Win or Lose, Doug Ford Has Changed the Conversation

Why conservatives are rooting for Ford Nation to give them the edge in 2019's federal election

Photograph of Doug Ford
Cole Burston/Bloomberg

At first glance, Doug Ford’s Twitter handle, @fordnation, is an arguably ambitious choice for someone whose sights are still set on winning power, and in just one province. But, braggadocio aside, the new leader of Ontario’s PC Party could very well be carrying a country’s worth of conservative ambition into the coming provincial election. Ford’s campaign for premier has been an important test, both for his rivals and for those on his own team—and particularly as he became the popular choice in early May polls. The rise of “Ford Nation,” hope many provincial and federal Conservatives, will not only guarantee a win in Ontario but become a blueprint for regaining power in all of Canada.

Although Ford seems to be a big personality, he is also, in many ways, a blank slate—onto which many people can draw their dreams and fears. Even now, in an attempt to define Ford, everyone seems to largely turn to other political players for comparison. Is he Canada’s version of Donald Trump? Will he be the revival of Mike Harris politics, with all the corresponding belt tightening? Is Ford taking a page from former prime minister Stephen Harper and keeping the media at a grudging distance? Without much of a platform of his own, and only occasional blurts of policy to date, Ford is usually branded as a “populist,” though it’s not clear what that means beyond the “For the People” slogan emblazoned on his campaign bus.

It may be more accurate to call him, and his political platform, “anti-elitist,” with a loose, ever-expanding definition of what we mean by elites. Those who use the term elite in the political sphere are often referencing any number of things, from millionaires to academics to media pundits. Of course, Conservatives, in Ontario and Ottawa, wouldn’t exactly mind if people also saw “elites” and “Liberals” as essentially the same thing—and it’s more than a coincidence that they are tarring Ontario and federal Liberals with the same “elitist” brush. Even New Democrats can be cast as elitists in Ford’s view of the world. The broader, it seems, the better. For example, here’s what Ford said during the May 11 leaders’ debate in Parry Sound: “My counterparts here, my opposition sitting to the left [Kathleen Wynne], she relies on the Toronto elites…[to] dictate to the people of the north what they should be doing and what they shouldn’t be doing,”

But if Ford’s brand of conservatism works in tossing Liberals out of Queen’s Park—and it just may—voters should prepare themselves for federal copycats. After all, Ford is not a fluke. Conservatives don’t just want Ford to be Kathleen Wynne’s biggest nightmare but Trudeau’s as well. If Ford wins the Ontario election, or even if he continues to change the national conversation in a measurable way, it’s likely we’ll see Andrew Scheer’s federal Conservatives draw inspiration from Ford Nation when they take on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2019. In many ways, we’re already in that moment.

One month before Ford’s victory in the Ontario leadership race on March 10, the leader-to-be was working the corridors and social events at the Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa. The conference was a big deal when the federal Conservatives were in power, and this year’s annual gathering was filled with cabinet ministers and insiders talking a little more openly than was generally preferred in the decade of Stephen Harper’s tightly controlled, buttoned-down government. During the decade it’s been running, the conference has been the go-to place to hear prominent conservatives—from Canada and abroad—speaking about growing the movement. It’s where you went in the early years of Harper’s government to hear his people talking about the state of conservative values in Canada or where you went last year to hear Canadian conservatives talk of where their paths converged or diverged with the new Trump administration in the United States.

Though the Manning event feels like it has a little less buzz these days, with Conservatives out of power in Ottawa, it still attracts partisans keen to spend the weekend talking policy and strategy in the shadow of Parliament Hill. This year, a lot of the chatter was about the PC Party leadership race and the looming Ontario provincial election. Ford himself talked openly about what kind of strategic coalition the Progressive Conservatives needed in order to win in the June 7 vote. In conversation onstage with Sun columnist Anthony Furey, with roughly 100 conference goers in the audience hanging on his every word, Ford was asked to define this thing called Ford Nation. “I’d like to study that one day because it’s the most interesting group, most diverse group in any political arena I’ve ever seen,” Ford answered. “It’s a true snapshot of Ontario. You have every race, colour, creed, every political stripe.” He claimed that the Ford Nation brand of politics has even pulled hard-core NDP union members to his team (though there’s no record of who those people might be).

