An American’s foray into Canadian affairs is generally low-risk, low-reward, with an equal possibility of light, amusing escape or an afternoon-spanning headache. So seldom has it ever been entertaining, especially its politics.
Canadians pride themselves on having — or at least they prefer to elect — leaders with a bloodless, almost technocratic bent. The best known Canadian leaders have made effective wet blanket foils to America’s Great Men: William Lyon Mackenzie King to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lester B. Pearson to Lyndon B. Johnson, Brian Mulroney to Ronald Reagan, and Jean Chrétien to Bill Clinton. From the moment Canada rejected our boorish advances — military and otherwise — this has been the relationship. The injection of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford into the zeitgeist, however, sets the expectations of both countries into something between a tailspin and a fugue state.
On the surface Rob Ford seems like an anomaly, which has not gone unnoticed. He is Canada’s “most American” politician, according to the New Republic. Gawker’s Ken Layne echoed the sentiment with the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the Etobicoke-born Mayor is in fact from Michigan. It doesn’t seem entirely far-fetched. Leaving aside the obligatory Marion Barry comparisons, the U.S. media’s cataloging of Ford’s public history has shown evidence of a closer affinity with Tea Party backbenchers than civil Canadian statesman. He campaigns as a fervent anti-tax populist, as a city councilman he preferred haranguing to deliberating, he boasts neither intellectual nor personal graces, and has been prone to make statements of profound ignorance if not flat out racism. Combine this with his appearance and his reality show train wreck-level personal history and he is, indeed, hyperbole personified; that is, an American.
Still, it is not immediately clear as to how the apportionment of disservice is to be divvied up between the two countries.
Being likened to outwardly oafish assholes, regardless of fairness, is almost entirely trivial to Americans at this point, who always have other things to worry about, and for which they feel neither pride nor shame. With Canada it is more complicated, as it always seems to be. While it seems well within reason that Canada should give someone like Stephen Harper, a man who makes Mitt Romney look like Carrot Top, three straight election victories, it has, from time to time, been enthralled with outsized, outlandish political personalities of its own. There was, in other words, a mold, though one that Rob Ford proceeded not only to break, but grind to dust.
The leading candidate for mold maker would have to be Pierre Elliott Trudeau who in 1968, after only three years in elected office, captivated Canada with his playboy lifestyle and his quirky, intellectual personality. They stuck with him for nearly sixteen years. Trudeau professed to champion reason over passion, but that did not stop him from telling an MP to “shut up” during his question period or from threatening to kick a wheat-throwing heckler in Regina “right in the ass” while giving a speech. He called a Reagan official “a Pentagon pipsqueak,” palled around with the likes of Fidel Castro and John Lennon, the night before he lost the ’79 election his wife Margaret was at Studio 54, and most famously he publicly pirouetted behind Queen Elizabeth. Canadians in turn got a few days of martial law and a lifetime of multiculturalism, The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the metric system, and his son Justin who is the current Liberal Party leader. Also he’s wearing a cape in his official portrait. If Ford is Canada’s American politician, Obama is clearly the inverse for being a much squarer version of Trudeau.
For all of Trudeau’s quirks, however, Ford is likely to have more in common with the more memorable of Canada’s provincial leaders, namely Joey Smallwood and René Lévesque, the respective former premiers of Newfoundland and Québec. Smallwood was a former journalist and radio personality whose persona was that of a self-taught, homespun dope but with a penchant for corruption and cronyism. Lévesque, also a former journalist and media personality, was a nationalist firebrand with a taste for gambling and drinking and who nearly undid his premiership in its first year when he fatally hit a homeless man with his car while driving with another woman. Nevertheless, the two are remembered today in spite of their baser attributes.
Smallwood ruled Newfoundland and Labrador for the first 22 and a half years of its existence, calling himself “the last Father of Confederation,” having won seven straight elections. Lévesque organized the Québec separatist movement into an electable party with two majority victories, and many thought he would have pulled off sovereignty (whatever that means) had he not so bitterly mocked Trudeau’s English heritage. Though sovereignty has not been achieved, his Parti Québécois is the second largest in the National Assembly and formed a minority government in 2012.
This is not to say anyone is a total equivalent to Ford. Indeed, his dysfunction is far more profound, far more grotesque, and far more public. Still, his merit as a Canadian and a politician cannot be lessened by being made a spectacle of by Americans. In apologizing for his crack use, Ford neither resigned nor withdrew his intention to run for reelection. Barring an outside removal (which has been attempted before) Ford is subjecting himself to the will of the Toronto electorate, a good portion of which remain loyal to him, especially (again like those of his supposed American counterparts) when his back is against the wall. His error can be stricken or left standing by their collective hand. Certainly by the time that comes to pass America will have moved on to countless other distractions. Ford, for his part, could do some correcting of his own by offering some semblance of a dynamic platform. It’s not like he’s got anything left to lose besides his job. Logically speaking, he could start with drug legalization.