The national capital got a brief taste of the unpredictable world of Rob Ford, as the Toronto mayor announced he was skipping the afternoon session of a big-city mayors conference to have lunch with a friend and then visit a football stadium – only to scrap the sightseeing plans and return to the meeting.
Mr. Ford's presence drew rebukes from some mayors, particularly from Quebec, while others shrugged off any potential distraction caused by his attendance at the day-long Ottawa City Hall gathering.
Inside the meeting, Mr. Ford and other mayors urged federal minister Candice Bergen to boost funding for social housing, a growing area of tension between Ottawa and Canada's cities.
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which organized the meeting, is warning that $1.7-billion in annual federal spending on social housing is about to expire over the coming years and Ottawa has not said whether any funding will continue. Mr. Ford is among those calling for more housing cash, $800-million for his city alone.
But Ms. Bergen, the Minister of State for Social Development, appeared to dismiss the argument that Ottawa needs to find new money for social housing.
"They're agreements to pay mortgages, and the mortgages are coming to an end," she said. "These are mortgages that are paid off. The federal government has fulfilled their end of the agreement… It's not a cut. If any of you have a mortgage, when we're done paying a mortgage, we don't have to keep paying the bank."
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said it's not that simple.
"The problem is a lot of that housing stock is old and desperately needs investment, and there are hundreds of thousands of Canadians at risk of being on the street if that social housing is abandoned," he said.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said federal subsidies for about 5,000 of the 6,500 social housing units in Calgary will soon expire.
"We've been warning the federal government about this for years, and they seem to not be aware or not care that these programs are expiring," he said. "The clock is ticking. Time is running out."
Mr. Ford was also in agreement with other cities in calling for more federal spending on infrastructure – particularly for transit. But not all were on board with his campaign to stop Canada Post from ending door-to-door mail delivery, an issue Mr. Ford said affects him personally and that he plans on fighting.
Several of the other mayors in attendance distanced themselves from Mr. Ford and expressed concern that his presence was taking attention away from the important issues on the agenda.
Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume said Mr. Ford was "okay" and "did his job" inside the room, but made clear during a break that he did not want to be associated with the Toronto mayor. "Let's say, the only problem I have – he can behave as he wants – I have no problem with that. But I don't want to say to my people … I'm working with a guy that is mayor and is smoking crack. That's it," he said.Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre expressed a similar view. "He's got the right to be there, but I don't care about him. It's a caucus, not a circus," said Mr. Coderre. "We didn't talk to him. I didn't shake his hand. I didn't look at him."
Mr. Ford brushed it aside.
"I thought I got along well with all the mayors. I didn't think I was a distraction. I spoke my mind on the subways. I spoke my mind on the budget. I spoke my mind on the $14-billion [federal infrastructure] plan. Not all of us agreed on that, but I'm not here to ridicule the Conservative government. I think they've treated Toronto well," he said.
Mayor Hazel McCallion, hailing from Mississauga, just west of Toronto, said Mr. Ford is the elected mayor and was welcome at the meeting. "I think Mayor Ford made a contribution today, especially on social housing," she said.
A spokesperson for Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group confirmed that Mr. Ford's office made a request "late Tuesday afternoon" to tour Ottawa's new CFL stadium, but the request was turned down because it is an active construction site. Mr. Ford's spokesperson Amin Massoudi told The Globe the mayor was still planning on driving by the site in the afternoon, but decided to return to the meeting to attend Ms. Bergen's presentation.
With a report from Ann Hui