After Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister in 2015, Canada found itself praised for being an island of progressivism in a world increasingly plagued by ugly nationalisms. The millennial-friendly leader, who filled his cabinet with people of color and women, and knew his way around a yoga mat, seemed to be the West’s most conspicuous practitioner of woke politics.
“The North Star,” gushed Rolling Stone, whose editors put him on its cover.
It’s easy to forget that the last Canadian politician before Trudeau to garner global celebrity was Toronto’s brawling, crack-smoking mayor Rob Ford, who became the butt of late-night talk show jokes and yet revealed a heavyweight boxer’s capacity to remain standing in the face of one scandalous body blow after another.
If Rob Ford (who died in 2016) strangely anticipated Donald Trump, it’s doubly strange that this June, his elder brother Doug, a boastful and ultra-conservative admirer of the 45th president, (whom he said he would vote for) may well be elected premier of Ontario, the heavily urbanized economic hub of Canada.
This spring, Ford — who has long run his family’s label printing business — rapidly emerged as the leader of Ontario’s right-leaning Progressive Conservatives after his predecessor was felled by a sexual misconduct scandal. Although he’s campaigning to lead Canada’s wealthiest province, his only electoral experience was a controversy-plagued four-year stint as a Toronto city councilor and a failed mayoral run in 2014. He and his brother left a hot mess in the city’s transit plans that will take years to repair. While he was in office, The Globe and Mail published detailed accounts of Ford’s lucrative drug-dealing practice in the 1980s and documented ethical transgressions that drew sanctions from the city’s ethics commissioner.
For all that, Ford continues to enjoy substantial name recognition and his popularity, stoked by talk radio, extends well beyond the city. His recent attacks on Toronto “elites” and the media seem like conscious evocations of the bully-boy rhetoric Trump used to great advantage in his 2016 campaign. And his crude style – he once pledged to give his own party an “enema” – hasn’t backfired on him, yet.
But the road to victory runs through Greater Toronto’s suburbs, communities that have some of Canada’s largest communities of newcomers from China, South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and the Caribbean. These suburbs, known as “the 905” for their area code, are widely seen as the deciding factor in Ontario elections, and mostly backed the center-left Liberals in the 2014 campaign.
The question hanging over this election is whether it is possible for a fiercely right-wing populist, who has actively courted Ontario’s social conservatives, to run a campaign that avoids the sort of nativist, anti-immigrant tropes that swept Trump into office and ensured a win for the Brexit forces in the United Kingdom.“There are a lot of parallels between Doug Ford and Donald Trump, but one of the differences is their orientation towards immigration and populations of diversity,” says Myer Siemiatycki, a political scientist and immigration expert at Toronto’s Ryerson University.
Pollster Darrell Bricker, CEO of IPSOS Public Affairs, describes Ford as an “emphatic reaction” against a Liberal government that’s been in power since 2003 but avoids scapegoating immigrants and racialized minorities. “The whole nativist thing isn’t there,” he contends. While Ford has a 7 percent lead over the Liberals in the polls, that margin grows to 11 percent in the GTA suburbs, Bricker adds. “It’s on the edge.”
In theory, it should be politically suicidal for Ford to ran an anti-immigrant campaign. Half of the Toronto region’s 6.5 million residents were born abroad. Public opinion in Canada remains mostly supportive of immigration. Last year, one of Canada’s national parties, the left-leaning New Democrats, chose as its leader Jagmeet Singh, a young Brampton, Ont., lawyer who wears a ceremonial Sikh turban and beard. (He’s merely the latest Sikh Canadian to attain national political success.)
During the 2015 federal election, former prime minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives ran a campaign rich with dog whistles (his government boasted about setting up a “barbaric practices hotline”) and were promptly roasted at the polls. After Harper resigned, one of the candidates seeking to succeed him doubled down on that positioning – she promised that all newcomers would be required to submit to a “Canadian values” test – and had her head handed to her by the party members.
Yet there’s no guarantee that Ford, an undisciplined politician, will cleave to these demographic or electoral realities. In recent days, for example, he went out of his way to shun a planned leaders’ debate hosted by a Toronto-area black organization. Over the weekend, he drew boos during a speech to a Somali group during which he promised to reinstate an anti-gang police task force that had been intensely criticized for over-policing poor neighborhoods with large black populations (the Liberal government had pulled the plug on the task force).
Roger Keil, a York University urban geographer who studies politics and planning in Toronto’s suburbs, adds that when Ford was running for mayor, he didn’t exactly race to defend an opponent, a longtime local and federal politician named Olivia Chow, who came in for nasty racial attacks – just one of several that marred that election.“He never made an attempt to put himself between the racist and sexist overtones,” says Keil. “The real Doug Ford is a mean, clever strategist who has demonstrated time and again that he knows exactly what he’s doing.”
Bricker argues that in a so-called “change election,” Ford would be wise to cleave to issues that animate Ontarians – high energy prices and government overspending – while positioning himself as a candidate who espouses values that appeal to many newcomers: bootstrap entrepreneurialism and low taxes.
While Ford has tried to walk it back in recent days, his unambiguous professions of admiration for a president who remains deeply unpopular among Canadians may come back to haunt him as the election picks up steam. “It was really a kind of dumb thing for him to say,” concedes Bricker. And one that calls into question whether Ford can actually style himself as a made-in-Canada populist capable of resisting the clarion call of the race card.
John Lorinc (@johnlorinc) is a Toronto-based journalist who writes about politics and urban affairs. He is senior editor of Spacing Magazine.