Philip Preville: Ford Nation is not who you think it is

Philip Preville: Ford Nation is not who you think it is

Crackgate revealed that the city’s crippling political divide isn’t between downtowners and suburbanites—it’s between the rich and the poor, and it’s only getting worse

Philip Preville: Champion of the Working Class

What will it take for Ford Nation to abandon their man? That’s become one of the great riddles of our time. In late May, as lurid stories swirled of crack videos, hashish trafficking, murders, firings and resignations—all coming on the heels of Ford’s lawsuits, the alleged ass grab and a reported removal from a military ball for drunken behaviour—a Forum Research poll showed that 40 per cent of Toronto voters continue to be die-hard Ford supporters. Among those who voted for the mayor in 2010, 75 per cent still approved of his job performance. The anti-Ford camp tends to explain this stubborn refusal to accept mounting evidence as a symptom of the culture war between downtown and the suburbs. On one side are the elitist downtown progressives who favour transit, walkability, cycling, densification, lattes and street festivals; on the other side are the suburbanites, who prefer private space, low-density living, commuting by car, Tim Hortons and backyard barbecues.

This narrative doesn’t tell a true story about Toronto. There is a deep divide in the city, but it’s a class-based conflict between haves and have-nots—or, more precisely, between neighbourhoods with improving prospects and neighbourhoods on the decline. And Ford Nation hails largely from the latter.

We know from the 2010 municipal election results that Ford Nation essentially surrounds the old City of Toronto. These outlying areas are also home to the highest concentration of visible minorities in the city and have seen the biggest drops in individual incomes. Ford drew some of his strongest voter support from wards that are the poorest, the most ethnically diverse, or both. Up in the northern reaches of Scarborough-Agincourt’s Ward 39, for example, where Ford garnered 63.7 per cent of the vote, visible minorities make up more than half the population, and English is the mother tongue in less than a quarter of households. By contrast, in Trinity-Spadina’s Ward 19, where together George Smitherman and Joe Pantalone received almost 75 per cent of all votes cast, visible minorities make up only 30 per cent of the population.

Those kinds of numbers extend right across the city. Zack Taylor is an assistant professor of urban politics at U of T who has studied the 2010 election results in depth. According to him, visible minorities made up more than half the population in all the wards where Ford won overwhelming support, compared to just 27 per cent in what Taylor wryly calls “Smitherman Village.”

Wealth plays a role, too. The city’s most affluent areas—places where the average income is $104,000 per year, many of which are located in Old Toronto—generally voted against Ford. And while the mayor did carry some wealthy neighbourhoods, his margins of victory in those areas tended to be smaller.

Ford fared much better in inner-suburban neighbourhoods where average incomes have been on the decline. According to a 2010 study by U of T’s Cities Centre, average incomes in vast swaths of Etobicoke and nearly all of Scarborough dropped between 1970 and 2005 from $29,800 to as low as $22,500. In the city’s 13 so-called priority neighbourhoods—including Malvern, Scarborough Village, Jane-Finch, Weston-Mt. Dennis and Jamestown—incomes declined the most.

Those last two communities are located in Ford’s home turf of Etobicoke, along with the Dixon Road high-rises and the party house at 15 Windsor Road that are at the centre of the scandal. If we’ve learned anything about Ford in recent months, it’s that he’s tight with members of those marginalized communities. That’s not the mayor standing with Anthony Smith in the infamous photo taken at 15 Windsor Road—it’s Robbie from the Block, a local boy who’s gone on to bigger things but has kept his roots, showing up to party in his hoodie.

Obviously there’s more to Ford Nation than low-income suburban renters. Middle-class homeowners are Ford supporters, too. But they tend to be home­owners the Toronto real estate boom forgot: Taylor’s research shows that the average house value in Ford Nation is $368,000, compared to $497,000 in Smitherman Village.

Whether they live in the Dixon Road high-rises or the bungalows immediately to the south (where average income has plummeted by $11,000 since 1970), their observations about their neighbourhood are the same. Crime is increasing. Cops are everywhere. Tensions run high day and night. Northwest Etobicoke has some of the highest rates of break and enter, vehicle theft and sexual assault in Toronto. This community hasn’t shared in the city’s prosperity for decades.

Ford connects with the marginalized and disaffected better than anyone on the left. They see him as a straight-talker. His willingness to return their calls or knock on their doors means a lot to them—he offers the type of direct, immediate response they so rarely get from government services. Ford’s supporters also distrust journalists, who, in their view, show up solely for the purpose of running their communities down. No wonder Ford keeps insisting the press is out to get him. It establishes a shared bond.

For loyal members of Ford Nation, years of taxation have produced few tangible benefits for their neighbourhoods, and Ford has managed to galvanize their frustration into an anti-tax crusade. In June, when news broke that the budget for the St. Lawrence Market renovation had risen from $75 million to $92 million—all before work had even begun—suburban councillors refused to approve it. “It freaks me out that everybody can find money to be able to do these things [for downtown],” said the York councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, “when the rest of us are told no.” It should come as no surprise when Ford Nation balks at the new revenue proposals for transit. The additional $477 per year that Metrolinx wants from each household is a lot more affordable when you earn $104,000 than when you earn $28,000. That’s why Ford said he’d build subways with private sector money. The fact that his promise turned out to be a pipe dream hasn’t made the $477 any more affordable.

A former Ford strategist once told me that Occupy Toronto and Ford Nation were essentially two sides of the same coin—that both movements were borne of the same frustrations, stemming from the city’s growing socioeconomic disparity. Ford has earned every ounce of scorn and derision he’s getting as a result of this scandal, but Ford Nation has not. Its members deserved better from their candidate, and they deserve better from their city.