As we start the last week of April, it can be a bit stunning to think of everything that’s happened over the past nearly two months. We’ve seen lots of big changes to our day to day lives and while there is talk about things slowly starting to open up in the month to come, we know that things won’t be going |back to normal” any time soon, if it does at all. It’s been a period that’s forced us to adapt but also a time that has forced many to look at certain ideas or people in a different light.
When it comes to the people that fall into that category, near the top of that list must be Ontario Premier Doug Ford. It’s hard not to look at the past seven to eight weeks of his work and be left feeling a combination of bewilderment but appreciation. Going into this global pandemic, Ford was one of the most unpopular political figures in this country by a country mile. It was a view that was well earned, with policy decisions that played hard to his right-wing base while kicked at many people in need. He went after teachers, the poor, civil servants and even the families of children with autism. We have seen boondoggles like the failed new blue license plates, that his minister blamed everyone under the sun for, including the Liberals somehow, before finally backing down and dealing with the problem.
Before we got into this pandemic, that was the pattern of his government, one that screamed of some of the worst political management that many had seen in ages. And even at the start of this pandemic, we saw a typical Ford response, the exact same kind of thing that we had seen in his early two years of governing. Here’s what he told reporters on Thursday March 12th, when asked what families should do at March Break as Covid-19 started to take serious hold:
That’s right there was the Doug Ford we all have known for years, from his days at Toronto City Council beside his brother Rob, from his failed runs to become Mayor of Toronto and right into his leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives. What made it even more Ford-like was the fact that within hours of that comment, Ford’s government shut down the province’s schools, starting for a two-week period after that same March Break. Those schools are still closed and today his Education Minister announced they are now closed through at least May 29th.
At that moment on March 13th Ford could have gone in many different directions when it comes to his approach to this situation. But it seems now, looking back on the past eight weeks, that day and that announcement was an inflection point because after that time we’ve legitimately seen a different Doug Ford. We’ve seen a Premier and a government that finally seemed to rise to the moment, that was acting based more on needs than ideology and was adjusting to the situations that kept changing around them. He stopped throwing barbs at Liberal government in Ottawa and put differences aside to work with them, to the point where he’s been singing the praises of the Deputy Prime Minister. And even while there have been a few slips, like the news this week that his government was clawing back Federal emergency benefits from Ontarians receiving social assistance, for the most part people have been applauding the response and how Ford himself has risen to this moment.
It’s been something to see up close, but it’s also made for some complicated and conflicting feelings for some, especially on the progressive side of things. That sensation was probably best summarized by something that happened yesterday and Ford’s response to it. It was a situation that really lays out just how complicated this apparent evolution by Ontario’s Premier has been for many to get our heads around:
That was Doug Ford commenting on far-right groups and conspiracy theorists protesting ongoing Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns outside of Queen’s Park in Toronto. For the record, he was 100% right in calling those folks “a bunch of yahoos” and doing so in such an exasperated way. He said what most Ontarians were thinking because that group on the lawn at Queen’s Park is far from speaking for the majority. So yes, Doug did the right thing and he’s to be applauded for that. But I won’t lie, when I heard that I couldn’t get something else out of my mind, about how this just felt so strange and weird. Something didn’t fit, and to give you a feeling of why, let’s jump in the way back machine to just a few years ago and another protest in front of Queen’s Park:
Yep folks, that was just 2015 when Christian far-right groups, far right groups, some conspiracy theorists and others gather on the lawn of Queen’s Park to denounce the updates to Ontario’s sexual education curriculum brought in by Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne. A lot of those voices were spewing tropes that many on the far right like to do, talking about agendas and conspiracies and a lot of misinformation. And as was very typical at that time, you saw Conservative politicians front and centre at that event, proud to be there to support that gaggle.
Doug Ford wasn’t there that day from what I could tell, but he rose to the leadership of Ontario’s PC by courting those same voices and people who were there that day. Charles McVety? Check, he became a good friend of Doug Ford. A lot of folks who supported Tanya Granic Allen? Check, they did too. We didn’t hear any Conservative politicians denounce those people and their supporters and none of them came close to calling them anything like “yahoos”. And when he became Premier, Ford repaid that support and loyalty by moving to cancel those changes to the sexual education curriculum, which set off protests across the province by students, teachers and alike. In response to that Ford spewed lines that were typical for him, blaming labour bosses and those with supposed agendas of their own. That’s pretty close to dismissing some as a “yahoo”, or at least as close as pre-Covid-19 Doug Ford did.
Now this isn’t to criticize Doug Ford for what he said yesterday, not at all. He was right to say it and honestly, I’m glad he did. But you must admit for many people this is a confusing thing to process for so many Ontarians. It’s not that we don’t appreciate this evolution that we’ve seen from Ford, it’s just that it’s such an evolution and so fast that it makes it very hard to reconcile the two Doug Ford’s; the one we’ve seen in public life for a decade or so, and this new Doug Ford of the past eight weeks. It’s hard to square it, because many of those same folks he was calling “yahoos” yesterday are the same people he was counting on for votes just a few months ago. That’s just the truth, just as it is true to say that Doug Ford has performed well in his response to this pandemic. There will be much more time to see if this evolution is a permanent one for Mr. Ford or if after this the Premier we knew before will return. But in the meantime, this complicated evolution of Doug Ford is surely a sign of these strange days and completely on brand from the strange year that 2020 has been so far.