Polite Canadians Having Trouble Laughing at Rob Ford Scandal

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Not a worthwhile initiative.

The same week last spring that Gawker first broke news of the Rob Ford crack-smoking video, I happened to attend the wedding of a dear friend in Brooklyn. He is part of a wider circle I knew as an undergraduate at McGill, so his wedding drew a large number of our upwardly mobile Toronto-dwelling contemporaries to DUMBO for a prenuptial drink. We New York exiles began gently teasing, asking the Torontonians how they enjoyed their newfound notoriety. One actually put her face in her hands. “It’s mortifying,” she said, and clearly meant it, though at the same time she was beginning to smile.

I thought of her yesterday as I watched the video of Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair delivering the news that he’d seen a video consistent with the Gawker report. “As a citizen of Toronto,” said Blair, “I’m disappointed. I know this is a traumatic issue for the citizens of this city and for the reputation of this city and that concerns me.” His grim manner was that of a man amid a siege. He couldn’t leaven things with a joke. I saw only one bit of unmitigated funny from a Toronto resident yesterday: “Sounds like the writers are really tying everything together for the season finale of Toronto.”

This new inability to laugh at Ford's antics is a big thing, actually. Where Americans might get angry and shake their fists at cable news, Canadians reflexively confront the relatively mundane incompetence of their political class with my friend’s kind of shamefaced bemusement. Getting a laugh feels productive in a country that abhors wasted time almost as much as wasted money. The problem with the Rob Ford situation, for Torontonians, is that it has now become so absurd that joking about it feels wasted, too. Like gilding a particularly ugly marble column in Donald Trump’s apartment, say.

Stripped of humor, some Torontonians are moving on to slightly more triumphant, if not entirely convincing, rhetoric. “We’re not humiliated. We’re liberated,” affirmed a friend in an e-mail yesterday. This followed hard upon an earlier e-mail, as he’s in town: “Fuck man I really need someone to drink with tonight that understands! You heard ya?” (Canadians, like Britons, believe that politics are best processed at the pub.) The others texting and e-mailing with me were more glum. “Nothing will happen,” was another terse reply. “He’ll finish his term.”

My friend is probably right; anger will get the mortified no relief. You see, for the sort of upper-middle-class person for whom the city’s catchphrase, “Toronto the Good,” actually held meaning, Rob Ford is an interloper. I don’t know anyone in Toronto who voted for him, in part because everyone’s made a point of telling me they didn’t. The party line among the well-to-do hipsters downtown is that Rob Ford was elected by populous Etobicoke, meaning the suburbs, meaning a place of huge McMansionesque houses and money made in ways that don't scream, "I have a B.A. in English literature from Queen's University." Picture a New York City mayor reared and installed by Tony Soprano’s neighborhood of Essex Country, New Jersey, and you start to get an idea of the class politics at work here.

Infuriatingly for those Torontonians, Rob Ford now represents his town. And more widely, and irritatingly to me personally, his country. He has become the thing every New Yorker asks me about in a sudden effort to demonstrate an interest in and knowledge of things Canadian. “Does Canada have two capitals? I have heard of both Toronto and Montreal,” or “How aboot that hockey, ehhhh?” have been replaced by “What do you think of that mayor who smokes crack?” I suppose that the change has been moderately refreshing, though it certainly dampens any smugness I might have claimed about the relative sanity of politics in Canada.

Torontonians feel more defensive still. A city like Montreal, or even Vancouver — places that don’t mind being outside the world media’s red eye of Sauron much of the time — would have handled the Ford fiasco with less emotional turmoil. Toronto, meanwhile, has always been a bit wounded by its tenuous status as a “world-class city.” It has not been satisfied just to be the sort of place that is so generally pleasant to live, and so politically untroubled, that to the rest of the world it is basically invisible — a Mr. Bingley to London and New York’s Mr. Darcy. Toronto longed instead to be fêted for being artsy — the home of the Art Gallery of Ontario and Feist — and progressive enough to ban plastic bags, the model of a liberal city. The “model liberal city” part is a bit dubious, of course, because damned if that place isn’t as full of self-satisfied moneyed idiots as any other major world city. But still, you can see that a crack-smoking boor of a mayor brings another kind of spotlight, and not the kind they wanted, not at all.

The funny thing is that Toronto’s inflated self-image has always gotten it ridicule from Canada, which has never loved a tall poppy. And in that context, Torontonians have adopted a suitably distancing name for the kind of larger-than-life political chicanery Ford has come to embody. “The thing about him,” a friend of mine said to me said in confiding tones when I was in Toronto in January, reporting on a rival candidate, “is that he’s just so American.