Feasting on Ford Fest (and the rant that follows)

Originally published on Torontoist on September 10, 2012.

One of the first things that happened when we arrived at Ford Fest: we were asked to provide our names, addresses, and phone numbers. When we tried to skip the sign-in process, a volunteer told us it was required. We said we weren’t comfortable providing our personal information. “Then why are you here?” demanded another. (She later said the information was for “security purposes.”)

Rather than protest further, we scribbled our names amid over 5,000 other signatures from those who came to enjoy the Ford family’s hospitality, as matriarch Diane Ford threw her Etobicoke home open to the entire city in an annual tradition.

Apart from disputes over people cutting into the burger line, it was one of the evening’s few confrontations. The laid-back atmosphere—which mixed die-hard supporters, neighbourhood families, politically engaged residents who often disagree with Ford, the curious, and the media—must have been a relief for the Fords after a rocky week in court. A Facebook-organized LGBT gathering didn’t materialize, though people wearing rainbow colours danced to Councillor Gary Crawford’s (Ward 36, Scarborough Southwest) hire-worthy cover band, Gently Bent.

The relaxed approach applied to the food line, whose mass disorganization would have made an anarchist smile. No one knew where the queue began, so people joined in wherever they could without offending others. We let in two elderly women who sweetly looked around to make sure nobody would call them out. As we waited, we observed several requests for security to deal with line jumpers and one loud public shaming by the pool.

The line snaked around the backyard, threatening to form an infinite circle that would never lead to the lone barbecue pit. Standing for over 90 minutes for burgers and hot dogs provided time to observe the Greco-Roman-inspired lawn décor and the rose petals floating in the pool. A beer and wine station along the way offered relief, though some trouble with the tap produced cups that were 70 per cent head/30 per cent brew.

Our wait was punctuated by watching the exploits of one enterprising party-goer ahead of us, who loaded up a cooler with a case of free pop, brought take-out containers for the grill, and tossed a used bun back at the cooks. His extreme behaviour embodied the front-of-line ethos, where the long wait broke down into a free-for-all whenever the latest charred item came off the grill. Once away from the line though, tension eased. (The entire event was much busier than last year. If Ford Fest carries on, the food line will require better planning: line markers and additional grills would be a good start.)

Ford Fest provided the mayor with a friendly platform to list his accomplishments and pep up the crowd for his 2014 re-election bid, which promises to continue with an us-versus-them mentality. “We have to get out there, bang on the doors,” he shouted. “As you saw this week, they’re coming after us, every which way.” While thanking his family (including a trembling salute to his late father), Ford indicated that brother Doug “gives me the marching orders, and I march.” (The crowd didn’t erupt in laughter.)

Ford also promoted his Don Bosco football squad, urging guests to attend their season opener on September 14 against the Donald A. Wilson Gators, who won last year’s Metro Bowl. “Mark my words,” he boasted, “we’re going to be the Metro Bowl champs, not Donald Wilson.” He was rewarded for his football and charitable efforts with a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal and couldn’t resist a shot at his legal opponents: “Some people think that it’s a terrible thing to help kids out, but I’m helping kids out!”

Plenty of kids were on hand, enjoying the food or the balloon animals made by a roaming man in a tux. They were also encouraged to lend vocal help to Gently Bent’s rendition of “Another Brick in the Wall.” It was unclear if that song accidentally or intentionally commented on the depths of the mayor’s knowledge of municipal law.

What stood out most at Ford Fest was the family’s genuinely welcoming nature—including personal thanks from Diane Ford, who went table to table to say hello. For all his faults as a public official, Rob Ford’s ability to connect with people on a personal level is what has gotten him as far as he has, and its merits are real. However and whenever he leaves office, it’s at least one (and possibly the only) thing future mayors may want to adopt from his tenure.

BEHIND THE SCENES

Warning: this is going to be a long one. Working a few long-simmering thoughts out here, so be ready for some ranting.

