Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Joke's on us when we laugh at T.O. mayor

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Among the long and perplexing array of terrible Canadian mayors, only Rob Ford has the chutzpah to launch a re-election campaign on the same day he admitted to having smoked crack cocaine.

After months of making non-denial denials about drug use, association with violent criminals and other forms of behaviour unbecoming of an elected official, Toronto's mayor finally came clean Tuesday and made much of Canada feel dirty in the process.

"Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine," said the larger-than-life mayor, who blamed the transgression on being horribly wasted. He was drunk and didn't know what the heck he was doing, he insisted.

Most Canadians can understand getting so inebriated you wind up doing something dumb. Many of us have drunk-dialled exes, fallen asleep in our clothes or even eaten at Papa George's while under the influence of too much alcohol, a perfectly legal drug.

But few people who are not characters in The Hangover movie franchise could ever credibly blame the insertion of a crack pipe into one's mouth as a sudden aberration.

The fact Rob Ford used "I was wasted" as an excuse is remarkable in and of itself. What's even more remarkable is he seems to believe an extremely belated, under-duress and last-resort admission of something most Canadians already knew to be true somehow constitutes an act of redemption.

How else to explain Ford's decision to follow up his crack-smoking admission with an exhortation to vote for him in 2014. That is, if you happen to be lucky enough to live in Toronto.

It's tempting to look at Toronto and laugh out loud. No matter how many times you think about it, it's truly preposterous that one of the world's most sophisticated cities is led by a buffoon most of us would not consider qualified to sell a corn dog from a cart at the Red River Ex.

But as tempting as it is to revel in the "schadenFord," there's nothing funny about Toronto's situation. Ford, along with the mayors of Montreal, Laval, Que., and yes, Winnipeg, has done irreparable damage to public trust in municipal government -- and the important urbanist agenda. Ever since former U.S. president Richard Nixon turned out to be a crook, Canadians and Americans alike have lost faith in politicians.

Many of us assume elected officials at every level of government are either incompetent or on the take. This is unfair because the vast majority of people who enter public life are motivated to serve their communities, at least at the beginning.

At the municipal level, this is particularly unfortunate, as mayors and councillors and reeves and alderpeople make the decisions that most affect the daily lives of ordinary people.

If we can't trust the politicians who oversee our police services and firefighters and snow-clearing operations and mosquito-killing arsenals, why would we trust the folks responsible for health care or military operations?

Allegedly crooked mayors such as Montreal's Michael Applebaum and Laval's Gilles Vaillancourt -- who both wound up in handcuffs -- undermine this public trust and make people more cynical about government.

Bad mayors such as Winnipeg's Sam Katz -- who refuses to accept responsibility for the severe mismanagement of major capital projects at the hands of a close friend who was appointed chief administrator -- further perpetuate the belief elected officials are incapable of making decisions that benefit us all.

And crack-smoking, repeatedly intoxicated, criminal-associating mayors such as Ford utterly destroy any semblance of faith that may remain among a populace that desperately yearns for competent leadership.

Not every mayor has to inspire like Naheed Nenshi, who led Calgary so impressively during its spring flood. Not every mayor has to instil hope like Edmonton's Don Iveson, a 34-year-old progressive who recently took office.

All residents of Canadian cities really need is someone just competent enough to manage a municipal administration, avoid wasting millions of dollars on harebrained schemes and maybe stay out of jail.

It would also be nice to have a few more strong urbanists in the fold who could collectively pressure the provinces and Ottawa to finally grant cities the funding powers they need to fix crumbling infrastructure and end municipal malaise.

The former Quebec mayors can't do this from their jail cells. Katz can't do it from his low perch of implausible denial. And Ford can't do it from a position of uniquely spectacular weakness, where he's ridiculed by media in nations that don't pay any attention to Canada between Olympic hockey tournaments.

All Canadians should despise Ford for the discredit he's brought to public office and cities in general. Laugh at the buffoon if you must, but don't forget for a nanosecond the joke extends far beyond the end of his crack pipe and onto your potholed and pockmarked back lane.


Does Rob Ford lower the public’s expectations of elected officials’ behaviour? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 6, 2013 A11

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives

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