To him, Ford Nation is, in other words, a kind of United Nations. Though Ford is constantly compared to President Donald Trump, this is where the parallels stop: Trump rode to power casting immigrants and visible minorities as problems for America. Ford sees these constituencies as part of his team. As it happens, at least one recent poll bears out that contention. Abacus Data took a close look at Ford Nation in late March and early April, in an online poll of more than 4,000 Ontarians. The poll found that visible minorities were as likely to identify with Ford Nation as any other Ontarian: about 5 percent of all Ontarians said they would call themselves members of Ford Nation, and 4 percent of visible minorities said the same. Another 25 percent of all Ontarians said they were fans of Ford Nation, though they didn’t really identify with it. When it comes to visible minorities, that number dips only slightly, to 19 percent.

Ford’s critics argue that there’s a streak of intolerance running through Ford Nation, especially with regard to immigrants, but the Abacus poll appears to indicate that this isn’t contained within the camp of his supporters. It’s true that roughly half of those who called themselves members of Ford Nation saw immigrants as a burden, but so did a quarter of respondents who said they weren’t aligned with Ford. And, unlike Trump, who’s seemed hesitant to condemn white supremacists, Ford recently issued a swift tweet against a notorious Canadian neo-Nazi who apparently endorsed his campaign. Ford wrote: “I condemn this guy’s views and everything he stands for. If he knew anything about Ford Nation, he would know we welcome people from all backgrounds, religion, & income levels. Nice try, Liberals.”

Still, Ford’s rivals are going to keep casting him as a northern version of Trump, and in his other comments, the Progressive Conservative leader has often helped them make that case. He has said, for instance, that he wants to see Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals go to jail—an echo of Trump’s “lock her up” chorus against Hillary Clinton. In response to that particular outburst, Wynne solemnly declared that, “Doug Ford sounds like Donald Trump, and that’s because he is like Donald Trump.”

But it would be a mistake to see Ford in a simple, singular Trump-north frame. Like many canny politicians, Ford is also studying his rivals, to the point of imitating them when it seems smart to do so. In fact, when it comes to rebuilding the Progressive Conservative base, Ford makes clear that he’d much prefer to be compared to Trudeau—at least when it comes to cobbling together unexpected coalitions. “We need to attract NDP and Liberal voters,” Ford said on stage at the Manning conference. “You know who did that? The Liberals did that in the last federal election. They took the NDP vote, and that’s how we ended up with the mess in Ottawa right now.”

To me, he is correct—well, maybe not about the “mess”—in that Trudeau saw the electorate in 2015 through a post-partisan lens. Smart politicians these days focus less on building brand loyalty than they do on building coalitions. Ford’s success or failure could turn on whether Ford Nation turns out to be merely a brand or, more powerfully, a coalition. What’s more, if Ford ever does get around to studying his Ford Nation one day, he might find that others have already beaten him to it—notably, the strategists working with Scheer in the lead-up to the 2019 campaign, now just a little more than a year away.

You might have seen Scheer in some TV commercials recently. He’s the man walking slowly through a suburb, in a checkered shirt, saying hello to passersby and talking about how he isn’t a guy who’s comfortable on the cocktail circuit—a not-so-subtle jab against “elites.” The suburban surroundings in the ad could well have been borrowed from the Etobicoke streets where Ford is so at home. No surprise—Scheer and Ford, like Harper before them, need those suburban votes and women voters. They may be able to steal them from Wynne, but perhaps the more important question is: Can they also lure them away from Trudeau?

One of the most interesting sessions at the Manning conference was titled: “Spotlight on the Next 10 %”—a reference to where the Conservatives must look for the support that will push the party from its low-thirties standings in the opinion polls to the near 40 percent necessary to form majority government in Canada. In the past decade, this session, or a version of it, has featured pollsters and partisans talking about how to turn the Conservatives into the “natural governing party” of Canada in the twenty-first century, just as Liberals were in the twentieth century. The discussion often revolves around how to lure new constituencies to the movement, including demographic groups who are perceived as belonging to the Liberals, like immigrants or visible minorities.

