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While Doug Ford has certainly had a tumultuous tenure as Premier, the visceral fear that preceded his first election is notably absent this time around

Illustration by Chloe Cushman

Four years ago, on the cusp of the election, there was a palpable sense of anxiety – foreboding, even – about what Doug Ford would do to the province of Ontario. His image then was closely tied to that of his late brother, Toronto mayor Rob Ford, whose tenure at city hall was a cavalcade of scandal and dysfunction that culminated in an admission that the mayor smoked crack cocaine in office, and ended with a cancer diagnosis during his bid for re-election.

But while Rob Ford was seen by Toronto progressives as something of a Wile E. Coyote figure, who would blow himself up while pursuing one of his schemes (and then ride the subway alone all night to nurse his bruised ego), older brother Doug, then a city councillor, was viewed as the more competent, more polished and thus more pernicious political figure. It was Doug, after all, who took over the family’s label and tag business from his father, Doug Ford Sr., and Doug who reportedly pulled the strings in the mayor’s office while his brother held the official title. So while Rob Ford could be counted on to accidentally run off a cliff while chasing his prey, Doug was the cartoon villain who seemed capable of going after the Roadrunner and actually killing it.

That’s why many Ontarians were genuinely troubled when Mr. Ford took the helm of the Progressive Conservatives in 2018, after the party effectively ousted Patrick Brown just months before the election. In The New York Times, Canadian writer Stephen Marche warned that if Mr. Ford became premier, he would destroy Ontario’s “quiet and stable” status quo, calling him a “tin-pot northern Trump.” Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn drew the same Donald Trump comparison, calling Mr. Ford a “populist without a plan, a loner who can’t harness a team.” The president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario said he was “fearful” of what Mr. Ford’s cuts would mean for students, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association implied in a tweet that Mr. Ford could roll back abortion rights. Across the province more generally, polling by Innovative Research found that 48 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement “Doug Ford scares me,” and 42 per cent said that they were afraid of what Mr. Ford and the PCs would do if they formed government.

A Ford supporter gets emotional at his election-night rally in Toronto in 2018.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Four years have elapsed since then, and while Mr. Ford has certainly had a tumultuous tenure as Premier, the visceral fear that preceded his first election is notably absent this time around. Indeed, at the outset of this campaign, Mr. Ford ranked highest in opinion polling of who Ontarians think would make the best premier (he polled slightly ahead of his party, which he trailed back in 2018), and he was named the party leader with whom the highest proportion of respondents would want to have a beer. Among federal Liberal voters in Ontario, 44 per cent said they were open to voting PC (and 18 per cent said they would vote PC), indicating Mr. Ford is hardly radioactive to constituents who subscribe to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Teletubbies-style of politics. In fact, a poll conducted from late April to early May found that Ontarians view Mr. Ford as more caring than both Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca and Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

Some time between 2018 and 2022, then, the Ford fear factor must have evaporated from Ontario’s public consciousness. No doubt many Ontarians still detest or dislike Mr. Ford, but the province doesn’t appear to fear him the same way it did just four years ago. The question is, over the past four years, did Mr. Ford change, or did we?

Early in Mr. Ford’s time as Premier, it seemed as though those who warned of his Trump-like affinity for chaos were correct. Within months of taking over Queen’s Park, he announced plans to shrink the size of Toronto City Council, and he said that he would use Section 33 of the Charter, the so-called “notwithstanding clause,” to do it. It didn’t appear to matter to Mr. Ford that everyone knew that this was a personal project – he was obviously trying to wrap up his brother’s unfinished business at city hall – nor did he seem to care about the democratic implications of a premier sweeping in and changing the makeup of city council shortly before a municipal election.

Crowds rally at Queen's Park in 2019 to oppose recent changes to education policy.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Then, in late 2018 and early 2019, cuts to social programs that were not announced during the campaign started trickling out of Queen’s Park. Parents were livid about a planned overhaul of the province’s autism program (the province said it would cap funding to $5,000 for children over five years old, among other changes) and about plans to increase class sizes in public schools, which would have eliminated thousands of teaching positions. The Ford government got rid of two paid sick days for Ontario workers, froze minimum wage, it cut funding to legal aid, cut Ontario’s contribution to municipal public-health units and cancelled plans for a French language university.

On top of it all, the government was plagued with patronage scandals over jobs awarded to two individuals with personal ties to Mr. Ford’s chief of staff, Dean French, and the planned appointment of Ford family friend Ron Taverner as commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police. Mr. Ford, seemingly impervious to criticism, rarely apologized, even as the controversies racked up. By mid-2019, his personal approval rating was circling the drain.

