When Jagdish Grewal bought a house in the Toronto neighbourhood of Rexdale nearly two decades ago, he called his then-city councilor Rob Ford to complain about an issue on his driveway. The next day, Ford showed up at his house.
“I could’ve come to your office,” Grewal recalled telling Ford, who responded that no, Grewal’s kitchen table was his office.
“Since then, I have so much respect for that man,” Grewal, editor of the Punjabi Post newspaper, told VICE News in an interview recently. “There are thousands and thousands of people in the community who respect this family.”
It’s why Grewal, a former federal Conservative candidate in the Mississauga-Malton riding, who came to Canada from India, like so many other immigrants in Ontario, says he will be voting for Doug Ford in the upcoming provincial election. Conservatives in the province hope to unseat the governing Liberals who have been in power for the last 15 years and whose approval ratings are at an all-time low. They criticize Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals for everything from elitism to wastefulness.
The polls have indicated a surge for the New Democrats, but the race is too close to call, with the most recent survey from EKOS putting the PC and the NDP in a virtual tie.
Ford was narrowly elected the leader of Ontario’s PC party in March, ending a tumultuous race following the dramatic resignation of Patrick Brown over allegations of sexual assault. A stream of think pieces followed, arguing that Ford’s win signaled the arrival of Trump-style populism in Canada’s most populous province.
Both politicians have a penchant for simplistic slogans and incessantly rail against the elite, despite coming from tremendous wealth. They have little regard for facts, often speak in hyperbole, and tend to appeal to people who are economically disadvantaged and feel like they’ve been left behind. Ford has even said in the past he would’ve voted for the US president, but now shuts down the comparison at every turn.
And it’s likely because in one key way, Ford’s base diverges from Trump’s.
“There's no politician that probably has more support out there for new Canadians,” said Ford recently, in response to criticism for suggesting that the province has to “take care of [their] own" before pushing for immigrants to move to northern Ontario.
“Ford Nation's full of new Canadians,” he said, adding that “new Canadians” call him personally and that his government would make sure foreign credentials are recognized.
Much like his notorious late brother, the former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, Doug Ford is beloved by a vocal cohort of immigrant voters, seemingly upending the standard narrative that right-wing populism always thrives on racism and xenophobia. Rather than blame immigrants for crime and job losses, Ford actively courts their votes.
And while there is little concrete evidence around what kind of support Ford actually carries, in areas like Peel, Durham, and York, which are populated predominantly by immigrants and people of colour, Ford beat out Progressive Conservative leadership rival Christine Elliott with ease. Even after established vote brokers in the Punjabi communities of Mississauga and Brampton lined up behind Elliott, Grewal said, Ford was still overwhelmingly more popular.
The narrative of immigrant support for Ford is one many pundits have latched on to. (Ford's team declined requests for an interview with the leader, and did not respond to a list of questions provided last week.)
“New Canadians are an increasing part of the suburban coalition in Ontario, and in order to win elections, given where the seats are in the province, you need the ridings where they are, which is the 905,” pollster Darrell Bricker told VICE News in an interview. “So you have to find a way to appeal to new Canadians.”
In the 905, the shorthand to describe the ring of municipalities around Toronto, Ford was recently polling 20 points ahead of his main rival, NDP leader Andrea Horwath. According to poll from last week, the PCs are trailing behind the NDP by one point in the area.
“He could not do that unless he was winning a large segment of the immigrant population living in those places,” said Bricker.
Which is, of course, not to say that immigrants vote in a block. They too are motivated by a variety of issues — wealth, faith, age, politics. And the vote is fluid. The federal Conservatives, for example, saw their support among immigrant voters drop after the party began pushing the envelope on issues like the niqab and their proposed barbaric cultural practices hotline.
So what do voters in rural Ontario, the bedrock of PC support, have in common with immigrants in the suburbs in Toronto? According to Bricker, it’s not identity that’s driving Ford’s popularity among racialized immigrants, but values.
“When you contrast the newer immigrants with the older immigrants, the people we’re bringing into Canada now… are disproportionately upwardly mobile bootstrappers,” he told TVO. “They’re coming with some resources, they’re coming with a lot of ambition, and they’re coming with those types of values that a Ford Nation type of person might have, where it’s really more about private sector over public sector, it’s about opportunity more than anything else.”
"I find [the focus on racialized immigrant voters] to be a problem."
