In Ford’s story, our municipal leaders were, through malice and/or sheer incompetence, frivolously wasting our hard-earned taxes. City Council presided over a veritable Niagara Falls of misspent money, or worse: a backroomers’ paradise where insiders got rewarded with juicy, taxpayer-funded benefits. (During the election, for example, he suggested that a certain restaurant by the lake secured a city lease through political contacts, a potentially libelous allegation currently before the courts.) However questionable the details, Ford told his story convincingly and well. It had a plausible outsider hero, a quest, a dash of suspense, and, most importantly, a memorable punchline. Near the end of the campaign, he didn’t even have to tell the whole thing. With two code words — “gravy train” — he could conjure the whole, irresistible story, and it made him the most powerful mayor in Canada. Stories truly do win elections.
But as a Caribbean friend of mine likes to say, “The leaky roof can fool the sun but it can’t fool the rain.” Our mayor’s original tale, about being a renegade hero come to rescue us from self-serving and inept politicians, has sprung many leaks. It has morphed into a narrative we didn’t vote for. The inscription on Eldon Garnet’s sculpture on the Queen St. bridge states: this river I step in is not the river I stand in. In our mayor’s case, the story we stepped in is definitely not the story we’re standing in nine months later. We storytellers may be “professional liars,” as my Grade 2 friend said, but we do have our principles, and one of them is that you can’t switch stories midstream.
There were early signs of narrative trouble in his mayoral reign. One of his first acts in office was cancelling the Vehicle Registration Tax, then complaining that the city didn’t have enough revenue to cover its costs. The Irish call this “putting on the poor mouth,” i.e., pretending to be poorer than you really are. Then the mayor’s brother, Councillor Doug Ford, began talking about how anything that “wasn’t nailed down” would be sold off, privatized, or just plain axed in the name of running a cheaper ship of state. Nailed down? That was a new metaphor indeed, and it became the recurrent motif of Ford’s new story, where elements of a hard-earned and long-established common good — libraries, parks, arts programs, police, firefighters, support for our youth — weren’t “nailed down” sufficiently to be safe from the impending cuts.
Writing about how conservatives in the USA have hijacked the vocabulary that describes a government’s duty of care for its citizens, George Lakoff writes, “Services … start where necessities end. … It is time to stop speaking of government ‘services’ and speak instead of government providing necessities.” (Untellable Truths, Dec. 10, 2010) And how the mayor’s recent decision not to accept provincially-funded public health nurses fits into any kind of meaningful, city-building story is anybody’s guess.
By the time KPMG’s due diligence found no evidence of a “gravy train” at City Hall, Ford had already, with the help of his brother and friends on Council, begun telling us his new story about Toronto becoming the Incredible Shrinking City, where the government will provide fewer and fewer services — or necessities — to its citizens. First we listened to a story about “cutting the waste,” then we found out that we are the waste. Things that many generations of Torontonians had agreed were important and valuable parts of civic life were now being spoken of as disposable assets.