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The return of Ford Nation

Don't underestimate the Fords, writes Marcus Gee, the alienation that fuels their movement still lingers

Rob Ford supporters during the 2014 Toronto election.

Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee

It is a Friday night in Etobicoke and the tribe that calls itself Ford Nation is gathering for its annual love-in.

Hundreds of Ford fans crowd the vast suburban backyard of the family seat on Weston Wood Road. Some join the line for burgers that circles behind the swimming pool.

Others wait for plastic cups of beer near the statue of bronzed, topless maidens holding a giant urn over their heads.

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This is Ford Fest, "Canada's largest backyard BBQ," where "Everything is FREE." Big, blond Doug Ford is announcing that he is running for mayor of Toronto next year. Flanked by his mother, wife and four daughters, he works the crowd into a nice lather with standard Ford vows to end tax grabs, cut waste at city hall and stop "the war on the car." John Tory, the current mayor is "all talk and broken promises," he says. "Together we are going to take this city back."

For the third straight election, a Ford is after the city's top job. Can this really be happening again? Could Toronto possibly elect another mayor Ford?

A parade participant greets Doug Ford during the Grand Parade at the Caribbean Carnival in Toronto in August.

At first it seems wildly unlikely. The chaos and scandal of the Rob Ford years are still fresh memories. A sensible city would avoid his older brother like something contagious. He may not suffer from the personal demons that drove Rob to disgrace himself and embarrass the city, but he is just as poorly informed, just as boastful, just as divisive. Doug, the glad-handing leader of the family business, lacks the awkward, outsider quality that was part of Rob's attraction.

Mr. Ford would be running against an incumbent mayor who can claim to have returned sanity and civility to city hall, a point that Mr. Tory is already pressing when he is asked about a Ford challenge. Very early polling for the Oct. 22, 2018, vote suggests that he would beat Mr. Ford easily in a head-to-head contest.

And yet …

It would be dangerous to write off the Fords and their followers as a spent force. Events south of the border show how potent that crude populism of their kind can be. Few thought a man such as Donald Trump could become president of the world's most powerful country, just as few thought Rob Ford could become mayor of Canada's biggest city.

Rob Ford addresses the crowd of supporters at his mayoral campaign kick-off at the Toronto Congress Centre in 2014.

If their appeal is often hard to understand, it is also easy to underestimate.

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Remember that even right in the wake of the Ford scandal, Doug won 34 per cent of the vote when he took over from an ailing Rob and ran for mayor. Those recent polls put him around the same level today. A third of the city is in his corner.

Anybody who has watched the Fords in action has to marvel at the loyalty and enthusiasm they inspire. A dedicated, fired-up base is gold in politics. The following they built was the first real movement that Toronto politics has seen since the reform movement of the 1970s. It didn't just dry up and blow away after Doug lost to Mr. Tory in 2014. Rob Ford's sad, early death from cancer in 2016 gave his movement a martyr.

The "mayor of heaven," as his young daughter called him, now hovers over every Ford Nation gathering. Ford sidekick Giorgio Mammoliti, a city councillor, told the Ford Fest crowd that he talks to Rob in his prayers and "he wants us to finish what he started." Doug, too, said that Rob was looking down from above with a big smile on his face. "Rob," he said as he announced his run for mayor, "this one is gonna be for you."

To the Ford crowd, it barely matters that their late champion was at the centre of the most lurid scandal to hit Canadian politics in recent history. True believers insist they could not care less about the infamous crack affair. No one is perfect. Everyone has skeletons in the closet. It was just a personal matter, with no bearing on his performance. He was a great mayor all the same. That is what they say.

Rob Ford supporters hold signs as Ford is seen on a video screen during his 2014 campaign kick off.

It is tempting to sneer at all this. More than tempting: it is entirely justified. Rob Ford not only smoked crack cocaine while he was mayor, he consorted with criminal types while lecturing youths to stay out of trouble, uttered all kinds of vile slurs and misled the city for months after the scandal broke, with Doug backing him all the way. The man who claimed to be the hardest-working person at city hall and the best mayor Toronto ever had was often AWOL and only half engaged in the job even he when he turned up for work.

