By Paul Horn. It’s official! Rob Ford’s story is now the most widely reported Canadian story in our nation’s history. I was recently asked why Canadians are so fascinated by this man. Almost before I could muster an answer, Nelson Mandela passed away, giving me pause to reflect. I realized that Rob Ford represents the very antithesis of Mr. Mandela, and that is what galls us.
We are not fascinated by this man; we are bothered by him. And it is not his dishonesty that sets him apart; we have long ago become desensitized to that characteristic in elected people. Neither it is drug use, for if that was what it took to be alarmed; we would have been unforgiving of Gordon Campbell and others long before this.
No, Rob Ford has distinguished himself in three ways. He is impolite and boorish. He is self-centred and blindly ambitious. And he is fundamentally undemocratic. If only he could take a page (or a paragraph!) from the lessons of Mandela’s life and career, I believe he would find his country and his world to be far more forgiving of his flaws, and appreciative of his talents.
Ford was a bully and a boor long before there were allegations of drug use or even before he won the Mayor’s office. YouTube and the news are full of stories of then-councillor Ford ridiculing and badgering reporters, other councillors and the council speaker. Today, he seems blithely unaware that, as a Mayor, it is the essence of his job to be approachable, relatable and open. No one wants to be around folks who are rude or aggressive, and this includes businesses, community organizations and other branches of government. And when people won’t engage the Mayor, it means they aren’t engaging the city. Development, growth and evolution grind to a halt in such a climate.
Initially, some folks took Ford’s signature directness to be a sign of his authenticity and anti-politician persona, but now, I believe, people are seeing that it is much more than that. Mandela was real and not a typical politician. He was able to connect to the common man like no other politician in recent (or possibly any) history. And yet he was also able to forge relationships and engage the support of leaders and regular citizens from around the world, collapsing apartheid in the process. How did he do so? In a nutshell, Mandela was unwaveringly respectful and polite. He was always gracious and it showed through. He won people over with wit and wisdom, not brashness and balderdash. If Canadians are noted for their politeness, Mandela fit the bill better than Mr. Ford.
Mandela was also selfless. He had to be or else his life would have been pre-possessed by an understandable but overwhelming bitterness. Mandela was treated to incredible injustice, but rose above it. Ford, by contrast, seems completely unprepared to accept responsibility or even to simply accept that he is impacting his community in some very negative ways. In recent months, Ford has thrown many under the bus; from the security guard at City Hall, who he compromised by showing up after hours with a drunken party in tow; to his own wife, to whom he referred in graphic and locker-room sexual comments before the international press. He has admitted to lying to his brother, Councillor Doug Ford, leaving Doug to advocate on his behalf while knowing all along that he did not deserve the defense. Ford has threatened and physically bulldozed other elected officials; dragged the reputation of the school where he coached through the muck; maligned and publicly confronted city staffers and Toronto police; and impugned the reputation of the Toronto Star. In every single case, he has been indignant, certain that he stood on high moral ground. In each case, he has blamed others and claimed he was morally victimized. In each case, he was wrong.
Mandela showed us that one must be selfless to lead. Rob Ford shows us what happens when we are not. It takes a person of remarkable character to lead in challenging times, but when a person takes office for their own gains, prosperity soon turns sour. Far from being an asset, Ford has become the very challenge his city least needs, pushing others to excel as leaders.
Ford is a political crucible, forcing every other politician in this country (and certainly in Ontario) to stop and reflect on what is meant by democratic leadership. Mandela had 27 years in a prison to contemplate this, and it showed, but Ford seems to have given up on understanding this subject. After a year at Carleton University in Political Science, Ford gave up his post-secondary studies, but that hasn’t stopped him from describing his council alternatively as “Nazis” and “American-style politicians.” And in a particularly curious allusion, Ford likened the marginalization of his powers by council to the events of the Gulf War in 1991. From a purely strategic standpoint, I’m not sure a Saddam Hussein reference was his best choice at that point. While he wanted us to relate the council’s actions to Hussein’s belligerence, I think it’s safe to say that most observers saw an entirely different connection.
Ford’s definition of democracy is curious. Found guilty of conflict of interest and removed from office by the courts – again, long before the current scandal – Ford said he was the victim of a cabal and tied up the courts with an appeal, ultimately winning his way back into Chambers and using up one his nine political lives. On November 15th, 2013, Ford’s powers were dramatically reduced by council, with the vote being a dramatic 40-2. Subsequent votes were equally lop-sided, with Ford, his brother Doug and just one more councillor opposing. To Ford, this was a coup, never mind that coups are acts of force and not of voting. Ford’s response? That he would tie up the city in court; lockjaw every council proceeding; and leave a path of general destruction for his political foes.
You don’t need me to point out the irony in these events, but some folks have been swayed by Ford’s swagger and boldness. He sounds confident in his views and, for many, that’s good enough. But here’s the fact; if Ford’s opponents had wanted to marginalize his voice, they needn’t have had to go that far. All anyone needed to do on any given day was raise their hand against his resolutions. That’s exactly how the process is designed to work. Make no mistake, Ford is a victim of democracy and democracy is a victim of Rob Ford. Democracy is not always fair, but that’s not the point. It’s about representation, not about pushing one person’s agenda. If Rob Ford wants support from his council, he’ll have to earn it. There is no other way.
Ask yourself how a Black man locked away for 27 years could sway a nation of white segregationist politicians to change an entire political system, without using violence or sanctions. He did it by promoting the notions of democracy, both inside and outside of his borders. His message resonated with the ears of the world as he advocated for an equal voice within South Africa’s government. If one word of what he said had rung hollow, he would never have influenced the changes that followed. No one laughed or turned away from him because his message was eloquent, sincere and rooted in justice. By contrast, Ford’s voice rings with a deafening hollowness, and it disturbs us all.
Mandela fascinated and inspired us, but Ford has left us angry. Watching Ford is not some guilty pleasure; it is perhaps the most troubling public denouement in Canadian history. We watch it with a horrifying sickness and helplessness within our hearts. We watch with a crucial question in our hearts; will the leaders of tomorrow be Mandelas or Fords? And within this question is another crossroads; will the world be a better place tomorrow, or shall we all watch as it degenerates into a mess of self-concern and foolishness? Ulitmately, Mandela knew something that Ford cannot. The answer depends on the will of the many, and not of one.
Paul Horn is a former councillor with the District of Mission and a regular contributor to Abbotsford Today.