Mr. Ford at the Raptors championship parade in June, 2019, with Toronto Mayor John Tory and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

It got flushed on June 17, 2019, when Toronto took to the streets to celebrate the Raptors’ recent NBA championship victory. Mr. Ford was among other political leaders, including Mr. Trudeau and Toronto Mayor John Tory, introduced at a rally at Nathan Phillips Square, but the Premier was the only politician met with a chorus of boos when he was invited to take the stage. The response was resounding, emphatic and personally devastating for Mr. Ford. Indeed, if there is a single moment that marks his transition from unrepentant maverick then to what he appears to be now – a political leader who desperately wants to be liked – it was that moment, when tens of thousands of people paused their jubilant celebrations to offer the Premier their middle fingers.

Days later, Mr. French was out of the Premier’s office. The next month, the government announced it was backing down from its planned changes to the province’s autism program. Later that year, Mr. Ford cancelled his plan for a $31-million cut to legal aid in 2020 (after already cutting its 2019 budget by $133-million) and came up with funds to develop that French language university after all. The government reversed course on class sizes and eventually capitulated, mid-pandemic, to pressure to restore paid sick days.

Nurses take selfies with Mr. Ford at Pearson airport during the COVID-19 pandemic.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Indeed, Mr. Ford’s persona seemed to flip entirely when the pandemic hit in early 2020. Mr. Ford was out in front of cameras every day to update Ontarians about the state of COVID-19 in the province. He showed empathy: visibly emotional when talking about his mother-in-law in a long-term care home. He was resolute: publicly blasting U.S. president Donald Trump for cutting off exports of vital medical supplies. He channelled the public’s anger: decrying the “bunch of yahoos” flouting public-health rules. And he made important promises: The province would support small businesses, build an “iron ring” around long-term care, offer COVID-19 tests to everyone who needs them and listen to the experts to see the province through this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Mr. Ford, once feared by nearly half of the province, suddenly became the shepherd who would guide his flock to safety. His approval rating peaked in May, 2020, at 69 per cent.

Mr. Ford failed to follow through on many of his promises, of course. There was no “iron ring” around long-term care, and deaths during the second wave exceeded those during the first. Businesses were forced to adapt to ever-fluctuating rules around restrictions and lockdowns, and the government repeatedly reneged on commitments to keep schools open, throwing parents into last-minute scrambles to secure child care at multiple points throughout the pandemic. There were long lines for COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, confusion on rules about capacity limits and social gatherings and conflicting messages from politicians and public-health experts. The lowest pandemic point for the Ford government was in April, 2021, when it tried to make up for its laggard response to the third wave by going entirely overboard, banning access to playgrounds and allowing police to randomly stop citizens to ask why they were out of their homes. In response to massive public outcry, Mr. Ford tearfully apologized.

Mr. Ford’s failing in his handling of the pandemic, however, was not that he was a “tin-pot northern Trump” who refused to listen to anyone because he believed himself intellectually superior. Rather, it appears his problem was that he listened to everyone, striving to at once to satisfy doctors and business leaders, parents and epidemiologists, hospital administrators and teachers’ unions and anyone else who last had his ear. There were multiple points through this pandemic where it was evident that a policy decision was driven by politics, not science. But that is an impulse characteristic of a run-of-the-mill politician, not of a uniquely frightening breed that takes the form of Mr. Ford.

Mr. Ford is seen through a TV camera's eyepiece at a 2021 news conference about COVID-19.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontarians in 2022 aren’t going to fear a politician who has proven susceptible to pressure on too many issues to count, and who is now running a deficit nearly three times that run by the Kathleen Wynne Liberals during their last year in office. Mr. Ford undoubtedly looks different from the guy who campaigned in 2018 – he’s now handing out billions in the same casual way he once handed out $20 bills in a social housing complex – but perhaps part of the reason the Ford fear factor isn’t present this election is because we’ve realized we got Mr. Ford fundamentally wrong four years ago. Mr. Ford, like his brother, has always been the type of retail politician most comfortable shaking hands with voters, hosting barbecues in his mom’s backyard and handing out his personal cellphone number to grateful constituents. A retail politician won’t want to destroy the store, and certainly won’t want the majority of his customers leaving angry. It seems he just didn’t realize how far he’d strayed until he heard tens of thousands of customers yelling at him in unison.

So undoubtedly Mr. Ford has changed, but it appears we’ve changed in the way we understand Doug Ford, too. He’s not a raving maverick, but a typical politician. And while that might be a lousy characteristic in its own right, it isn’t really very scary.

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