Rob Ford's Diversity Distraction

By Desmond Cole

Since 2006, it’s been City of Toronto policy that all advertised civic appointments—both paid jobs and hundreds of volunteer opportunities—make a direct appeal for applications from “women, youth, First Nations, people with disabilities and racialized communities.” In late September, a damning report by the city’s ombudsman, Fiona Crean, (who is, in fact, a woman) revealed that mayoral staff tried to delete the line calling for diverse applications during the appointment process for 120 citizen positions on city boards this past spring.

The revelation of mayor Rob Ford’s interference was another troubling window into his administration’s dismissive approach to inclusion and diversity. It also shed more light on Ford’s bizarre political posturing: even as he trumpets his private commitment to charity for marginalized people, the mayor reassures to his base that public, systemic change is out of the question.

Ford’s response to Crean's report was a standard denial and dismissal. “That’s a ridiculous question,” he said when asked if he was against diversity. In the face of such a serious accusation, it would have been easy to drag out Toronto’s well-worn “Diversity, Our Strength” motto to placate concerned residents. The mayor's refusal to even pay lip service to the idea was a silent statement that those who believe in the motto, and its accompanying policies, are not worth his attention.

“If that accusation was made about any of us, I’d think we would want to stand up and either deny it or if we really feel that way, explain why we do,” said Councillor Josh Matlow. The representative for St. Paul’s reflected that the mayor “definitely presents himself as someone who cares about diversity.”

Matlow’s observation is accurate, but incomplete. Rob Ford is at once a self-styled patron saint of diversity, and the lone vote on council against community grants for poor, racialized, and immigrant communities. He embraces football as a positive pastime for black boys even as he decries targeted anti-gang programs as “hug-a-thug” pandering.

Toronto’s diverse electors don’t necessarily cast ballots based on a candidate’s pronouncements on race, but Ford has shown he’s not afraid to appeal to them on that basis. During a 2010 mayoral debate at the Jamaican Canadian Association, Ford informed a gathering of mostly black attendees that “nobody, but nobody, in politics” had done more for black people than him. That the audience remained silent instead of laughing (or jeering) him off the stage suggests that many racialized Torontonians have gotten used to being targets of the gratuitous rhetoric of charity. We're almost willing to ignore it in an attempt to address issues of real substance.

People who note the inconsistency between Ford’s words and deeds do themselves no favours by calling him out as a bigot or a racist, because that isn’t the point. The real problem is that a man who takes such pride in his private, individual efforts to support racialized people seems ashamed to devote the force of his powerful public office to the very same goal.

Of course, there is shrewd logic in remaining silent: Ford needs only to imply that he disapproves of diversity initiatives to satisfy voters who sympathize with that view. Conscious that parts of the electorate don’t care about (or are outright opposed to) ethnic diversity, the mayor makes pains to occasionally wink and nod in their direction. Ford lashes out against measures that could actually achieve systemic change in racialized communities because they offend his base; his charitable football foundation is much more acceptable, if far less effective.

Consider a powerful image from the mayor’s ongoing football foundation controversy: that of Rob Ford leaving a practice surrounded by his mostly black Don Bosco football players. The team is intentionally guarding Ford from a throng of reporters trying to ask him about using city resources to support his teams. He makes it to his vehicle without answering a single question, before driving away in the People’s Escalade with a wave and a smile.

This is the true function of Rob Ford’s racial diversity messaging – it is a human shield, consisting of a few grateful, dark-skinned teenagers, that serves to deflect criticism and scrutiny of a reckless, regressive social policy.

Desmond Cole is a freelance journalist and writer in Toronto.