Some experts caution against assuming that most racialized immigrants will back Ford in the upcoming election — that although he won with ease in key ridings populated by immigrants in the PC leadership race, and they propelled his brother into the mayor’s office, we don’t really know where people who didn’t vote in the leadership race will land. And as Brittany Andrew-Amofah, a researcher and analyst at the progressive think tank Broadbent Institute points out, the Liberals and NDP have proposed policies, like government-funded child care, dental care, and a $15 minimum wage, which could draw immigrant voters in.
University of Toronto professor Rinaldo Walcott is also wary that the constant focus on non-white people and poor working class Ford supporters is creating a situation in which if Doug Ford is elected, they are “being set up to take a fall for something they themselves didn’t produce” since non-white voters, while crucial, don’t make up the bulk of voters in Ontario.
Walcott describes Ford’s approach to black people as “plantation politics” — speaking “derisively” to and for black people as though they need his charity, “as though we need the leadership of a strong white man to help us to see what's necessary and important.”
“I find [the focus on racialized immigrant voters] be a problem,” said Toronto journalist and activist Desmond Cole. “Not that it's not important and interesting to know, but when white people are always left out of the conversation but white people determine every single election, something really weird is going on.”
“He’s a multicultural person. He knows deeply… Toronto, multiculturalism,” Abukar Ahmed, a Somali immigrant enthusiastically tells me, standing outside a mosque in Etobicoke after evening prayers in April. He’s accompanied by his friend Mohamed Mohamed, also a taxi driver on a short break from his shift for prayers.
He’s talking about Ford, whose family is a bit of an institution in the diverse Etobicoke neighbourhood where he grew up, and where his family made its wealth with a label company that his late father, himself a former provincial politician, co-founded.
“He knows what every culture feels, what they believe, what they face… this family, they are normal guys. They don’t behave like millionaires who are above the people. They are normal, they’ve penetrated the community, they reach every community,” said Ahmed.
The reasons behind immigrant support for Doug Ford are varied. They range from his promise to review Ontario’s controversial sex-ed curriculum — many immigrant parents, especially from faith groups, pulled their kids out of school when it was first introduced in 2015 — to their personal familiarity with him to his claims of “respect for taxpayers” to his background as a businessperson. Often in hushed tones, some bring up their discomfort with the “lifestyle” of Kathleen Wynne, Canada’s first openly lesbian premier. Ford is also riding off the popularity of his brother — his supporters often talk about the two as if they’re interchangeable.
Christine Liu, a Chinese immigrant who is a vocal opponent of Ontario’s current sex ed curriculum, believes Ford will open the province up for business.
“Doug Ford is a businessperson, and that’s what Ontario needs right now,” said Liu. “He knows his numbers, he knows how to control his costs, he knows how to open up Ontario for business. Doug Ford, if you want me to describe him in one word, it’s integrity, which Kathleen Wynne has completely lost. She says one thing and does another.”
He might not say nice things, but he says what he means, Liu added. As for what he’s done to earn her trust, she can’t point to any specifics.
Bruce Li, a real estate agent who has organized massive protests with Toronto’s Chinese community against the Trudeau government, supports Ford for similar reasons. He’s also highly defensive about allegations that Doug Ford was a hash dealer in high school — a claim reported by the Globe, but which Ford has always denied. Li believes the allegations are simply rumours because they haven’t been proven in a court of law.
"He knows what every culture feels, what they believe, what they face."
“People have to be able to tell the difference between rumors and evidence. If there's evidence that he did something with the drugs, that's the judge or police is call to determine. Rumors cannot be used to judge a person,” he said.
As for Doug Ford standing by Rob, who admitted to smoking crack after months of lying about it, Li says he won’t comment because the former mayor has passed away.
“They don’t really care at the end of the day, they care that Rob Ford was an honest person,” said Grewal about support for the Fords within the Punjabi community. “They care that he was honest with the people and he was serving the people. He’s not the person who wanted to be politically correct, but he always wanted to help the people.”
The Fords didn’t run in the last provincial election — Rob was mayor and Doug was a city councillor at the time. But that didn’t stop researcher Simon Kiss from posing a question about Rob Ford to Toronto voters during an exit election survey.
He found that among Torontonians who identified as visible minorities, 50 percent believed he was doing a good job, while others mostly disapproved. Although Kiss hasn’t been able to determine exactly why, the data did show that visible minorities who approved of Rob Ford were on average more religious than others. That said, non-religious minorities were still more likely to support Ford than white voters.
