I am an American living in Toronto. I arrived in 2004, at a time when it was fashionable for young liberals to threaten to move to Canada and, on a more personal but related level, when one-upmanship meant a lot more to me than it does today. This means I’ve lived in the city for almost a decade. For almost a decade, nobody back home cared about it. “Ooh, Toe-rahn-toe,” some would say when I told them where I’d gone for school—an out-of-state tuition I could afford, across an international boundary but on the same system of glacial lakes. How exotic, this implied. Usually, though, I’d just get a vaguely perplexed stare, and whoever I was talking to would change the subject. This is how most Americans think about Canada: briefly, barely, and with little understanding. It isn’t because of willful disinterest, necessarily. I think most people just prefer the mystery. I have relatives with advanced degrees who still think I speak French.
Because of this, I’m a little tickled to have my mayor’s name on all my American friends’ lips and Facebook walls. Actual shits are being given! About Toronto! Getting America to acknowledge the existence of Toronto is kind of like getting your sheltered Republican grandpa to admit that he’s long suspected Obama’s probably not a Muslim. It’s not the best-case scenario, but it’s a step.
A step to what? That, I’m unclear on.
I’ve lost track of all the major media coverage we’ve gotten back home.The flashy tail end (knock wood) of a years-long public spectacle is being (and has been) broadcast, in distillation, for all the motherland to see; really, all the world. Once the mayor was lampooned on the opening sketch of Saturday Night Live (and why yes that would be the sketch reserved for the most interesting and important news of the week, thank you very much), I knew I had to cut myself off. I couldn’t even pretend that I cared they screwed up the accents.
This is all very exciting. It also feels terribly absurd.
For the record, I did not vote for Rob Ford. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t, because I am not a citizen and cannot legally vote for anyone. My experience of Rob Ford’s tenure as mayor of Toronto has been one of a civically concerned and emotionally invested denizen without full license to have either concern or investment. From a bleachers seat, I’ve watched the mayor oppose every remotely compassionate by-law thrown in his direction, well before he admitted to using and buying drugs, driving drunk, and publicly insisting he has “more than enough to eat at home” in the context of his poor, poor wife’s bits. Somewhere along the line, Toronto stopped being the aloof but gentle leather-jacketed enigma I’d envisioned when I moved here, an ignorant American, at 18. It became, instead, something more familiar: a divided city.
While I’ve been here for some time, it’s Ford who has made me realize that I can’t reconcile the symbolic Toronto of my shaky but gut-trusting understanding with the truth that it’s a real city with real city rifts still figuring out how to grapple with both. If I could, I’d likely be less surprised that we’ve found ourselves with a leader so obviously, so cartoonishly, villainous, yet with such broad appeal.
Audiences abroad won’t likely catch the nuance. They haven’t been backgrounded on policy and demographics, growing pains in a city most viewers will not know. Instead, they’ll see more of the gong show they didn’t expect from a place they may not have given thought to, be momentarily surprised, and forget. They are not commiserating with us; they are eating popcorn and waiting for the next outrageous plot twist. It feels uncomfortable but oddly uplifting, like lapses into tenderness from a largely indifferent lover who occasionally bangs your friends.
Notoriety is a narcotic buzz. It’s like being in a fight, waiting for the next punch to land. That is, until you’re unable to feel anything at all.