If you aren't submerged in the over-the-top world of Toronto politics, you may not know what FordFest is. But for those of us who live and breathe the ongoing carnival of municipal elections in Ontario, we're very familiar with the public party that Rob, Doug, and the rest of the Fords throw for their constituents. There's carnival games, free burgers, free Ford T-shirts, and of course, the Fords. During the last FordFest, there was a physical altercation between Ford Nation-ites, and a group of LGBT protesters. It was a sad scene.
Over the weekend, my editor asked me to visit FordFest myself, for my very first FordFest experience. September's event was held in Etobicoke, Rob Ford's stomping grounds. After battling Toronto's hellish traffic and construction, I finally arrived at the event, which was held next to a Sears outlet off 401 West in a spread of green grass. Ford supporters had already clogged the crosswalks donning Ford-centric T-shirts and signs as I idled at the 20-minute wait for the left turn into the parking section (it's free, like everything at FordFest).
Once I parked, the fun began. So here's how it went:
6:00 PM: Entering the Worship Tent
I walk speedily to what my photographer and I refer to as the Worship Tent—wherein Doug Ford is standing in the centre surrounding by adorers shaking hands. I push my way through the crowd to get my first glimpse at the baby-faced mayoral candidate. Nearly every person has some form of camera out paparazzi-style trying to get their own photo for social media that will surely attract a dollop of likes and comments. I hold my notebook up near my face fighting through the folds of the crowd. It's surprisingly quiet except for the cheesy music—it's the kind of neutral pop and rock you'd hear in any retail store.
Two little blonde girls, clad in pink, push one of my legs screaming: "I want to see Doug!" It's slightly terrifying that children under 10 have the capacity to understand what's going on here. "Wait your turn, you'll get to see him," their mother reassures them. Those who get their photos return through the crowd triumphantly, smartphones in hand showing off their prize. I think I've seen enough of this clusterfuck.
I walk off into the more sparsely populated area of the event to chat up Ford supporters. I meet a guy named Frank Acri, a resident of Rexdale who claims to be a personal friend of Rob Ford. He claims to have been a supporter of the Ford family since 1995, and tells me how "heartbroken" he was when he found out about Rob's cancer.
"It's very sad that Rob had to pass at the time. We're in very good hands with Doug." He tells me how when his own father died, Rob was the first person at the funeral. As he rests his "Ford For Mayor" sign on his shoulder, he tells me how the Fords are all about family, and that's important to him. It's a common sentiment here—many of the people here are with significant others and children.
As I walk away from Acri, the associate of a guy running for a council seat taps me on the shoulder. He's with Anthony Internicola, who is running for Ward 40 in Scarborough, Norm Kelly's seat. He's with his wife and two young daughters wearing a black cowboy hat. I ask him how he feels about Doug taking over for Rob in Toronto's mayoral race. He says it doesn't make a difference to him, and that they're essentially the same person when it comes to policy.
"It's good in a sense because it shows that the family's united and that's what we stand for over here—sticking by family no matter what through the hard times and the good times," he says as one of his daughters clutches his hand. For him, a big part of supporting the Fords is also about transit policy. He calls the transit plan Doug put out earlier in the week (which spelled a couple station names incorrectly) "fantastic." He isn't a fan of Olivia Chow's, which focuses more on above-ground transit, saying that it will make congestion worse. He says, "I know Ford is going to win."
Everyone here seems pretty positive that Doug is going to win the October 27 election despite poll results that placing John Tory is in the lead. There's no point in trying to tell them otherwise. Children are running around the lawn eating big white clouds of free cotton candy and waiting in long lines to get on the carousel or the Go-gator—a kid-sized rollercoaster that looks like a deranged, yellow alligator. This whole thing is starting to feel inherently American (and I would know since I am American, after all). Have I unknowingly transported into my home country? Everything is in a red, white, and blue colour scheme and they're even giving out free burgers. I can't decide if this is making me homesick or just nauseous.
My photographer and I go up to a trio of people wearing "Ford For Mayor" shirts that were signed by Doug Ford. They're visibly excited about the fact that the mayoral candidate wrote on their clothing. I talk to who they say is the best speaker of the group, a guy named Robert Taylor who lives on Dufferin Street. He's a bristly, thin fellow with salt-and-pepper hair covering his face and head, blue collar through and through. Taylor talks about how Rob has always fought for the "little man" keeping taxes low in the city. As for the other candidates, Taylor says, "Olivia Chow to me is no better than a communist… John Tory has no right to be in this race." OK.