These are the facts, and it's disturbing that so many people in this city don't accept them. But, in the end, sneering won't do much good. The Fords can't be wished away. Better to try to understand their movement, where it came from and why it is still a force in Toronto politics. The Fords tapped into something real, a seam of discontent and even bitterness about the way this city, and by extension, our society, works. That sense of grievance is still out there, unappeased.

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Like Donald Trump, Rob Ford put together a coalition of the resentful. Some are older suburbanites who think that the glittering downtown gets all the attention and money. They feel their whole lifestyle is under attack, as if their lawns and garages are something they should feel ashamed about.

Others are newcomers to Canada scrambling for a foothold on the ladder of success. They like the Ford message of lower taxes and less red tape. The Fords come across to them as regular guys who don't put on airs, though the family is well off. Still others are simply fed up with big government and ready to vote for anyone who promises to cut it down to size. It is a mistake to dismiss them all as deluded zealots, even if a number are precisely that.

Whatever their background or beliefs, they feel as if they have been left outside the tent: ignored by the powers that be, disdained by the media and popular culture, their views and way of life thoroughly disrespected. It's not a good feeling. Shouty, know-nothing populism is not the answer – the Trump mess has proved that in a hurry – but their anger is genuine.

Stephen Handler, a Rob Ford supporter wears his support for the mayor proudly while waiting outside Ford’s city hall office on June 2014.

You don't need to look very hard to encounter it. The gateway to Ford country is the intersection of Dundas Street West and Scarlett Road. Coming from downtown, the railway underpass there is like a portal to another world. Passing through, you leave behind the craft breweries, coffee bars and yoga studios of the Junction a few blocks away and find a rolling golf course, slab apartment towers and street upon street of postwar suburban houses with basketball hoops in the driveway. If you live downtown it's easy to forget that most of Toronto, in all its vastness, is like this.

Drive for a few minutes and you reach a shopping plaza with a bank, pizza joint, coin laundry, dollar store and beer store. John Bosa, 47, a burly former boxer who works as an aircraft mechanic, is picking up a couple of beers. He liked Rob Ford – "he fought for everybody" – and thinks Doug would do a good job, too. The taxes, he says, are crazy. Governments "give with one hand and take with another." An immigrant from Uganda, he worries about today's newcomers. "I see them coming in every day. I don't know how they're going to live. It's a powder keg."

Forklift driver Gary Byng, 61, is getting on his electric scooter when he stops to talk. He says he is fed up with a world where the state tells everyone what to do and no one has an independent thought. The Fords, he says, stand out. Unlike John Tory, who "always has his finger in the air" to test which way the wind is blowing, they say what they think and do what they say.

Out here, the condo canyons, clanging streetcars and all-night arts festivals of downtown seem light years away. Many people worry about paying for new running shoes for their kids. They want the potholed roads fixed. They would like a break on their taxes. It makes them see red when city hall wants to put a bike lane – a bike lane! – on a street that is already so crowded they can barely get to work on time.

Gail Chernesky kisses a sign at Doug Ford’s election night headquarters in 2014.

It meant a lot to them that Rob Ford answered complaint calls himself and even came around in person to see about a missed garbage pickup or a broken elevator in a public housing estate. That may not have made him an effective mayor – he was terrifically ineffective, despite all his claims – but to them it meant he cared about the daily concerns of the average person.

His brother is (knock on wood) a long shot for mayor. But there is still a market in Toronto for what he is selling. An awful lot of people think that government keeps growing and growing and taking and taking, without much to show for it. An awful lot think that most of what comes out of the mouths of politicians is mush. An awful lot feel that a cozy little group sits on the top of the heap in this city.

It is hard to argue that they are all wrong. Even if Toronto rejects Doug Ford, it would be wise to listen to Ford Nation.

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