Ford wasn’t at this session this year, but his name was pointedly raised by none other than Hamish Marshall, the man who ran Scheer’s successful leadership campaign last spring and the person who will be running the federal Conservative election campaign in 2019. Marshall was sharing a stage with Abacus pollster David Coletto. “The experience of Ford Nation is really interesting,” Marshall told the crowd. He went on to describe how he’s studied the results of the last Toronto mayoral election in 2014, particularly peering into the demographics. (This was the campaign in which Rob Ford, Doug’s brother, was originally the incumbent candidate and was forced to step down when he was diagnosed with cancer. Doug Ford jumped in to run instead, ultimately losing to John Tory, but not without a significant, second-place showing.) What was striking, said Marshall, was Ford’s support in municipal wards with large constituencies of visible minorities or newcomers to Canada. “It’s a huge potential and it shows that conservative, anti-establishment messages can have great appeal with new Canadians, with low-income new Canadians,” Marshall said. “We’ve got a lot to do, but I think there’s a huge amount of growth potential there.”

This isn’t the first time that federal Conservatives have gone looking to immigrant and newcomer communities in Canada for a path to victory. That was the full-time mission for former Harper cabinet minister Jason Kenney, now head of the United Conservative party in Alberta. Harper once boasted to a US audience that what set Canadian Conservatives apart—even from US Republicans—was their ability to appeal to immigrant and so-called cultural communities. Kenney is owed a great deal of credit for that.

Marshall bluntly told the crowd at Manning that federal Conservatives lost a lot of that immigrant and visible-minority vote between 2011 and 2015, in no small part because of how Trudeau’s Liberals hammered away at the idea that Harper’s team was unfriendly to newcomers (a perception also fuelled by the Conservatives’ own focus on religious clothing and refugees in the 2015 campaign, it should be said). “The Liberals have done a great job of trying to tell people in those communities that we’re racists and things like that,” Marshall said. In other words, the party has to start all over again building bridges with communities that were once attracted to the Harper-Kenney pitch.

But with Harper and Kenney gone from federal politics, can Ford be the standard-bearer for that effort to get support from these communities? Indeed, in all the comparisons of Doug Ford to other people, perhaps the real question is whether he can be a bit like Kenney or even Harper—at least when it comes to making conservatism attractive to new Canadians and what Harper liked to call “cultural communities.”

Several weeks after the Manning conference, I sat down with Marshall in an Ottawa coffee shop near Parliament Hill. Opponents of the Conservatives like to cast Marshall as some dangerous alt-right operative because of his past membership on the board of Rebel Media—sort of a Canadian version of Steve Bannon, the Breitbart bad boy who was a former chief strategist to Donald Trump. The comparison is a stretch, to say the least. Scheer’s future campaign manager does not appear to share Bannon’s fondness for disruption or the spotlight—or for whipping up racial divides. Marshall, a young father and holder of an MBA from Oxford, was picked to be Scheer’s campaign manager because of their decade-long friendship and Scheer’s belief that they shared the high road in political campaigning. “I had to be sure that I could find a campaign manager that I could trust 100 per cent. I did not want to engage in negative attacks,” Scheer told Maclean’s in 2017. Sure enough, in real life, Marshall is a quiet, thoughtful strategist, clearly more comfortable behind the scenes, though happy to sit down and chat to a reporter about what he’s learning from the data he’s studying.

“I like maps,” he says, pulling out his phone and showing a map with stats from the City of Toronto website and the 2014 mayoral election results. He points to all those wards where Doug Ford did well—the ones in which just under two-thirds of the population are visible minorities. It’s not that the Fords have been experts in identity politics, Marshall says. In fact, it’s the opposite. “The Fords appealed to voters on their values, not their ethnic identities,” he added in a later email. “They were the candidates of people who felt City Hall didn’t care about them.” Basically, he was saying, the Fords have tapped into the argument that people of all demographic groups have issues with taxes, garbage pickup, or the safety of their neighbourhoods.

