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When the Ford jokes stop

Serious consequences to infamy for biggest city's mayor

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Published reports said a video appears to show Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine. Ford called the allegations ridiculous.

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Published reports said a video appears to show Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine. Ford called the allegations ridiculous.

TORONTO -- When the Toronto Maple Leafs blew a third-period lead and stumbled out of the NHL playoffs, much of the rest of Canada revelled in sweet, sweet schadenfreude.

Watching the nation's largest city fail is an admittedly immature pleasure, but easy to justify on an ethical basis when you consider the Leafs are only playing a game.

Wishing humans actual harm is unconscionable. Taking pleasure from that harm is suspect.

But in the grand scheme of potential human transgressions, there's no reserved-seating area in hell for the multitudes of Manitobans and other Canadians who take amusement from the continuing ineptitude of the object of Toronto's undying love.

In this instance, deriving pleasure from Toronto's pain is a lot like taking 90 seconds to scan a gossip story about Amanda Bynes tossing a bong out the window of her Manhattan apartment. We do not know the former child star, nor do we identify with her disillusioned fans.

Enjoying a smirk at her expense doesn't make us feel guilty, because we have no stake in the outcome of her behaviour. It's the same with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are just as much of an abstraction, even though we actually do know a number of people who will profess to being their fans.

But there's a limit to an acceptable amount of schadenfreude, even when Torontonians are involved.

In 2010, it was amusing to see the buffoon Rob Ford get elected mayor of Canada's largest city. In 2013, there's nothing remotely acceptable about engaging in Schadenford, a term coined by Toronto Life in 2008, when then-councillor Rob Ford was charged with assault and uttering death threats in a domestic incident involving his wife.

Even Canadians who rarely pay attention to municipal politics are likely to know the name Rob Ford, thanks to his multitude of personal problems and political foibles.

As a mere city councillor, he was infamous for rarely showing up to committee meetings, opining Asians "work like dogs" and "are slowly taking over," suggesting cyclists are to blame for their own deaths on the road and getting kicked out of a Leafs game for being drunk and abusive. This is a but a short summary of the list of his early transgressions.

After becoming mayor, Ford invited Don Cherry to city hall for his inaugural. The famously witty broadcaster proceeded to make comments about "the pinkos out there who ride bicycles and everything" and also ridiculed the "left-wing kooks" at city council.

"Oh man, it was just embarrassing for the largest city in the country -- it just made me sad," Coun. Paula Fletcher, one of those apparent kooks, told the Toronto Star at the time.

Little did she know she just witnessed the high point of Rob Ford's time in the mayor's chair.

Over the next 21/2 years, Ford proceeded to stumble from one mishap to another. His many foibles included ignoring council to coach football, reading while driving, getting intoxicated in public, calling 911 on a comedian and diving headfirst into a conflict-of-interest scandal, despite repeated warnings not to do so. The latter move almost cost him his job last year.

 

It was fair to say the mayor's office in Toronto suffered from political paralysis before May 16, when the Star and Gawker published their now-famous pieces about Ford's alleged presence in a video where he appears to be smoking crack.

Already a national punchline, Rob Ford went international, with U.S. TV talk shows engaging in their own particular form of Schadenford -- sketches about a nice, polite Canadian city with a buffoon leader who does a modern-day Marion Barry impression.

To Americans, so insecure about their image around the world, there's something funny about a Canadian behaving badly. To many Canadians, so insecure about their status relative to the wealthy and well-dressed citizens of Toronto, there could be something just as funny about the nation's largest city being led by not just an ignorant buffoon, but an ignorant buffoon with a serious substance-abuse problem.

Initially, I derived immense pleasure from the latest bizarre development in the already-bizarre Rob Ford saga. On the night of May 16, I spent several gleeful hours making bad puns on Twitter such as "religion apparently is not the opiate of the massive" and offering congratulations to "the crack team of investigative journalists" who broke the story.

But given time to reflect, there's nothing funny about Rob Ford going off the rails of his gravy train.

For starters, as former addicts have pointed out, there's nothing funny about a public figure with apparent substance-abuse problems flaming out in spectacular fashion. Rob Ford may be the architect of his own political demise, but the guy needs therapeutic treatment, despite his own insistence he is not, at this moment, a crack user.

On an equally serious level, the executive political apparatus at the City of Toronto, one of the economic engines of this country, is hobbled by a crisis. It may not be as serious as the corruption scandals that have crippled Montreal and other Quebec municipalities, but the public's already-shaky faith in municipal government has been eroded even further. And that certainly isn't worthy of a laugh.

Finally, there's nothing remotely enjoyable about getting to say "I told you so" if you're one of the many people in Toronto and elsewhere who was paying attention to Rob Ford before he was elected mayor.

In 2010, Ford was a well-known political commodity in Toronto: A lazy anti-intellectual of dubious personal character. Yet he still won the mayor's race by capturing the public's imagination with a simple, idiotic slogan: He was going to end "the gravy train" of wages and benefits flowing to city employees.

Simple sloganeering has elected many vile politicians, most notably back in the days when ordinary people did not have access to endless quantities of information, 24 hours a day, practically everywhere.

But with a minimal modicum of effort, any Toronto voter in 2010 could have learned who and what Rob Ford was, both as a person and as a politician. The fact a majority decided a political lightweight was still the best person to lead the nation's largest city is a testament to how little voters actually bother to care about anything anymore.

This is chilling, not hilarious. And the phenomenon is not restricted to the people of Toronto, who now deserve our sympathy and compassion, not ridicule.

There are many other Canadian politicians who suffer from personal and professional lapses. In Winnipeg, Mayor Sam Katz likely has made more mistakes about matters of actual substance -- policy decisions and ethical choices, that is -- than Rob Ford has in Toronto.

But as I've written in this space before, Katz remains the mayoral candidate to beat in 2014, especially in the absence of a credible alternative. And while Sam Katz does merit scrutiny and criticism, he is far from a complete embarrassment to the city.

Looking east toward Toronto, Winnipeggers can consider themselves lucky to have a sober, tolerant and respectful mayor. Case in point: Sam Katz just raised the Pride Week flag, while Rob Ford has enraged Toronto's gay community with ignorant comments and derisive actions.

Toronto's elected leader has unfortunately set the mayoral bar as low as it can go. Given the importance of the office, this should not make anyone happy, anywhere.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2013 A1

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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.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on CityTV’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, explore magazine and Western Living.

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
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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