Kiss also found that people facing financial stress — those who agreed that an extra $50 a month would make a big difference in their lives — were more likely to support Rob Ford, although the relationship between economic stress and supporting Ford was stronger for white people than visible minorities, according to the data.
Another 2014 study of local elections done by Ryerson University Professor Michael McGregor included a poll on Doug Ford. Participants were asked to rate how much they liked Doug Ford on a scale of 0 to 100. People who-self identified as Canadians gave him a 31, and those who identified Western European gave him a 32. Meanwhile, East Asians gave him a score of 44, South Asians rated him at 42, and Eastern Europeans gave him a 41.
Those born inside Canada gave him a score of 37, while those outside Canada gave him a score of 43. This discrepancy between immigrants and non-immigrants didn’t really exist when participants were asked about the other two candidates, John Tory and Olivia Chow, the study found.
Visible minorities make up about 29 percent of the province’s population. According to a Statistics Canada report on voter turnout in the 2015 federal election, 75 percent of established immigrants and 70 percent of recent immigrants (those who arrived in Canada in the 10 years preceding the survey) voted. A breakdown by region of birth shows in the most recent election, 73 percent of recent immigrants from the Caribbean and Central or South America, 82 percent from South Asia, 76 percent from Southeast Asia, 66 percent from East Asia, 77 percent from West Central Asia and Middle East, and 79 percent from Africa voted in the most recent federal election.
While there isn’t much more data on Ford’s racialized immigrant voters supporters specifically, according to The Populism Project, a study done by The Canadian Press and EKOS polling in 2017, Trump-style populism is brewing in Canada. And unlike the U.S., it’s not as divided along racial lines.
“In the U.S., Trumpian populism is focused in the white working class,” said Frank Graves, president of EKOS. “It’s not limited to that, but has had very little success with black, Hispanic and other populations. That doesn’t seem to be the case in Canada.”
In addition, areas where incomes have fallen substantially since the 1970s such as northeastern and northwestern parts of Toronto, overlap with areas where the Ford brand has secured a toehold. These areas are also home to thousands of cash-strapped new immigrants.
It’s easy for people living on the fringes of the city to be persuaded that city council doesn’t care about their neighbourhoods, said Andray Domise, a Toronto writer (he occasionally writes for VICE), who grew up in Rexdale, and was a one-time political opponent of the Fords’ nephew Michael Ford. Rob Ford’s willingness to immediately — and showily — fix potholes and broken streetlights was endearing to his constituents, who finally felt like they were being listened to.
"People are responding to the rhetoric that he could be my neighbour, he could be my friend, when the reality is that that’s not the case."
“Doug Ford is playing off of that and benefiting from it,” said Walcott. “He’s the guy who people feel like they can easily have a beer with… a lot of working class people, a lot of poor people, and a lot of non-white people are responding to the rhetoric that he could be my neighbour, he could be my friend, when the reality is that that’s not the case.”
Ford has said if he were elected, he’d review Ontario’s controversial sex ed curriculum, and many of his followers who spoke to VICE News want to see him deliver on that promise. Much of the organizing against the curriculum when it was being introduced in 2016 was done by religious, socially conservative South Asian and Middle Eastern immigrant parents.
“We don’t want social issues forced on people, like in schools,” a Mohamed Mohammed, the Somali taxi driver in Etobicoke, told VICE News. “Most of the community is supporting him.”
Opponents of the revised curriculum argue some of the concepts related to gender identity, sexual activity and sexual orientation are being taught too early or shouldn’t be taught in schools, period.
Riaz Khan, a Pakistani immigrant, said he was so incensed by the sex ed curriculum that he was ready to move his kids out of the country. He doesn’t really vote unless something is bothering him, but this issue has been weighing on his mind, he told VICE News.
“It’s the parents’ job. Mom and dad should explain to kids what is right and what is wrong,” he said, echoing many parents who felt some of the material should be kept out of schools or that they hadn’t been consulted enough.
Much of the opposition to the sex ed curriculum has been steeped in homophobia, with protesters taking issue with how the curriculum “normalizes” healthy same-sex relationships and marriage. That thinly veiled homophobia extends to Kathleen Wynne, argues Domise.
“There’s a lot of people who have a problem with Kathleen Wynne’s sexuality, and they simply won’t say it out loud. They’ll say things like ‘I don’t like her because she’s arrogant’ or ‘I don’t agree with her lifestyle,’” said Domise. ‘Basically what they’re saying is, ‘I don’t like this lesbian woman being the premier of my province.’ … The Liberals are led by a lesbian woman, and the NDP is led by a woman, who as far as I know is heterosexual. A lot of people have a problem with that. They can’t accept that.”
