Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is telling Canada’s big city mayors to choose sides in the next federal election or stop complaining about infrastructure funding issues.
The controversial, blunt-spoken mayor blew into the capital Wednesday with his trademark bull-in-a-china-shop style, wowing crowds of autograph and photo seekers, scrumming twice with reporters and generally knocking a scheduled meeting of the Big City Mayors’ Caucus off its moorings.
“I got along well with all the mayors, I didn’t think I was a distraction,” Ford told his second scrum of the morning at the first Federation of Canadian Municipalities meeting he has ever attended.
Ford had previously dismissed the group as the “lefty caucus,” and he made it clear Wednesday he wasn’t entirely back onside.
The mayors of the biggest cities are nearly united in their concern that a $14-billion, ten-year federal infrastructure plan announced this month by Prime Minister Stephen Harper falls short of the country’s massive needs.
Ford had another take.
“Not all of us agreed on that, but I’m not here to ridicule the Conservative government. I think they’ve treated Toronto well and I told them my feelings.”
Ford has been a key municipal ally of the Harper Conservatives — or at least he was until he admitted using crack cocaine in a “drunken stupor,” delivered a lewd rant in front of TV cameras and became an international punch line.
Last fall, Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty made a big show of presenting Ford with more than $600 million for a municipal subway extension that remains a matter of hot debate in Canada’s largest city.
Ford said he told the other big city mayors to back a federal party, as he has.
“So I said, listen, take a stand. In the next federal election, take a stand. Either you’re going to support (Tom) Mulcair and the NDP or you’re going to vote (Justin) Trudeau and the Liberals or you’re going to vote for the new leader of the Bloc,” Ford told reporters.
“But don’t sit there and complain if you’re not going to take a stand”
Ford then knocked off early, leaving for a private itinerary rather than break bread with his fellow mayors at lunch. He said he planned to tour the city but returned instead to hear from Candice Bergen, the federal cabinet minister responsible for housing.
The reaction of his fellow municipal leaders ranged from good-humoured acceptance to seething anger.
“We’re glad to have a great showing of mayors,” Gregor Robertson, the mayor of Vancouver and chairman of the meeting, said diplomatically when asked about Ford’s presence.
“It’s good to see so many in the room together.”
Jim Watson, the host Ottawa mayor, jokingly tried to fob a French-language question regarding Ford onto a Francophone colleague, but then responded diplomatically.
No so several Quebec mayors, including Montreal mayor and former federal Liberal cabinet minister Denis Coderre.
“We don’t talk to him,” Coderre said at a news conference. “We don’t want to have anything to do with him. We don’t want to be associated to him.”
Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume was even more direct.
“I don’t want to be associated in any form to this man. How could I explain to my people in Quebec City and to my children that I work, collaborate, with a guy who, during his mandate, smoked crack, you know?”
Ford’s infamy certainly didn’t deter a group of adolescent school boys who roared their approval when the Toronto mayor emerged from the morning meeting into a gauntlet of microphones and news cameras.
After speaking to reporters, Ford waded through the throng to have photos taken with the teenagers.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi emerged after the Ford circus had moved on and said it was not true that Ford had been a polarizing figure in the meeting.
“It was very helpful to have him there today,” said Nenshi. “He made some very helpful interventions on housing and on transit.”
And housing — specifically a $1.7 billion federal fund set to expire next year — and municipal infrastructure were the headline policies of the meeting.