A blunt message for Canadian progressives

A coalition of ethnic minorities, faith groups, fiscal conservatives and struggling families have elected an unlikely mayor of Toronto.
Michael Coren | Oct 27 2010 | comment  

Rob Ford, the new mayor of Toronto / National Post

Toronto is arguably the most liberal city in North America. That it is in Canada, of course, already puts it ahead in the “progressive” league table. The country has same-sex marriage, an all-embracing welfare state, a national public television and radio broadcaster and several provincial stations that are publicly funded. It has socialised medicine and a law that prevents any private alternative, aggressive human rights commissions where truth is no defence if minority communities complain they have been offended and an obsession with diversity, multiculturalism, peacekeeping and secularism. Toronto is the largest city in the country and boasts that it’s far more enlightened and left-wing than Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa or any other Canadian urban centre.

Yet in a municipal election held last week and one that was more heated than any other in recent memory 47 percent of the electorate who bothered to vote gave their backing to Rob Ford, an overweight, fiscal conservative, football coach, anti-leftist populist who has been accused of insensitivity to homosexuals, ethnic minorities, women and pretty much anyone else the left can conjure up to dent his reputation. His main opponent was an openly Gay man who mentions his “husband” an awful lot and is often photographed with their adopted son. His name is George Smitherman and he is also a darling of the chattering classes and the media. He is, in other words, a political insider with connections in all sorts of high and influential places.

One of the great paradoxes of this dramatic result is that the very ethnic and religious diversity that left-wingers has sponsored and encouraged in Toronto for more than 40 years turned around and bit them on the behind. Tamils, Muslims, Africans, West Indians and many other groups refused to do what white liberals told them. They implied, and sometimes openly shouted, that they do not support homosexual marriage, are not fans of sexual decadence and do not think that the white left is always correct.

Ford was accused of racism by his opponents because he made some well-meaning but still crass comments about certain ethnics groups working particularly hard. The thing is, he was speaking for huge numbers of old Canadians who do indeed admire the work ethic of certain immigrant groups but are told by the wealthy elites that this just as racist and horrible as making a joke about slavery! It’s not, and the first people to tell you that are members of ethnic groups who have sadly far too often lost their voices to white progressives who like their ethnic friends the best and most when they vote for the Liberal Party.

So a staggering new coalition of suburban voters, ethnic minorities, serious and genuine faith groups and fiscal conservatives came together and not only elected Rob Ford but put him into office by a landslide. That his opponent George Smitherman was angrily backed by the country’s upmarket media and that they subjected Ford to the most repugnant personal attacks in recent Canadian political history makes all of this the more enjoyable.

There are obvious echoes of the Tea Party movement here, as well as the campaign in favour of traditional marriage in California that managed to harness grassroots support from similar groups. The conclusion is that if Toronto can do it, anyone and anywhere can. To a certain degree that is true but the qualification here is that the mayor is a first among equals on Toronto’s powerful city council and many socialist councillors were re-elected. The wave of public discontent was sufficient to sweep one man into office but, apart from one or two other surprise defeats for the old left, did not change the political composition of the city’s ruling class. It was, though, a start. And what a start.

What we learn from the Toronto election is that there is often no point in apologising for what the other side accuses you of or even defending yourself against most of their accusations. Ford stayed on message. “Stop the gravy train” was the rallying cry and while it was a little simplistic and became almost annoying by the end of the long campaign it certainly worked. The left said he was a clown, a buffoon, a homophobe, a racist, a reactionary. His response? “Stop the gravy train.” The mainstream media accused him of making tax-cutting promises that were empty and alleged that he had a drink-driving conviction and had been charged with domestic violence. His response? “Stop the gravy train.”

It’s unclear if this was political brilliance or sheer inability to react in any other way but it certainly worked. The number of times Ford was insulted for being overweight is beyond counting. He could have replied with comments about opponent Smitherman’s former drug addiction or asked why he agreed to be profiled in a prominent Toronto magazine by a known defender of paedophilia but he didn’t. Character assassination alienates voters and it’s used far too readily in US politics in particular.

What happens now will tell us much. There is no Tea Party in Canada and Canadians are simply not as polarised or anti-statist as their cousins to the south. What they are is good, moral, instinctive and tired of being manipulated. It is these attributes that can bring new movements and new electoral blocs into being. Once activated they take an awful lot of stopping. The train moves and won’t slow down for anything – as long as it’s not full of gravy.

Michael Coren is a broadcaster and writer living in Toronto, Canada.

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