For Ford’s opponents, perhaps the most confusing aspect of racialized immigrants backing Doug Ford has been his supporters’ apathy with regard to comments he or his brother made that they see as racist, as well as his track record of endorsing racist policies. Doug stood by Rob Ford on the many occasions he was caught using racial slurs and once claimed Rob himself was the target of racism.
But their supporters don’t believe they’re racist. They chalk up these incidents to a refusal to be politically correct and accept the ideas of urban Liberals. And as experts have pointed out, if new Canadians in the 905 did view Ford as a divider like Donald Trump, the consequences for his campaign would be dire.
Bruce Li, a Chinese immigrant, wasn’t bothered by Rob Ford’s remark that “Oriental people work like dogs,” for example. Rather, he saw it as an affirmation and a statement of fact.
“That doesn’t bother us at all, we do work very, very hard,” he told VICE News, estimating that in his circle of Chinese-Canadian friends, only about 10 to 20 percent will vote for the Liberals.
For the most part, Ford has eschewed dog whistle politics — he disagreed with federal Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch’s proposal to screen immigrants, and said Trump’s refugee ban "could have been handled better." After the Liberals drew attention to an endorsement of Ford last week from a white nationalist known as “Zeiger” in Quebec, the PC leader quickly disavowed the support.
But the collective indifference to the Fords’ remarks on race and their treatment of racialized immigrants otherwise has always frustrated Domise.
Domise, a Jamaican-Canadian raised in Etobicoke, believes Ford’s immigrant following stems from low expectations for politicians and a lifetime of marginalization. It’s why many of them overlook racist comments he’s made or his voting record on issues that affect ethnic communities, he told VICE News.
“When you’ve lived most of your existence being profiled and harassed by police, being told your children are stupid... when you’ve been shovelled dirt your entire life and someone hands you junk food, you think it’s a boon,” he said.
Kofi Hope, executive director of the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals, wrote in a December op-ed that progressives often dismissed voters who supported Rob Ford as dumb, but one thing that drew them to him was how he seemed to get — sometimes quite literally — where they were coming from. The city needs an “intercultural person,” Hope argued, “with a lived understanding of the diversity of this city; ideally someone from outside the downtown.”
But while this may have been an accurate description of Rob Ford, who Domise believes did have a certain level of affection for black people, projecting that benefit of the doubt to Doug just because they’re brothers is a mistake, he said. He argued that the PC leader sees himself as a patron of certain communities because he donates to causes, but that his voting record betrays that “he doesn’t like the idea of them being able to speak, and act, and think for themselves.”
"When you’ve been shovelled dirt your entire life and someone hands you junk food, you think it’s a boon."
Ford was the only Ontario party leader to turn down an invitation to attend the Black Community Provincial Leaders Debate in April. In defending his decision not to attend the debate, Ford said, “There's no other politician in this country, no other politician outside of Rob Ford, that has supported the black community more than I have.” When asked for examples of the support he’s offered to black people, Ford said for the last three years, he’s brought 80 kids from the black community to his cottage.
Ford was accused of buying votes when he handed out $20 bills and toys at a Toronto Community Housing building in 2013. He was never fully on board with abolishing the practice of carding, which disproportionately affects black and brown people. At an event on gun violence hosted by the Somali Canadian Forum this month, Ford said he’d throw his support behind the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS), a program that had its funding cut in light of criticisms of its officers’ heavy handed methods and high rates of carding black citizens. When an audience member interjected to say the program had “traumatized” community members, calling TAVIS a “racist police division,” many in the crowd cheered in agreement.
While Desmond Cole disputes the narrative that racialized immigrants will propel Doug Ford into the premier's chair, he acknowledges that the question of why they would vote for him is interesting.
To him, it’s a no-brainer.
“White supremacy is for everybody. Racialized people are not voting for Doug Ford because they’re stupid,” said Cole. “They’re not voting for Doug Ford because they don’t care about race or because they’re voting against their own interest.”
“Supporting racist values, racist ideals, and racist political parties makes you Canadian, and insofar as racialized people want to try and fit into this white supremacist Canadian fabric, of course they’re going to support a racist candidate,” he continued. “That doesn’t seem like a big leap for me.”
Note: This article has been amended to say Jagdish Grewal is a former federal Conservative candidate in the riding of Mississauga-Malton.