as the PC government neared the two-year anniversary of its majority win.

Ford also scored his share of own goals in the midst of the crisis. He briefly visited his cottage to check on the plumbing, and later spent Mother’s Day with family members from different households—a violation of the province’s advice at the time. The premier apologized for his transgressions.

But by June, the pollsters had the premier’s approval at 62 per cent. A Mainstreet poll that same month had the PCs up nine points to 42 per cent support, enough to secure a second term if those numbers held. Even in a period when many politicians experienced bumps in popularity, the rebound was a small miracle.

“You don’t often get a second chance to make a first impression,” says Lantsman. “The premier has given Ontarians a master class in emotive communication.”

Finding a way to win back a wide swath of voters who’d turned against the premier was always going to be difficult, says the senior source at Queen’s Park. Everyone had a strong opinion about Ford. “For most of those people, that opinion was very rigid. Carved in stone. You either loved him or hated him,” says the source. “This pandemic has created an opportunity for people to challenge that preconception they had. For many people, completely smash it.”

Approval ratings will, Lantsman says, inevitably fall for most political leaders who’ve scored well during the pandemic. “When the enemy is no longer the virus, the enemy is the politician. It’s a natural evolution of any crisis,” she says. “I’m absolutely sure he’s broadened his base.”

Last year, Trudeau’s Liberals banked on the premier’s unpopularity to win key suburban Toronto ridings. They swept every Mississauga seat currently held by Tories at Queen’s Park. But that was then. “I’m not sure if, moving forward, bashing Doug Ford is a good strategy,” says Chambers.

The federal Tory leadership race offers an instructive lesson in Ford’s renaissance. Just look at the party’s debates. “Six months ago, not a single person on that stage would have mentioned Ford’s name. Instead, they were all tripping over each other” to praise the premier, says Lantsman. “Politics is a funny thing. When you’re up, you’re up.”

Whatever happens next, Ontario’s tentative taming of COVID-19 remains tenuous. Ryan Imgrund, a biostatistician with the Southlake Regional Health Centre in Newmarket, Ont., who has closely monitored COVID-19’s reproductive rate across the province, warns that even as communities reopen, Ontarians “need to learn to live with” the virus—and only reopen with extreme caution. Imgrund’s data say, for example, that any stadium event held this summer would be virtually guaranteed to expose attendees to infection.

As the virus lingers, the province is still staring down a fiscal disaster. If economic growth doesn’t eventually bail out the province, Ford could face his toughest challenge yet. A senior Tory source at Queen’s Park admits to burbling anxiety. “People are concerned about how it all gets paid for. People understand that this is a bill that’s going to come home,” says the source. “When the economy comes back, that’s the point at which people are going to be looking more seriously at it.”

That’s if it comes back. If a resurgence of the virus kills growth, Ford’s accessibility and transparency will offer cold comfort to a province of the regular folk who can’t pay their bills.


This article appears in print in the September 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Who is this man?” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.