Canada's big city mayors are vowing not to let Rob Ford's presence detract attention from an important gathering on social housing and infrastructure as the Toronto mayor attends his first national gathering of municipal leaders.
Mr. Ford criticized such meetings for years as a waste of money, but told reporters he will use Wednesday's session in Ottawa to push for many of the same issues as his fellow mayors, such as more federal support for public transit and social housing.
The scandal-plagued mayor of Canada's biggest city will face a cool reception from his counterpart in the country's second largest city, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre.
"I'm not going to give him any importance, because he doesn't deserve any," Mr. Coderre told The Globe and Mail in an interview. "I'm not going to be with that guy. ... I don't think he's a model of municipal power."
The Big City Mayors' Caucus is a gathering of 22 mayors organized by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. Mr. Ford's decision to attend came as a surprise, given that he has previously dismissed the FCM as a "lefty caucus" and derided Toronto city councillors for "having a good time" at taxpayer expense while attending FCM meetings.
Many of the mayor's powers were taken away last year by city council and handed to Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly after Mr. Ford admitted smoking crack cocaine. However, Mr. Kelly has issued a statement saying he will not attend Wednesday's meeting.
At a news conference in Toronto, Mr. Ford said he will tap "his contacts up in Ottawa" to request new federal cash for projects like a downtown relief subway line and social housing.
"I realize that we need this funding to help the poor people out who live in Toronto Community Housing, the gridlock problems that we face in this city," he said.
Mr. Ford has a personal friendship with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who is out of the country this week.
The federal government is on the verge of a pre-election spending spree, with a new Building Canada infrastructure fund set to begin on April 1. The 10-year, $14-billion fund was announced in the 2013 budget, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper released the details only this month. The big city mayors are concerned that $4-billion of it will go to undefined "projects of national significance" and $1-billion to projects in communities with fewer than 100,000 residents.
"A cynic would say [the fund for small communities] is because that's the political base of the governing party," said Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, who will host the mayors at Ottawa City Hall. "I think probably small municipalities certainly do have their own set of challenges, but I think you could equally argue the big cities have equal challenges, because the magnitude of the projects that we're looking at are so massive that we can't simply rely on the property tax base to pay for these major transit and waste-water and water projects."
As for Mr. Ford, Mr. Watson said he hopes the Toronto mayor's visit will not be a distraction.
"My view is that we're focused on issues of substance, such as affordable housing and infrastructure, and we're not going to get sidetracked by political or personal situations happening in other cities," he said.
Federal Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel defended Ottawa's spending plan, referring to it in a statement as the largest infrastructure plan in Canadian history.
Saskatoon Mayor Donald Atchison is shrugging off Mr. Ford's past attendance record and is not bothered by his counterpart's new-found enthusiasm for the FCM in an election year.
"Any duly elected mayor of one of Canada's big cities has the right to attend these meetings," said Richard Brown, Mr. Atchison's chief communications officer.
Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said his priorities will be housing, rail safety and changes to Canada Post mail delivery, which he hopes will not be overshadowed by attention on Mr. Ford.
"I would hope that in all of the hullabaloo that we will actually have some really good discussions about housing and how to make sure that housing doesn't get forgotten over the next few years," he said.
At Toronto City Hall Tuesday, Councillor Paula Fletcher questioned whether Mr. Ford is the best person to represent the city.
"You know what, it's all very political, isn't it? It's an election year. He's still trying to let people know he feels he's the mayor," she said. "We are still in the same kind of difficult time for everybody, for council and for the city, regarding the mayor and what's gone on in his personal life."
With reports from Carrie Tait in Calgary and Jane Taber in Halifax