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Ontario Premier Doug Ford walks past a bagpiper during Remembrance Day ceremonies at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on Nov. 11.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

If you were watching TV in Ontario recently, your enjoyment was interrupted by being suddenly thrown into a spiteful sparring match with insults and accusations being thrown around.

It was bewildering. Maybe you were settled in for Law & Order Thursdays on City TV or maybe you were waiting for Patricia Jaggernauth’s peppy weather forecast on CP24, and then somebody was shouting at you, telling you that this fella, Steven Del Duca, is, “Back for power, not for you.” Also, that Andrea Horwath, who leads the NDP in this neck of the woods, “says one thing and does another.” Next, the NDP was telling you that Ontario Premier Doug Ford is, “Here for his buddies, not for you.”

First, after being annoyed by the vitriol, you may well have thought there’s a poverty of imagination in evidence when two competing political campaigns are using the same “not for you” slogan. Then you might have wondered if a provincial election campaign was sprung without warning. Actually, the Ontario provincial election is on June 2, 2022. But, apparently, election spending regulations allowed the nastiness to hit the airwaves for a period before November, when spending has to be curtailed for the six-month lead-in to an actual election.

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The ads presented some interesting insights, mainly about the Progressive Conservative strategy to sell Ford to the electorate next year. Those insights were bolstered by Ford’s ensuing TV appearances to announce this or that plan for Ontario. What can be extrapolated is this: Ford is being sold as a retro man, a guy who can take you back to the allegedly good old days of the 1960s or thereabouts. He is presented as a guy from the past, an Archie Bunker-type, and his plans for the future are rooted in the past. Go backward and this will make everything peachy in Ontario.

The retro vibe was in full view during the period of those nasty attack ads when Ford, speaking at a TV news conference near Windsor, Ont., said the province needed more workers and new immigrants to work here. But he had a warning for such people: “You come here like every other new Canadian has come here. You work your tail off. If you think you’re coming to collect the dole and sit around, not going to happen. Go somewhere else.”

There’s the nub of things: There was a time when it was acceptable to sneer that some new immigrants came here to sit around and collect unemployment and other benefits. That time is long gone, but Doug Ford is entirely comfortable with it. He wants to take Ontario back to that time. He’s hoping many voters want the freedom to say what they said about immigrants in the long-ago and are nostalgic for that period.

In the TV ad with the tag line “Doug Ford Says Yes”, there’s a fascinating, unsubtle subtext and message. The idea is that while other political parties say “no” to plans and proposals, Ford and his team say “yes.” What is Ford saying “yes” to, exactly? Well, now, it’s a cornucopia of retro stuff. It’s “Yes to building highways you can drive on, so you don’t sit in gridlock.” Gosh darn, folks, that’s an old idea. Just build the damn highway and the heck with these newfangled notions about environmental impact. So what if you’re paving acres of wetland, farmland and waterways? Back in the day, you built the highway and were proud to see gas-guzzling cars speeding up and down those eight-lane thoroughfares. Yeah, back when Archie Bunker’s bigotry was being tested on TV every week, but cheered on by many viewers.

There is method in what might look like the madness of the retro vibe. Ford’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis lurched all over the place. First, he was Mr. Empathy, your reactionary uncle who had the heart to say “hang in there’ when things were tough. Then he lost the plot, uncertain about openings, reopenings, restrictions and vaccination mandates. At times he’s looked like a floundering fool. But people want to put COVID-19 and all that behind them. They want the pre-COVID days back.

How far back do they want to go? Ford and his media-messaging team are betting that it’s way, way back. It’s a gamble, yet the idea of returning to 1960s Ontario could be the perfect tonic to put these recent crisis years in the rear-view mirror, as we all speed down the new highways. Besides, nostalgia worked for Donald Trump and is still working for U.S. Republicans. “Make Ontario Paved Again” is in the intimation in those TV ads. Sorry to interrupt your enjoyment of TV, but what Ford wants is what U.S. pundits, back in the day, used to call “the Archie Bunker vote.”

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