Toronto Mayor Singlehandedly Makes Canadian Politics Interesting Again

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford—Canada's Sarah Palin—is accused of smoking crack.

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Mark Blinch / REUTERS

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford holds a news conference at City Hall in Toronto, May 30, 2013.

Correction appended: June 4, 2013

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford certainly has had an impressive last three weeks.

First, the Toronto Star newspaper published a story claiming that two of their reporters had seen a video of Ford allegedly smoking crack cocaine.

Next, the Toronto police opened an investigation and interviewed members of Ford’s staff.

Then, Ford fired his chief of staff for suggesting he should go to rehab, trigging an exodus of six of his 12 aides.

Ford next held a press conference on May 24 denying using crack cocaine, being an addict or the existence of any tape.

But that didn’t stop Don Bosco Catholic Secondary School from firing Ford as their voluntary football coach, a job colleagues say he almost loved more than being mayor.

By this time, Ford was the butt of late night comics. “I’m Crack-man, eh, and I can fly!” squealed a Ford lookalike on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in a video that featured a dancing moose with a Canadian flag.

(MORE: Toronto Mayor Rob Ford Accused of Smoking Crack)

It is perhaps easy to imagine Canada—and cosmopolitan Toronto—above such nonsense.  This is Canada we’re talking about, supposedly an endless land of clean water, maple trees, Mounties and French secessionists.

The reality is different. Toronto is the country’s largest city by far, home to 8% of Canada’s population – and the fourth largest city in North America. It is also fantastically diverse: a multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial city compared to most American cities.

That shift in demography is partly to explain for the rise of Mayor Rob Ford. In 2010, Rob Ford became the only the second mayor to hail from Toronto’s suburbs. In 1998, Toronto amalgamated its six surrounding suburbs into one massive metropolitan area. His district, Etobicoke, is a mix of manicured mansions—like the one Ford owns—and tenement apartments. The neighborhood is incredibly diverse with a Caribbean community dominated by Jamaicans on one block and South Asian kids playing cricket in the vacant lot on the next with burka-clad Somali women herding their children along a sidewalk nearby.

Ford was a right wing populist—a rarity for Canada—or, as his brother called Ford during the campaign, Canada’s Sarah Palin. His platform was stopping the government “gravy train.” In office, he semi-privatized the garbage collectors and barred transit workers from striking. He used the city’s surpluses to pay down debt. He slashed benefits to city employees and says he’s saved Toronto $1 billion since taking office, a claim many councilors dispute.

But Ford wasn’t a details guy. “During my time on his campaign and in the mayor’s office, I probably knew where he was about 50% of the time,” says Adrienne Batra, his former communications director who left to become editorial page editor at the Toronto Sun at the end of 2011. “He’d just disappear and you’d ask him where he was and he’d say, ‘Oh, around town.’” In recent months his behavior has become more erratic, former aides say. He skipped council meetings to coach football and wouldn’t show up to work until after 11am. A court in November threw him out of office for using mayoral letterhead to raise money for his gridiron charity. He won an appeal in February.

Ford comes from a colorful family. His father was a self-made millionaire who founded the family’s lucrative plastic labels business. His sister has openly struggled with drug addiction for much of her life and was shot in the head in 2005 in a drug-related incident. She survived. His older brother Randy was charged in a drug-related kidnapping, according to court documents. In late May, the Globe & Mail ran a story about how Ford’s other brother, Doug—who was elected to the city council in 2010—dealt drugs 20 years ago, a story he’s vehemently rejected. Earlier this year, a female politician accused the mayor of being high and groping her at a political event—charges he denied. And his alleged intoxication at a military ball in February spawned a spate of embarrassing stories.

The video surfaced from the most unlikely of places: from Somali gang members and drug dealers in the mayor’s home town. The gang members contacted the Star and the website Gawker. Two Star journalists and one from Gawker were allowed to review the video, but the Somalis demanded $100,000 from the Star or $200,000 from Gawker if they wanted to buy the video and broadcast it, the news outlets said. Neither news outlet had that kind of money on hand—and the Star had no intention of ever paying such a sum to drug dealers, Robyn Doolittle, one of the Star reporters who has seen the video, told TIME—but both published stories based on the video their correspondents had seen. In it, they reported, Ford can be seen inhaling a substance from a glass pipe, swirling a lighter beneath it. The right wing politician slurs his words, eyes half-closed, calls a Canadian left-wing leader a “fag” and dismisses the kids he coaches on a football team as “just [expletive] minorities,” the stories report. In the weeks since, Gawker has raised $200,000 from 8,000 readers online, but the Somalis have since gone underground raising the question if anyone else will ever glimpse the alleged video, the outlets say.

Ford denies the existence of any video, accusing the Star of shoddy journalism. The mayor, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has said he will not resign and intends to run for reelection in 2014.

But Ford has, at the very least, a spotty memory. During the 2010 campaign he claimed to have never been arrested. When confronted with Florida arrest records for driving under the influence and possession of marijuana, he said he had forgotten those incidents. He denied getting thrown out of a hockey game for hurling obscenities at a nearby couple until the couple produced one of his business cards that he’d dropped. “I’m not saying the allegations are true, but Rob has an unfortunate pattern of denial, confrontation and then admission,” says Councillor John Parker, whom Ford named deputy speaker of the council. “And the stakes are a lot higher here.”

Still, it is difficult to see how the tape—even if accurate—could lead to his removal from office. Toronto municipal politics isn’t a party system, so there is no party to force Ford to resign. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said at the end of May she might intervene, but it’s unclear what she could legally do. Observers say there is no precedent for a provincial government meddling in one of its municipalities. A video of someone smoking something is not evidence of law breaking: no one can prove what was being smoked.

And, for now, polls show his support is holding. “I’d much rather a crack addict,” one Torontonian told a local television news station, “than some Ivy League nepotist scum any day.” Explains Nelson Wiseman, a professor of Canadian government at the University of Toronto, “Not withstanding all this, a third of the public would still vote for him. They see him as a big dumb guy like them—a Rodney Dangerfield type who just can’t get no respect.”

But attention? Ford is getting that for Toronto in spades.

The original version of this article included the following inaccuracies: Mayor Ford was the second mayor to be elected from the Toronto suburbs, not the first; the court threw him out of office in November, not December; he was allegedly inebriated at a military ball in February not March; and in his May 24 press conference, Ford denied that he currently uses crack cocaine, not “ever using” crack cocaine.