Dianne Saxe found out she was getting fired from a reporter.
Ontario’s environment commissioner, unanimously appointed in 2015, had been on the job for four years. Her office had for 25 years safeguarded the province’s Environmental Bill of Rights and held government accountable for its performance on environmental issues.
And the Progressive Conservative government under Premier Doug Ford was shutting it down.
Saxe had released 17 reports over her tenure, many highly critical of the Liberal government that was, from 2015 to 2018, helmed by Kathleen Wynne.
“My experience dealing with the Wynne government was that even though my reports were quite stinging about them on most occasions, I was always treated with respect,” says Saxe, who’s now running for the Green Party in Toronto’s University-Rosedale riding. “The relationship was unfailingly respectful, until Mr. Ford.”
The Progressive Conservatives under Ford were elected to a majority government in a landslide in 2018, reducing the Liberals to just seven seats and ending a 15-year reign.
Ford set about dismantling decades of hard-won environmental and climate gains in the name of cutting red tape and “bringing prosperity back,” mantras reminiscent of those of his brother, the late former mayor of Toronto Rob Ford.
First, the PCs cancelled the province’s newly minted cap-and-trade program, a process that has cost Ontario more than $10 billion — and counting — in budget holes, legal fees and lost revenue. Then, they fired Ontario’s first chief scientist, discarded more than 750 renewable energy contracts (costing Ontario taxpayers another $230 million), axed electric vehicle incentives, gutted the powers of conservation authorities and scrapped a program to plant 50 million trees.
Then came the office of the environment commissioner.
After hearing from a CBC reporter that she might soon be out of a job, Saxe spent the next week or two leaving inquiring messages for government officials. When then-Environment Minister Rod Phillips responded, he assured her that any legislation abolishing the office wouldn’t come for months, she says.
Ontario's Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford has rebranded himself as a big-spending man of the people in the lead-up to the June 2 election. #OnPoli #OnElxn
In fact, the bill that axed the environment commission and folded some of its responsibilities into the auditor general’s office was introduced that afternoon.
“Actively misleading me about when they were going to be abolishing my office gives you a sense of the lack of respect with which I was treated by this government,” says Saxe.
Ford, described by critics as “actively hostile” toward the environment, has weathered numerous stumbles that, at the time, appeared to be political career-enders.
A seemingly unending succession of boondoggles in his first year included cutting autism funding, proposing building in the province’s protected Greenbelt, tearing out electric vehicle charging stations, slashing Toronto city council during an election, accusations of patronage appointments to plum positions — the list goes on.
When Ford announced an extra-long summer break for Ontario’s legislature in June 2019, rumours circulated that it was at the behest of his conservative counterparts in Ottawa, who feared his profound unpopularity rubbing off on them as a federal election approached.
Eighteen months into his term, Ford was the most unpopular premier in the country, with sky-high disapproval ratings that surpassed even those of his predecessor, the epically unpopular Wynne.
Ford’s plans to forge ahead with two contentious highways north of Toronto, Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass, have drawn accusations of spending billions in public money to help out developers connected to his party.
In April 2021, a year into an oft-disastrous response to COVID-19, an opinion piece in the Washington Post entitled “Doug Ford must resign” became the U.S. paper’s most-read article. Columnist David Moscrop excoriated the embattled premier on his pandemic response and “his extraordinary capacity to alienate, divide and fail,” imploring Ford to “catch the next train to political oblivion.”
Heading into the June 2 provincial election, the premier of Ontario is a clear front-runner, having performed a feat of rehabilitation on his image — and political future. Polls point to another Progressive Conservative majority, with Ford out ahead of his rivals by nearly 10 percentage points. The NDP, which formed the official Opposition in the last government, has slipped behind the Liberals led by Steven Del Duca.
“Ford is helped by the ballot box question having changed,” says Kate Harrison, vice-chair of Summa Strategies. A few months ago, the COVID-19 pandemic was top of mind with voters, and Ford had managed to alienate both the left and the right with his response. Now, with inflation at record levels, gas prices soaring and an ever-deepening housing affordability crisis, economics is the major election issue.
“That’s a conservative strength, and it’s also an incumbent government strength,” says Harrison. “When things feel a little bit rocky, it’s harder to make the case for change. Things are very uncertain right now, and he benefits from that.”
Ford pulls off a folksy, everyman charm that resonates with voters. His admission during a leaders’ debate that he made mistakes dealing with the pandemic humanizes him, says Harrison.
“There is a bit of an authenticity gap with Steven Del Duca, with Andrea Horwath, that isn’t there for Ford,” says Harrison. “While Ford might be more of a polarizing figure — people either really like him or they really don’t — there is a human quality there, an affableness there, that the opposition politicians vying to replace him just don’t have.”
Chris Burton, a financial security adviser in London, says he voted for NDP Leader Andrea Horwath in the 2018 election, despite typically voting Progressive Conservative provincially. “I thought Doug Ford was a bit of a joke,” says Burton.
The premier’s handling of the pandemic, however, changed Burton’s mind. “Even before COVID, I liked how he was trying to stand up to Trudeau regarding the carbon tax… He still stands up for wanting to reduce some of that stuff on the fuel, the carbon tax stuff.”
Ford has, in recent weeks, won endorsements from some unions, pulling away support that typically falls behind the NDP and presenting himself, in the words of Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn, as “a humble friend of the working class” (despite his record that includes freezing minimum wages, axing paid sick days and a basic income pilot amid much bluster about unions).
In reality, however, Ford’s background makes him much more likely to be the guy in charge of workers.
