I don’t usually get calls near midnight. And I’ve never had one from Doug Ford at any hour.
But a week ago Thursday, my evening ended with a call from the premier of Ontario.
I had texted his cellphone to ask why a friend had been laid off when he had promised that no public servant would lose a job.
It has been widely reported that Doug Ford gives his number out, like his brother did, and asks people to reach out. I found it with a simple Google search.
At 11:18 p.m., he texted back: “Daniel are you still up?” and if asked if I had a minute for a call. I replied, “I am, and I do.” Ten seconds later, “No Caller ID” was calling.
It was one of the most surreal calls of my life.
The premier seemed tired. He started in right away on how much respect he has for “99.99%” of the teachers in Ontario. I explained that my friend wasn’t a teacher, but a public servant with 10 years of service. I was polite and respectful and, as I wrote later on Twitter, we canvassed a number of topics.
Why, I asked, was it necessary to cut the funding for the planting of 50 million trees? The premier said he learned of that specific cut that morning and he called his “people” to ask, “what that was about.” He then explained that “the forestry industry are the best stewards of the environment.” We discussed legal-aid cuts: “I was told there were less cases, but more lawyers taking fees.” I asked where that fact came from and he said, “it’s what I was told.” The premier told me his cuts “could have been much worse.”
When I felt the conversation coming to an end, I mentioned that I had met his brother and that some of my family had voted Conservative. “The people voted for me,” he said. “And they voted for Rob. That’s who we work for, the people.” He said once again that he doesn’t like to promise anything “1,000%” but he would do everything he could to secure my friend a job if they emailed a resumé to email@example.com.
After 10 minutes we hung up and I stood alone in the dark, unsure how to process what just happened. Did he really not know about cuts to tree planting? Was he confused about legal aid?
This wasn’t my first experience with the Ford family.
Back in February of 2014, I phoned Mayor Rob Ford’s office at city hall.
I had heard so much about the mayor’s calls to people that I thought I would give it a try. My issue at that time certainly didn’t need the immediate attention of the city’s top elected official, but when Rob called me back, I explained that people were driving too fast in the alley behind my apartment. One week later, instead of delegating it to a staffer, Rob Ford and someone from Toronto transportation were standing with me in an alleyway behind Yonge St. Was this how we expected the mayor of Canada’s largest city to spend his time?
Rob was gentle and friendly, and struck me as a bit shy.
He was, at that time, under extremely intense scrutiny and showed no signs of the wild character we had come to know from the news. He didn’t wear an overcoat in the bitter cold. He made small talk about the neighbourhood. He assessed the alley, and the three of us discussed making it one-way or adding a parking-garage-style mirror at the blind corner. The man from city transportation asked about speed bumps and Mayor Ford looked to me. It was that easy — five years later there remain four speed bumps in that one alleyway behind Yonge.
In my call with the premier, I was struck by the similarities between the brothers, even though my calls were about two entirely different concerns. In 2014, I couldn’t believe the mayor would busy himself, and city staff, with something as trivial as one man’s speed bumps. But last week I was searching for answers about something far more serious. Public services were being cut. People were losing their jobs.
However, in both interactions, the conversation was limited to my personal concern, as if making me happy was the only goal, instead of making sure no one else had my problem in the future. Both men appeared to find it easier to deal with my individual worry instead of complex public policy. I hadn’t called the mayor looking for speed bumps, and I certainly hadn’t called the premier looking for a job referral for a friend.
For the mayor, it made more sense to visit my alley rather than spend time and money on a city-wide review of pedestrian safety. For the premier, a call to me and a gesture in the direction of a soon-to-be jobless friend seemed more manageable than second guessing job-cutting “cost-saving measures.”
To be honest, I have gotten a bit of kick out of all this. The premier called me at home. My tweets about this experience more than tripled my followers. Seven media outlets reached out.
But I have also found this experience quite unsettling.
If the premier called everyone in the province, round the clock, and spoke to each Ontarian for just 10 seconds, it would take him roughly four years and four months. Is this how we want our leaders to spend their time in office? Is this what leaders are now supposed to do?
I am white and male. I attend law school and I am learning to advocate. But is a refugee who has lost all legal aid funding going to call? Is a parent overwhelmed with a child with autism going to have the time?
I have received some criticism for failing to give kudos to the two men for being “accessible.” I’m sorry, but I don’t. Late-night calls don’t feel democratic and they don’t feel right. In Ontario there are 14.2 million of us and our leaders can’t serve their constituents one at a time. Dial-up democracy — whether we get that job, or the cars slow down — will only serve to divide us up into the people who call, and the people who don’t or can’t. The call-backs and the no-call-backs, the winners and the losers. Ontario feels like it is on the cusp of fundamental change; thoughtful leadership is needed.
The following day the premier was in Ottawa assessing flood damage. If it were up to me, Doug Ford would have spent the evening before reading army protocol briefs, or weather reports, or God forbid, a climate change memo.
On some level, I do appreciate the call, and there is definitely something seductive about being “heard,” but I wish it meant something. I wish the premier was spending his time protecting systems in jeopardy and friends from losing their jobs.
I don’t think we will stay in touch.
Daniel Enright is a student at Osgoode Hall Law School. He lives in Toronto.