Hurricane Doug

Why Doug Ford’s victory isn’t actually a decisive win for populism in Canada.

By Ira Wells

Tagged CanadaconservatismpoliticsPopulism

For some, the election of Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative (PC) party in last week’s Ontario provincial election will mark the fated moment when Trump-style populism came to Canada. Read in the light of Brexit and surging popularity of nationalist and far-right parties across Europe (seen most recently in an Italian election that produced a coalition between the anti-establishment 5-Star and League parties), Ford’s ascendance may seem bound up in a grand historical narrative. All the familiar populist tropes were at play in Ford’s victory: a leader contemptuous of the media and cultural “elites,” a groundswell of resentment against the political class, and deep economic insecurity related to the decades-long hollowing out of the manufacturing sector.

There’s no denying the scale of Ford’s victory. His PC party won 76 seats, 13 more than they needed to form a majority government. While downtown Toronto remains an enclave for the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP)—now the official opposition with 50 seats—Ford won just about everything else, including the crucial band of (area code) “905” suburbs surrounding Canada’s largest city. The Ontario Liberal Party, led by Kathleen Wynne, Canada’s first openly LGBT premier, were virtually wiped off the electoral map: with just seven seats, the Liberals Party can no longer even call itself a “party” under provincial rules. Given the momentous desire for political change, and the strongly anti-establishment tone set by the PC party, it’s no wonder that this election will be regarded as the first major Canadian outbreak of the right-wing populism sweeping the globe.

In reality, however, Doug Ford’s ascent was far from inevitable—indeed, it was almost accidental, like the product of a political chaos theory. Like the hypothetical hurricane in Texas caused by butterfly flapping its wings in China, Ford’s election followed a nonlinear chain of highly unpredictable events.

In late 2017, Doug Ford was a marginal figure in Canadian politics. The uneducated heir of a lucrative printing dynasty, Ford had served a single, belligerent term on city council in the trainwreck administration led by his brother Rob—who had made international headlines for smoking crack cocaine and other lewd behavior while in office. After a failed bid to succeed Rob as Toronto’s mayor, Doug seemed consigned to the political wilderness. The Ontario PC party had been led, since 2015, by Patrick Brown, a moderate, “small-c” conservative who had embraced a carbon tax to fight climate change and bore none of the trappings of contemporary populism. Federally, Justin Trudeau was busy admitting record numbers of Syrian refugees, liberalizing drug laws, and generally presiding over the most progressive Canadian government in a generation. The Ford moment, such as it was, seemed to have passed.

Then the proverbial butterfly flapped its wings. In October of 2017, the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Amidst the ensuing flood of charges that claimed the careers of Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and others accused of abuse and sexual impropriety, two women came forward to accuse Patrick Brown of sexual misconduct. Brown denied the allegations and sued the media organization that reported on them. He hired a private investigator to help him clear his name. One of his accusers subsequently changed her story, claiming that she was not, in fact, in high school when the incident allegedly took place (more than ten years ago). But it was the very existence of the accusations, rather than their veracity, that mattered, and Patrick Brown’s brand was approaching Kevin Spacey levels of toxicity. In late January he stepped down as the PC leader, providing Doug Ford with a path to power.

Yet even with Brown out of the way, Ford still faced an uphill battle to defeat leadership candidates Christine Elliott (an establishment candidate who enjoyed a lead in the polls) and Caroline Mulroney, daughter of former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who entered the race with great fanfare. When the PCs held their leadership convention on March 11, Christine Elliott won both the popular vote and a majority of the ridings in the province. Yet thanks to a byzantine preferential ballot system in which rural voters held the balance of power, Ford narrowly squeaked out a slim majority of points in the third round. Elliot’s team initially refused to concede, citing “serious irregularities” in a vote in which “entire towns” had voted in the wrong riding. In the end, however, Elliott had little choice but to throw her support behind Ford.

Throughout the tumultuous leadership process, and during the following election, Doug Ford’s candidacy was distinguished by a conspicuous lack of concrete policy detail. He never released a fully costed platform. Instead, he promised the return of “buck a beer” at Ontario government liquor stores. He promised to roll back a new sex education curriculum, which had been updated by the Liberal government to include information on affirmative consent and digital literacy. He maintained that his first action as premier would be to fire the chief of Hydro One, in a transparent ploy to capitalize on Ontarian’s anger over high gas prices. Above all, he promised to put money “back in the pockets” of taxpayers. A Ford government would cut hydro rates, lower taxes by 20 percent, create a tax credit for parents,  all without cutting a single job: Instead, he would find “efficiencies.”

Ford didn’t have to show his math on these promises because the numbers were in some sense beside the point. Also beside the point was Ford’s own lack of qualifications and his profound ignorance about the working of the government he would lead. Ford was consistently unable to answer basic questions from reporters, such as how a bill becomes a law. His campaign careened from one scandal to the next. A PC candidate resigned after the personal information of 60,000 people was allegedly stolen through his workplace. An audio recording surfaced of Ford allegedly trying to sell “bogus memberships” to secure a PC candidate in his riding. Shortly before the election, Renata Ford, Rob Ford’s widow, filed a $16.5-million lawsuit alleging that her brother-in-law had “so negligently and improperly managed (the business affairs of Deco) as to destroy their value.” “Neither Doug Ford nor (brother) Randy Ford have the education and business ability,” the lawsuit claims, “to justify their employment as senior officers of Deco.” Three days after the revelation of the lawsuit, Ontarians elected Ford the leader of their province.

What’s most alarming about Doug Ford is not that he is desperately unqualified, or a thug who reportedly sold drugs for several years in the 1980s, or a proud ignoramus who salivates at the prospect of closing libraries (though he is all those things). What’s most alarming about the victory is the near certainty that, for the next several years, our provincial politics will be upended by the usual Ford chaos—the lawsuits, scandals, protests, and outrages that threaten to engulf our politics. Ford is the product of chaos, but he is also an instigator of it—and for the next 5 years, chaos will reign as our shared condition.

But while Ford’s election is unsettling and possibly calamitous, it was not inevitable. The bizarre series of events that conspired to launch Ford into power were impossible to foresee in this election and will be impossible to replicate in the next one. The PC’s 76 seats sound impressive. Yet it won those seats on the strength of 40.5 percent of the 58.4 percent of the Ontarians who voted. Translation: Fewer than one in four Ontarians actually voted for Ford’s PC party. Ford will undoubtedly conduct himself with characteristic bombast once installed in Queen’s Park. But with less than one quarter of the province actually behind him, one suspects it won’t take long for the political winds to shift. Who knows when the next butterfly will flap its wings, or if it already has?

Read more about CanadaconservatismpoliticsPopulism

Ira Wells teaches literature and cultural criticism at the University of Toronto. His work has appeared in The New Republic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Puritan, among others.

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