Doug Ford Jr. was born in Etobicoke in 1964, the son of Diane and Doug Ford Sr., a rags-to-riches businessman who made his fortune in the label business before a foray into provincial politics as an MPP in Mike Harris’ Progressive Conservative government from 1995 to 1999.
Ford was not available for an interview — the Progressive Conservative leader has largely avoided reporters throughout the campaign — but he described his childhood and family philosophy in a 2016 memoir co-written with his younger brother, Rob.
In Ford Nation: Two Brothers, One Vision, Ford wistfully recalls a childhood that saw his father renting ponies for the kids’ birthday parties in the backyard of their custom-built, six-bedroom rancher.
Ford writes of one of the most influential experiences of his life: a trip to Asia when he was 23. Doug Ford Sr. brought him and Rob to Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, where Ford was most impressed with how workers slept on cardboard on the floor of the factory during their break. “When they woke up, they’d be right back to work. That was a work ethic I’d never seen before, and it was exactly what Dad had intended for us to see.”
Ford worked at Canada Packers during high school, earning $12.49 an hour at a time when Ontario’s minimum wage was $3.50, or $2.65 for those under 18 working part-time. He briefly attended Humber College before dropping out and going to work for the family business, Deco Labels, in sales. His mother recounts in the book how a young Doug got out of trouble for having a messy bedroom: “That was Doug. Always a schmoozer, even as a kid. He could talk his way out of almost anything.”
As he moved up the ladder at Deco, Ford dipped his hand into politics, working on campaigns, including Doug Holyday’s run for Etobicoke mayor, his father’s bid for a provincial seat and Rob’s run for Toronto city council.
Doug Sr.’s time in the provincial government saw Ford rubbing shoulders with the likes of Jim Flaherty, John Baird and Tony Clement, who would all go on to cabinet positions in Stephen Harper’s government.
When Rob decided to run for mayor, Ford stepped in to fill his city council seat representing Etobicoke North. He needed to be at city hall to stick up for his little brother: “… I couldn’t let Rob go it alone,” he wrote.
And stick up for Rob he did, vociferously defending the embattled mayor through scandal after scandal as Rob’s struggles with addiction became undeniably apparent. Council ultimately stripped Rob of most of his mayoral power after he admitted to smoking crack cocaine. Ford writes in his memoir, “I firmly believe that Rob’s mayoralty was an unprecedented success, despite the scandals.”
Mark Towhey, who served as Rob’s senior adviser and later chief of staff from 2010 to 2013, wrote in his recollection of the time, Mayor Rob Ford: Uncontrollable, that Doug Ford often overshadowed his brother. When challenged for stealing the limelight, Ford insisted people were voting for the Ford family, not just Rob. He wanted a private door installed between his and the mayor’s office: “As far as [Doug Ford] was concerned, Rob might be mayor but it was the Ford family that was running the city,” wrote journalist Robyn Doolittle in Crazy Town: The Rob Ford story.
According to Towhey, Ford was clear even back then about his aspirations to the PC leadership to “one-up both his dad and his younger brother by becoming premier of Ontario.”
“This one-upmanship seemed to drive both brothers. I often felt like Rob and Doug were in a race to capture the flag their father had planted by being a member of the provincial parliament. By becoming mayor of Canada’s largest city, Rob had clearly outstripped his father’s political importance. For Doug to best Rob, he would have to become, at the very least, a provincial cabinet minister. Being premier of the province, however, would be a clear win.”
Rob Ford dropped out of the 2014 mayoral race after being diagnosed with cancer. Ford took his place but was defeated by John Tory. His nephew, Michael Ford, later ran for the Etobicoke seat held since 2000 by members of the family and won. Michael is now vying for a provincial seat in the York South-Weston riding.
Nonetheless, Ford rejects the notion that the family is building a political dynasty, insisting in Ford Nation that they are simply motivated by four principles: customer service excellence, reducing the size and cost of government, making government transparent and accountable, and rapid underground transit.
“We just represent the people, and that’s it,” Ford writes. “We’re about as grassroots as they come.”
After his 2014 loss to Tory, Ford vowed he was finished with politics. But then 2018 rolled around, and in a whiplash-inducing turn of events, Tory leader Patrick Brown resigned following allegations of sexual misconduct, which he denied.
Ford narrowly won the PC leadership race and, three months later, thoroughly unseated the governing Liberals to become premier of Ontario. And unless things change considerably in the next few days, he’ll repeat that feat on June 2.
The PCs are running a careful campaign, limiting the opportunities for Ford to blunder, as he has been wont to do in the past. Like his 2018 campaign, he’s keeping this year’s messaging simple, sticking to vague slogans like “getting it done” and “building Ontario.” The 2022-23 budget, released too late to pass before the writ dropped, is the largest in the province’s history, an about-face from his early years of slashing costs.
He’s been touring the province for months, announcing big spending on highways, manufacturing, mining and hospitals, drawing criticism from his opponents that he’s campaigning on the taxpayers’ dime, something he pilloried then-premier Kathleen Wynne for during the 2018 campaign.
And, whether or not it’s true that he’s a “grassroots” guy, a champion of workers, a proponent of reducing government size and cost, of transparency, of economic sense, doesn’t matter that much.
“People understand the world in terms of narratives,” says Robert Danisch, a communications professor at the University of Waterloo.
“If they see Ford as someone who fights for them, if the narrative is ‘Ford is a tough, hard-working guy that has our interests in mind,’ then people will ignore the fact that he’s from a wealthy family or that he’s educated one way or another. They can selectively pay attention to certain things.”
— With files from Allison Hannaford