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Toronto Rob Ford makes first public event appearance since hospitalization at Ford Fest

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford addresses the crowd at Ford Fest in Toronto on Sept. 27.

Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford made his first appearance at a public event since his hospitalization at the annual Ford Fest family barbecue Saturday, in support of brother Doug, who he described as "the next mayor of Toronto."

Flanked by brother Doug, wife Renata and his two kids, an energetic looking mayor took the stage in an Etobicoke field at about 7:30 p.m. Saturday, wearing a black suit and sporting a shorter haircut, and shouting to the crowd "I love you, Ford Nation."

Since his hospitalization in mid-September and subsequent diagnosis with liposarcoma -- a rare form of cancer -- the mayor has not been seen at public events. His arrival Saturday at the annual Ford Fest family barbecue was met by at least a thousand supporters -- many of them wearing "Ford Mayor" T-shirts -- shouting "Ford More Years! Ford More Years!" The mayor arrived at the barbecue a few hours after it started, driving himself and his family in his black Escalade.

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"I have to take a bit of a break. My health does come first," the mayor said, his voice sounding hoarse but strong. "That doesn't mean I'm out of the race."

The mayor's hospitalization sparked a dramatic shift in the mayoral race, with Rob dropping out and Doug jumping in last-minute to run in his place — and Saturday's Ford Fest serving as the first major event of Doug's two-week-old campaign. The mayor is now instead running for council in his old Etobicoke ward.

Onstage, the mayor vowed to return to "take care" of Ward 2 after dealing with his health issues, and appealed to his supporters to back brother Doug for mayor in the October 27 election. He listed off a series of his accomplishments during his time as mayor, crediting those to both him and "best friend" Doug.

"Doug Ford is going to be the next mayor of Toronto," the mayor said.

Doug, who stood beside his brother throughout the speech, then took the mic to say "Rob, I promise I won't let you down."

The outspoken councillor went on to call himself a "straight-talker," and said "my job is to get things done for the people. And that takes a backbone." He also slammed rival and front-runner John Tory, accusing the former businessman of not understanding the average resident.

Since jumping into the race, Doug's campaign has been fairly scarce — only holding a handful of press conferences, and attending just one debate.

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And though the attendance at Saturday's Etobicoke Ford Fest was notably lighter than the event in Scarborough just two months ago, several attendees Saturday said it shouldn't be blamed on the Ford switch on the ballot.

"Both of them will be part of one," said Maria Zambrano, who said she attends Ford Fest each year. "Like brothers, they're always going to be together and have the same idea."

And Rosario Jimenez said that she, too, was a Rob Ford supporter who has since thrown her support behind Doug. "They are better than the other candidates. The other candidates only promise, promise, but nothing happens," she said. "Doug Ford, when he promises, he does it."

Noel and Desdemona Gomez, meanwhile, brought their whole family from Scarborough in hopes of passing on their best wishes to the ailing mayor. Ms. Gomez, who carried with her a small bouquet of yellow flowers which she hoped to pass to the mayor, said she wanted to "wish him all the best with everything."

Her daughter Naomi Del Signore, meanwhile, said "It takes a very strong man to stand in his position and last through everything he's been through."

Not everyone at the event was supportive, however.

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A performance artist who identified himself as Michael Dunbar Jr., carried a large sign with the word "Folks" written on it in bold letters. When asked about it, he said sarcastically "We're here to support Doug. When he rails against the elites, it's something that we really stand for. Whenever he says the word 'folks' or repeats 'subways, subways, subways,' it's an almost yogic-like chat. The more he repeats it, the more it resonates with me."

He added a few moments later: "I cannot comment on an investigative performance artist that I have not seen or may not exist."

Diane Ford, the mother of both Rob and Doug who for many years hosted Ford Fest in her own backyard, was brief when asked to describe Saturday's event. "Bittersweet."

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