Canadians are frequently stereotyped as reasonable, free of drama, pleasant, courteous — a mild people. A recent New Yorker cartoon showed a group of animals labeled as “Canadian lemmings,” halted at the edge of a cliff, saying: “No, after you!” The Toronto Star ran a column by Vinay Menon last weekend quoting the MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews saying that Canada always struck him to be “like you’re visiting a really nice mall.”
The Star column is an acute reflection of the embarrassment, and even irritation, that I’ve found many Canadians express when you poke them in the ribs and say — “Well, what about your mayor of Toronto?”
Rob Ford, the top elected official in Canada’s largest city, has from relative obscurity hauled himself to the top of the league of extraordinary political volcanoes with eruptions of obscenity, sexual innuendo, crack cocaine use, heavy drinking, violent temper tantrums and calling the news media “a bunch of maggots” for reporting on his activities. In record time, Ford has streaked past the previous world champion of anti-statesmanship, Silvio Berlusconi.
TV news and talk shows are uniting in an orgy of scandalized delight. The comedy shows are mocking news, the news shows are presenting the facts as mockery and the talk shows are bouncing joyfully off both. In the foyer of my hotel people stopped to watch Ford’s circus while not slowing down for the historic signing of the Iranian nuclear accords. In the U.S., Comedy Central’s The Daily Show has made Ford a constant feature, Saturday Night Live parodied him more than once in a single episode, and in China Next Media has been producing animated videos that feature him.
Over the weekend, taking the political temperature of Toronto, I went around with volunteers canvassing one of the four Canadian federal by-elections that were scheduled for Monday. Several citizens in a poor district shouted at the volunteers, “I don’t want no crack cocaine today. Thanks!” A supervisor at a homeless shelter was shouting at an emaciated woman smoking crack who was huddled in a doorway as snow whirled on the freezing street, and threatened to call the police. His colleague told me, “They say, what am I doing that the mayor ain’t?” I suggested that maybe the mayor would be around looking for a room one day. “Well,” she said, “a lot of people have said that to me. And I say we’d need to put two or three beds together to hold him!”