7:00 PM: "King Ford is coming!"
I walk over to the left side of the stage where a cover band is playing Rihanna's "Diamonds." The crowd is waiting for their shining star, Rob Ford, to appear, presumably against his doctor's orders (chemotherapy patients and large crowds are not a good mix).
I find my photographer pushed up against the caution tape separating the crowd from the security guards readying for Robbie's arrival. A group of people with Caribbean accents surrounds me when they see my notebook. They don't want to give me their names, but they do want to rant. One lady shouts, "King Ford is coming!" She also calls Rob the Obama of Canada. Hmmmm, that's food for thought.
A guy in a baseball cap calls the Ford family The Fordashians. Another dude clutching a Rob Ford bobblehead talks about ramming through the caution tape like a bull when his favourite politician appears. This is too bizarre. I've never even been to an event where a Ford was present, so this was starting to reach overload levels for me.
7:30 PM: Haters, addiction, and cancer
Rob finally takes the stage in all his alabaster-hued glory. I look back from my spot a few people back from the front to a sea of people—the sun is going down and children are perched on their fathers' shoulders. A guy behind me whistles so intensely that I feel his breath through my hair. It's so crowded I can barely move and when Rob starts talking, the speaker near me is turned up so high my ears start ringing.
"I love you Ford Nation, I love ya!" he exclaims. FordFest is at its peak, erupting at the long-awaited sound of their dear leader. He talks about the haters, and personifies his addiction in an unsettling mafiaesque metaphor by saying "I took that guy out the back and I took care of him," then talks cancer. Rob says his doctor approached him two weeks ago to tell him he was going to face a "guy" worse than his addiction. "I said, 'Who is that guy?' And he said, 'cancer.' I said, 'Really, eh?' I said, 'You know what, go tell cancer that I'm going to put him where I put that guy in the mirror three months ago!"
The crowd explodes in approval. In fact, after every word Rob speaks, someone yells back in approval. "Yes!" "That's right!" "Oh yeah!" Some of them even finish his sentences. They're entranced, and there's almost this religious aura to the entire thing. I'm not going to lie—it's creepy.
By the end of the speech, Rob has turned from alabaster to a warm shade of pink. After spewing dubious statistics, he introduces who he says is Toronto's next mayor and his best friend: his brother Doug Ford.
Doug starts out by praising his bro and talking about how he was working even when he was in the hospital, which gets the crowd really riled up. He repeats the same mantra as Rob and urges people to get out and vote. While the crowd responds to him, you can tell that Rob is the real superstar. Regardless of what people today have tried to tell me, Doug is a different person. He talks of the Fords' strategy over the years in politics:
"We told the truth and we were ourselves, and we fought against the special-interest groups and the privileged few and we turned the power to the people," he says. This seems a bit incongruent with the fact that Rob lied about smoking crack for all those months and with the fact that the Fords are "the privileged few"—they're filthy fucking rich, people. Doug ends his speech near 8 PM with an obligatory, "God bless the great people of Toronto!"
At that point, 'You Can Go Your Own Way' by Fleetwood Mac blares on the speakers following the closing of Doug's speech.
8:15 PM: I drink the Kool-Aid.
I thought it would just be irresponsible to not try the free food offered at FordFest. I get in line and wait for a half-hour for a burger. I chat up a guy behind me in line wearing a "Everything is better in Texas" shirt who is doing his best Elvis impression for me. FordFest volunteers warn that they're running out of burgers. Fuck. I make it to the front just in time. My photographer and I walk to the condiment tables, now completely in the dark and demolished by the previous hours. We hold a bulk-sized ketchup bottle upside-down and shake for a minute to get out the last drops on our naked burgers. I bite down. It's tasteless, all texture (though if you listen to Joe Warmington, the Fords' unofficial media mouthpiece, you may have thought the "delicious… steak" burgers were the greatest culinary achievement in Toronto history). The meat quality tastes American, like almost everything at FordFest. We do one last round of the event before walking to my car at the end of the parking lot.
We pass a pile of fragrant vomit adjacent to my parking spot—finally someone understands how I feel.
All photos by Becca Lemire.
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