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Toronto mayor too busy meeting with Leafs GM to attend Pride event

Don Fraser voices his displeasure with Mayor Rob Ford's no show during the launch of Pride week.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

It seemed a political gimme: Walk a few short steps from his city hall office, say a few kind words about the country's biggest gay pride festival and swiftly neutralize growing resentment over his seeming disregard for Toronto's gay community.

Instead, Mayor Rob Ford further goaded critics who have labelled him a homophobe, snubbing a Pride Toronto flag-raising at Nathan Philips Square that turned unruly in his absence.

But anger over his non-attendance soon turned to bewilderment, as Mr. Ford revealed that he'd been too busy meeting with Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, one of Canada's most prominent gay-rights supporters, to attend the event.

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The no-show followed an admission last week that he would skip marching in the Pride parade - a mayoral custom for so long it's considered part of the job description - to spend time at the Ford family cottage.

His absence was all the more notable for the presence of several rank-and-file conservatives, including former mayoral candidates John Tory and Rocco Rossi, along with councillors Karen Stintz, Michael Thompson and Cesar Palacio, proof that Pride has become neutral territory for politicians of all stripes.

"When you're the mayor, you should attend," said Mr. Tory, who expressed hope that Mr. Ford make up for his no-show by attending another Pride function over the coming week.

Wearing a Leafs jersey bearing his last name, the mayor appeared briefly outside his office to account for his absence, explaining that he'd been too busy meeting Mr. Burke, who marched in the Pride parade last year mere months after his openly gay son died in a car crash.

"I had prior commitments this morning," Mr. Ford said. "I had a meeting, a very important meeting, as you know, with Mr. Burke and that's pretty well it."

Neither man would say if the pride flap came up during their meeting.

"I believe I am entitled to meet with the mayor of this city without divulging what we discussed," Mr. Burke said. "I'm not an elected official."

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While Pride may not have been Mr. Ford's priority on Monday, his absence soon took precedence for the 200 or so people in attendance at the ceremonial raising of the rainbow flag over city hall. The mayor's stand-in, city council speaker Frances Nunziata, faced a chorus of jeers as she took the stage to read aloud a mayoral proclamation.

"Where's the mayor, where's the mayor?" some yelled. "Sit down, Frances, you're an embarrassment. … We want the mayor … Where's the mayor that was elected to represent the whole city, not just Etobicoke? … The mayor's a homophobe."

The crowd settled down only after Toronto's only openly gay councillor, Kristyn Wong-Tam, asked for calm, a request that met with cheers loud enough to drown out the hecklers.

But the catcalls only amplified when Ms. Nunziata, sounding as if she were experiencing an existential crisis, began reading the proclamation: "… be it resolved I, Mayor Rob Ford … "

The protesters eventually quieted their voices but not their sentiments.

"He doesn't have the political savvy to know that a gesture like this would really ameliorate the problem he has caused by refusing to be part of the Pride parade," one of the hecklers, Richard Warner, said. "If he had just come here today, it would have calmed things down and put out the fire a bit."

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His fellow protesters waved signs bearing such slogans as 'You Can't Hide From Us 4Eva, Respect LGBTQ Taxpayers.' Another woman brandished a sign that read "I'm Not Here" and strutted about wearing a paper mask in Mr. Ford's likeness and a large fake gut.

Following the ceremony, Ms. Nunziata said the catcalling didn't faze her. "I accept bullying, I get that all the time as speaker of council," she said. "I'm here, I'm representing the mayor, I'm representing the city of Toronto and that's what matters."

Ms. Wong-Tam doubted the mayor's absence would overshadow the rest of the event while politely urging him to attend any other Pride festivities, which carry on until July 3.

"He's got seven days to go," she said. "Unless every minute of every hour is filled, I think the mayor can come in … even 10 minutes to drop in and say 'greetings' would be fine."

For his part, the mayor didn't rule out his attendance at a future Pride event, but didn't exactly sound thrilled at the prospect.

"We'll take it one day at a time," he said. "I'm very busy."

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