Apart from the usual second-guessing about using certain turns of phrase, or leaving out a fact I wanted to throw in, I rarely regret pieces I’ve written. This one is an exception, due to its ending. I wrote the final paragraph based on what friends who were there observed, especially after I left the premises. I also felt I needed to include some balance in there and reflect the vibes others felt, lest I came off like a stereotypical anti-Ford crank easy fodder for pro-Ford supporters willing to defend their boy at any length.

Truth is, whatever welcoming nature was happening, I wasn’t feeling it that night. Looking back at it now, Ford Fest was a key point in my deepening disillusionment with Toronto politics and the coverage of them.

From the moment I was asked for personal information—and the reaction the friends and I received when we questioned the necessity of collecting such info, which I bet was later used for campaigning purposes—I couldn’t shake the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land.

My discomfort grew as I waited for food. The line represented many elements of the Ford mayoralty—the chaos, the pathetic, the pettiness, and the selfishness. The closer I moved to the grill, the more I felt end of days was imminent. Between watching people grab as many free items as they could without concern for others, jostling in line, and the every-man-for-themselves free-for-all at the front, I pondered how easily civilization could come unglued.

Coupled with speeches which entrenched the divisive nature the Fords thrived on, I felt something die inside of me. This was populism at one of its lowest, basest forms. Make people scramble like animals for free food while preaching that instead of working together to create a better city we should further inflame the divisions that don’t help anyone other than politicians eager to benefit from the flames of fear, hate, and paranoia.

Was everything I was taught growing up—to respect others different from you, to work together instead of apart to solve problems—just a bunch of hooey I shouldn’t have paid attention to?

I know the idea at the time was to understand what made Ford supporters tick, not to demonize them. And, to a certain point, I could see how Ford’s blend of personal vulnerabilities, working for individual constituents and speaking to a demographic who felt beat up by the system could entice a voter. And I also knew Toronto’s history of doing everything on the cheap and knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing, qualities Ford embodied. But I also saw how the more opponents and the press pointed out every single peccadillo, every single misstep, one grew immune to the insanity and shrug it off. Information overload was not a blessing. The moderate/progressive side never figured out how to make a palatable alternative which could appeal to soft Ford voters, always finding a way to make a message too weak to hold up, or bumble campaigns.

The city and its media were sucked into a reality television show, and the joke usually seemed to be on us.

While the Ford era provided plenty of material for me to add historical context to, I grew weary of the circus. I turned off social media feeds obsessively dedicated to City Hall. I glossed over stories in the newspaper, or groaned whenever the latest mishap floated across the screen. Over the next stretch on this site, you’ll see stories I covered regarding urban politics that only deepened my disillusionment, especially when the loudmouths took over the floor.

Burying myself in other work seemed a better alternative than despairing over what could actually be done to turn the tide against increasingly divisive political and social issues. Sometimes I’d turn down stories that felt too depressing to crank out, or could only support rather that work to solve divisions (though I did write the occasional partisan crack if I felt strongly about the issue—nobody’s saintly).

Let’s say the 2016 American election didn’t help my state of mind.

What did the Ford era ultimately bring us? Setbacks to building a better transportation infrastructure. Jokes for late-night comedians. Growing the seeds of distrust between the core and suburban areas in the city that don’t need to be there, which continue to be perpetuated by politicians who only heed their baser instincts, their baser constituents, or their constant need for attention.

As I write this update at the dawn of March 2018, some polls suggest Doug Ford has a shot of becoming the next provincial Progressive Conservative leader. Though I have tried very hard to tune him out, it’s hard to escape all news about his campaign, of which stories suggest he’s still playing his family’s brand of divisive politics. If he wins the leadership, I would not be shocked if he winds up premier, which is a depressing prospect. Or, depending how much Doug shows his true colours if he gains power, perhaps an opportunity to work to finally kill this brand of destructive rousing of partisan nastiness and expose it for the brutality that underlies it—if wider opponents can ever get over their bickering between each other on individual causes.

Does some of what I’ve just ranted about sound cynical and jaded? You bet.

I suspect I’m not alone feeling this way. If there’s a new, broader way to fight this crap, I’ll all for it. The movement among American youth to fight guns shows glimmers of hope. And, having worked with many millennials, I’m hoping that things may change once they start holding positions of power.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled historical stories.