Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has accomplished what no Canadian prime minister – or any Canadian for that matter – has ever achieved.
After a video showing him smoking crack was obtained by Toronto police, he’s made front pages around the world, become a Twitter sensation and been featured by Jay Leno, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel in the same evening. The last time a Canadian politician attained any name recognition outside Canada was in 1970, when Pierre Trudeau dated Barbra Streisand.
“Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine,” Ford told reporters Tuesday. “But no, do I, am I an addict? No. Have I tried it? … Probably in one of my drunken stupors, probably approximately about a year ago.” He blamed alcohol – a claim bolstered by an “impaired rant” posted online Thursday by the Toronto Star. He blamed the press for not asking the correct questions. Then he refused to resign, and his popularity rose to 44 percent, according to a recent poll by Forum Research.
I suspect that more Americans now know the name of Toronto’s mayor than know the name of Canada’s prime minister. (It’s Stephen Harper. Just FYI.)
That’s because Ford’s an exception - an American-style political train wreck. Americans perceive Canada as the place next door that exports logs, hockey players and cold fronts. It’s frustrating but understandable. Why pay attention to the polite neighbor who never complains and always uses headphones?
Canadians, like Americans living in Omaha or Rochester or Montpelier, accept that they rarely get to bask in the limelight.
But when you’re no longer being treated like a pliant kid brother, it’s welcome. That’s why, after Ford’s admission, triumphalist pro-Canadian tweets followed. “Rob Ford goes global!” read one. Another gushed: “And people say Canada never makes the news in the U.S.”
The fact is that, most days, Canadians just don’t feel the love. A Pew Research Center poll of 39 countries published this summer showed that Canadian respondents, by 2 to 1, said the United States doesn’t consider Canada’s interests. The poll also found that respondents in France, Poland, Britain, Italy and Germany felt Washington cared slightly more about them.
Attempts to generate recognition are humiliating: the Canadian government’s ads in the District of Columbia’s mass-transit stations and in U.S. newspapers designed to sell Americans on Keystone XL because the oil sands are in a friendly jurisdiction called Alberta that is really close by. Then there were the War of 1812 ads we produced earlier this year to boost Canadian pride in a conflict that nobody cares much about.
Ford is box office boffo because he upends American stereotypes about Canadians and, for what it’s worth, Canada’s self-image.
Canadians are cleaner, nicer and slimmer than their southern neighbors. They watch hockey, recycle and never do drugs. They are polite and apologize if they bump into machinery. Even their postgame celebrations are tame, rarely turning into riots. When fans in Vancouver did riot in June 2011 after the Canucks lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals to the Boston Bruins, the image that went ’round the world was of a couple kissing in the street.
In Canada, scary becomes cuddly.
Gawker, which broke the Ford video story in May, exploited this stereotype viciously: “Rob Ford looks like the kind of red-faced American trash who would knock down an old lady in the WalMart pharmacy line just to get his brother’s oxycontin prescription five minutes faster,” national correspondent Ken Layne wrote. A self-proclaimed Canadian waded in apologetically and posted this comment on Gawker’s site: “We’re 100% as fat as Americans. Believe me. Our false sense of superiority over Americans is baseless. We’re just as bad as you are. So don’t feel bad.”
Frankly, I relish the notoriety. Ford has worked over the national brand, but he’s made Canada interesting. As an arch BBC anchor said gleefully: “Finally, something has actually happened in Toronto. But how do Torontonians feel being made famous on the back of the mayor smoking crack cocaine?”
Mister Brit, it feels okay. After all, everyone knows that any publicity is good publicity, eh?