It is true that there’s a tendency in politics to see so-called “cultural communities” primarily through the lens of their culture and not simply their everyday grievances with government or frustration with politics of the day. Ontarians who are angry about the sex-ed curriculum could be white evangelical Christians or brand-new citizens from countries where sex is not openly discussed in schools. High electricity rates annoy citizens across many demographic divides, after all, and your ethnicity doesn’t really matter if you’re feeling like your taxes are too high. “The feeling at city hall in 2010 and the feeling at Queen’s Park today are not dissimilar,” Marshall says.

Ridings with high levels of immigrants and conservatives can lean heavily toward social conservatism, too, as we’ve seen, for example, in the Scarborough ridings in Toronto. (For decades, some of the most socially conservative members of the federal Liberal caucus have been the MPs from Scarborough.) In a Toronto Star report last fall, Scarborough was highlighted as one of the areas of the GTA with the highest levels of visible minorities—over 50 percent. Those Scarborough-area ridings were also among the ones where Ford did well in the 2014 mayoral race. What’s more, Scheer’s Conservatives pulled in over 40 percent of the vote in the Scarborough-Agincourt by-election last fall. Clearly, something about conservatism is resonating in the Scarborough ridings, Marshall believes. If Ford Nation was to plant a flag in the heart of its visible-minority and immigrant base, it would probably be somewhere in Scarborough.

To that point, some Conservatives at the federal level are more than a little tired of hearing Ford described as a populist in the Trump tradition—and they warn that it’s a big mistake to use that comparison to underestimate him. This whole business of Ford being a “populist,” in fact, leaves Marshall bemused. Populism, in his view, has become a way for critics of conservatism to describe ideas or people they don’t like. “When [former Saskatchewan premier] Brad Wall opposed the carbon tax no one called him a populist, but when Doug Ford says it, all of a sudden it is a populist idea,” Marshall wrote in an email to me (though it should be noted, some critics did call Wall a populist at the time—though not to the same extent). “I think the label of populist has less to do with their ideas, and more today with perceptions of who is proposing those ideas.”

Rick Anderson, a veteran of the old Reform Party, one-time chief adviser to Preston Manning, and former executive director of the Manning Centre, has spent a lot of time in the populist trenches, thinking about how to make government more accessible to citizens. Anderson says he only met Ford this year at the Manning conference and was surprised. Ford was soft spoken, deferential, polite almost to an old-fashioned fault—he insisted on calling him “Mr. Anderson.” Anderson knows some people, particularly critics and those from opposing parties, see Ford as a sort of Trump North. “But I see something different,” says Anderson. “I also see someone who’s a bona fide small-c conservative and not afraid of being identified as such.”

Where much of Trump’s policies are reflexive or ad hoc, in Anderson’s view, Ford seems to be more grounded in traditional, conservative ideas about small government. “There’s no clear functioning ideology around Donald Trump. It’s just completely opportunistic,” Anderson says. The same cannot be said of Ford, he argues. “He’s got a strong commitment to constituent service, which I think is a good addition to the conservative thought process in politics”—not to mention a layperson’s way of communicating about finance and debt. It’s an interesting point as we approach the federal election: When Trudeau promised to grow the budget deficit in the 2015 campaign, was he gambling that people ultimately didn’t understand or care about fiscal complexities? Would Ford have changed that conversation?

Perhaps we’ll soon find out. In April, the Hill Times, the local paper of Parliament Hill, chronicled how many of the Conservative operatives who had worked for Harper were now coalescing around Ford and gearing up for the provincial campaign. Some of this human-resources traffic between Ottawa and Queen’s Park is standard—Trudeau’s team has borrowed heavily from the Wynne government in staffing around Parliament Hill and Trudeau’s two chief advisers, Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, are old hands from Queen’s Park. But federal Conservatives are looking to Doug Ford for more than mere jobs at this moment of conservatism in Canada. Like Marshall, Anderson, and others, they are looking for instruction, inspiration. That’s what you get, perhaps, when you call yourself a nation.

Susan Delacourt
Susan Delacourt is a columnist with the Toronto Star and iPolitics, who has been covering politics on Parliament Hill since the late 1980s.
Author of four books, she is a regular panelist on CBC and CTV, and has been recognized with several honours for her long-time coverage of federal politics. You can follow Susan on twitter @SusanDelacourt