Doug Ford’s leadership is making friends out of foes in Ontario
Why We Wrote This
More partisanship has crept into Canada’s politics in recent years, but the pandemic has many voices united against COVID-19. One official epitomizes how a crisis can inspire leaders to rise to the occasion.
Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press/AP
Ontario Premier Doug Ford responds to a question in Toronto on April 11, 2020. In mid-March Mr. Ford began to win over critics by communicating with empathy and deferring to experts during his daily COVID-19 update.
April 24, 2020
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While the pandemic is serving as a super-sized object of partisanship in the United States, Canada is striving for consensus. It’s a unity that’s not immutable, but officials at all levels have put aside politics to address the coronavirus. No relationship demonstrates that better than that of Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford to his opponents.
Mr. Ford has battled teachers over cuts to public education, cut Toronto’s City Council in half during municipal elections, and raged against the federal government’s carbon tax to address climate change.
In March, his government didn’t appear to take the coronavirus seriously. Before schools’ spring break, he told families to travel and “have fun.” But as the risks of the pandemic grew, Mr. Ford shifted his stance. At his daily press conferences, he speaks plainly and defers to the health experts – surprising critics, and prompting their praise in return.
Marie Henein, a high-profile defense attorney in Toronto, has written Op-Eds both for and against Mr. Ford. Today she sees his change as an antidote to a larger problem, in North America and beyond. “Somehow acting without evidence and acting contrary to information is viewed as being authentic,” she says. But “evidence-based leadership is not contrary to strong, powerful, and decisive leadership.”
His political foes on the left labeled him “Donald Trump of the North.” Not entirely accurate, but Ontario Premier Doug Ford has been known as a brawler.
The government spent most of this academic year battling with teachers over cuts to public education. It cut Toronto’s City Council in half during municipal elections, which was decried as undemocratic. Mr. Ford has raged noisily against the federal government’s carbon tax to address climate change.
In March, his government didn’t appear to take the coronavirus seriously. Before spring break, he told Ontario families to travel and “have fun.”
But as the risks of the pandemic grew, Mr. Ford shifted his stance. He still rails, but now it’s not against political rivals, but at price gougers or at no one in particular – saying “the buck stops here” – about Ontario’s lagging behind on testing, for example.
At daily press conferences, he speaks plainly and defers to the health experts on the stage – surprising critics, and prompting their praise in return.
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Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, told the Toronto Star that she and Mr. Ford have “come to describe one another as each other’s therapists.”
Andrew Weaver, former Green Party leader of British Columbia, tweeted: “While I can’t say I have historically been a fan of @fordnation, I have to say he is doing an incredible job on the COVID-19 file. He has shown strong, decisive and compassionate leadership at a critical moment in Ontario’s history.”
The media, arguably his biggest foe, have earned his praise – and they’ve given it right back.
While the pandemic has generated a bitterly partisan divide in the United States, with protests over lockdowns that President Donald Trump has appeared to endorse, Canada has strived for consensus. That unity is not immutable, and stressors have already built up. But many Canadian politicians have put aside politics to address the threat of COVID-19, and no relationship demonstrates that better than that of Mr. Ford to his opponents.
“His government came into office being completely obtuse about criticism, just completely unwilling to listen to people and doing things almost belligerently because they could,” says Tim Abray, a political communications expert in Ottawa, “and I think that tone has disappeared.”
Mr. Abray says Premier Ford has always been a street-level politician with a skill for talking to people, even if foes failed to see it. “The thing I’m pleasantly surprised about is that he’s making the most of his grassroots, ground-level political instincts, while at the same time, paying attention to expert advice.”
As citizens rally around leaders, approval ratings generally go up in a time of crisis, and this pandemic is no different (although President Trump’s approval has gone down to 43%, according to a Gallup poll). An Angus Reid Institute poll in March showed 74% of respondents in Ontario saying the provincial government was handling the crisis well.
Over the weekend, Canadian protesters calling for an end to lockdowns in Toronto did get a scathing rebuke from Mr. Ford, when he called them “a bunch of yahoos.”
Marie Henein, a defense lawyer in Toronto, has not been a fan. But in the April 9 opinion pages of The Globe and Mail, she penned a piece describing her new “uncomfortable reality.” “It is not easy to heap praise in his direction,” she wrote.
In fact, 18 months earlier she wrote a warning to the Ontario premier about bullying. “So here is your final lesson: Mr. Trump is not a good example to follow. Do not forget, Premier Ford, we are Canadian and inherently decent to a fault. The rough-and-tumble populist appeal to which you, apparently, aspire has long-term, negative consequences for the country.”
Today she says that as Mr. Ford has listened to experts, speaking authentically and with empathy in a crisis, she has come to gradually shift her view – and sees his change as an antidote to a larger problem with politics, in North America and beyond. “Somehow acting without evidence and acting contrary to information is viewed as being authentic. … And I think what is important is really to remember that that is very much contrary to what effective leadership is,” she says. “Evidence-based leadership is not contrary to strong, powerful, and decisive leadership.”
Mr. Ford has been a voice for cooperation across the political aisle. In the Ontario legislature he told politicians in March: “Now is the time to put politics aside. No matter what our political stripe, we must all be Team Ontario and Team Canada.”
A survey by the Media Ecosystem Observatory reflected consensus at the national level, showing no differences along party lines in views on distancing measures or the seriousness of the threat of COVID-19. While Mr. Abray cautions that politics will return and break some of the consensus, he says that Canada still has room for bipartisan friendships, like that of Mr. Ford and Ms. Freeland – even if in recent years more partisanship has crept into Canada’s system.
Cristine de Clercy, a political science professor at Western University in Ontario, says that Canada is smaller than the U.S. and has a unique political structure that marries federalism to a parliamentary system. “Because the premier or the prime minister sits among the legislators with the cabinet, that creates a very top-heavy executive-dominant political system, which in normal times we complain about, but in times of crisis can act quickly and efficiently.”
She is cautious about defining Mr. Ford’s leadership at this early stage. Mr. Ford released a roadmap Monday for Ontario’s economic reopening to mixed reviews. Still grappling with among the nation’s highest infection rates, Ontario is currently under a spotlight for funding cuts and low wages that have made long-term care facilities particularly vulnerable. Along with Quebec, Ontario requested that Canada’s armed forces be sent into nursing homes to reinforce care. Mr. Ford choked up last week during a daily press conference, saying “we can do better” when it comes to COVID-19 hitting long-term care homes. He also revealed that his mother-in-law, who is 95 and lives in a home, has tested positive.
“But what I would credit him for is that he followed the lead of other leaders like Mr. Trudeau … in terms of accepting input from his science and health policy advisers and paying rapt attention to their predictions about the seriousness of COVID,” says Professor de Clercy.
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Is that a low bar? “On the normative question, ‘Should he listen to his scientific advisers?’ Of course. One presumes political leaders ought to, especially in the case of a pandemic. But empirically, we know that many have chosen not to,” she says. “Many American governors still are refusing to listen to their scientific advisers to force citizens to isolate, to shut down key industries.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated Tuesday morning, April 28.