‘Daddy smoked crack’: Toronto’s former mayor Rob Ford, on cancer, drugs and his political future
WATCH: Laura Stone recently sat down with former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and spoke to him about his addictions and his health. She describes the experience and their conversation.
TORONTO – Rob Ford hobbles to the dark brown leather chair in his city hall office, overlooking the skaters at Nathan Phillips Square, just down the hall from the mayor’s quarters he once occupied. In his hand is a Molson Canadian schooner-sized pint glass, filled to the brim – with ice water.
Still broad-shouldered and bulky, he’s not much for food these days, as evidenced by a tightly-wound belt around his lower waist. He takes only a Tim Hortons coffee for lunch.
He doesn’t want to go out.
“If we go outside, all we’re going to do is take pictures. We won’t have a lunch,” he says.
“Don’t get me wrong. There’s going to be people that are going to call me a crackhead. But that’s alright. I love them too.”
His voice is a hoarse whisper, as if his past has seized the throat. He rubs his right leg and walks with a limp, complaining of aching muscles and a sore lower back.
In less than a month, the former mayor of Toronto who smoked crack cocaine while in office will find out if he lives or dies.
“My health right now is sort of up in the air,” he says.
Diagnosed in September with a rare form of cancer, Ford, 45, has since undergone 27 days of radiation, and five rounds of chemotherapy, to shrink a 14 cm tumour found in his lower abdomen last year. He also has a small 3 cm tumour in his back.
He still comes to work, elected last October as a city councillor in the western suburb of Etobicoke North after dropping out of the mayor’s race.
“I’d rather come to work than go home. I want to work. The worst thing I can imagine doing is just sitting on the couch and thinking about it.”
Hanging in Ford’s office is a poster of his late father, Doug Ford Sr., a former MPP, with Mike Harris, the ex-leader of the provincial Progressive Conservative party. Ford Sr. died of colon cancer in 2006, six weeks after he was diagnosed.
“If I don’t get my health back, then I’ll be joining my dad, wherever he is, pretty soon,” Ford says.
After the fourth round of chemo, the tumour in Ford’s stomach had shrunk to about 7 cm. But it’s got to get down to 3 cm before surgeons can operate – and Ford has exhausted his radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
In two to four weeks, he’ll have another MRI to determine if the tumour is small enough to operate on.
“If they can’t do it, then it’s not good news.”
Good news is not something that automatically comes to mind when one thinks of Ford, especially not towards the end of his tenure as mayor of Canada’s largest city.
After denying for months the existence of a video that appeared to show him smoking crack cocaine, he finally admitted in November 2013 to using the illicit drug in one of his “drunken stupors.”
Even after the video caused a worldwide sensation, Ford refused to step down, and his personal problems continued to plague his time in office.
Unable to remove him, Ford’s fellow councillors stripped him of his powers and budget.
“You know what, now that I look back on it, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Ford.
“I very well could have been dead. Or in jail, because I know the police were following me.”
I ask him if he thinks he should have been punished, by the public, for what he did.
Yes and no, he says.
“Yes, because I didn’t get the help earlier on that I needed. And I was lying and conniving and just doing what an addict does,” he says.
“Then on the other side of it, I didn’t do it here. I wasn’t high here, I was doing my job, showing up every day, running a great city. That was in my private life.”
He stares straight ahead, and pauses for a few moments to reconsider.
“But then I look back on it and say, would I have wanted my mayor to do what Rob Ford was doing, regardless of if it was at his private time or not? No, I wouldn’t. And I don’t think anybody would want a mayor who was, you know, an alcoholic and a drug addict, and not recognizing that, and not getting help for it.”
Drink until you pass out
Ford has no qualms about saying it now.
“I know I’m an alcoholic. I know that,” he says.
“People think, well an alcoholic is someone that drinks every day. No actually, it’s not. An alcoholic is someone that can’t stop drinking once they start. And then once they have so many drinks in their system, it’s basically anything goes.”
For Ford, that anything was drugs.
“Everything revolves around alcohol, for me, when it comes to drugs. Everyone says, ‘Well you smoked crack, and you did lines and you’ve done all the drugs.’ Most people that do drugs, I’m not saying smoking marijuana, I’m saying doing cocaine…usually start with drinks.”
When he was drinking, he’d use hard drugs to try to straighten himself out.
“But that can only go on so long. Then you just start burning the candle at both ends.”
He denied it for months, even after more footage of his intoxicated outbursts was released.
Ford calls those moments at city hall a blur.
“I never knew what to do. I didn’t know – I was in a circle, basically, or a den with demons, that I needed to get out. And I didn’t know how to get out, and I didn’t know what the timing was to get out. I didn’t know how to approach my staff,” he says.
“All I had was people yelling at me, telling me to stop drinking. Stop doing drugs. Now that I look back, that’s not how you help an addict. That’s the last thing you do.”
Watch: Mayor Rob Ford admits to smoking crack cocaine
He says his family, and especially his older brother Doug Ford, tried to get him to go to a rehabilitation centre.
“They were extremely, extremely frustrated on me going out there every night and getting high, then trying to beat it, trying to get up in the morning and show up to work and try to hide my hangover,” he says, sipping his coffee.
There was no tipping point, per se. But he announced he would take a leave and get help after an image of him smoking what was described as a crack pipe showed up in the Globe and Mail last April.
Ford’s sister, Kathy, has also struggled with heroin addiction.
“Our family, unfortunately, has a lot of history of drugs and alcohol. We never really dealt with it. No one went to rehab,” he says.
In May last year, he checked himself into GreenStone treatment centre in Muskoka for two months.
That’s where he learned to finally admit to himself what everyone else knew.
“When I look back, I could never just … have one or two glasses of wine,” he says.
Many nights, he’d be having dinner at 7 o’clock, already planning ahead to get drinks ready for 2 a.m., when the bars closed.
“That’s all that was on my mind. And I knew I could get to last call at a bar or restaurant, but after the bar or restaurant, what am I going to have? You drink until you pass out, that’s what you did.”
His wife, Renata, and his two children, Douglas and Stephanie, visited him in rehab. Ford says there hasn’t been drinking or drugs in his house since last June, and swears he’s sober now, but takes it one day at a time.
He says he doesn’t hide anything from his kids.
“You tell the whole world that you smoked crack, you’ve got to go home and face the music, right? Daddy smoked crack. First question is, why did you smoke crack? First thing is, you don’t do what daddy did. He made a mistake, and if you drink, you’re going to smoke crack, and you’re going to drink, you’re going to do other drugs. Drink, you’re going to maybe jump in that car go for a drive and get arrested,” he says.
“Don’t drink. Don’t do drugs. I can’t force you not to do it. I can advise you, I wouldn’t do it. I don’t know how much more clear I can be.”
A lone wolf
This is what Ford likes about politics: he feels needed.
“I like to know people need help, and I’m the one who helps them,” he says.
Ford’s father ran a label business, Deco Labels and Tags, and Ford likes to think he brings the same “customer service” ethos to his political life.
It involves, quite simply, returning phone calls, picking up garbage, fixing potholes – even showing up at people’s houses.
It’s an easy strategy to discount, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that Ford has now won in five municipal elections – one after a crack admission, shortly after announcing he had cancer.
“I never changed who I was from being a councillor to the mayor,” Ford says.
“I’m not Rob. It’s Robbie. I’m the baby of four kids. It’s Robbie, it’s like, Dougie, Randy (his other brother). We all have that babyish sort of – that we’ve never grown out of.”
He sees himself as the only councillor in opposition now. All but two of his 30 motions to change current mayor John Tory’s budget were rejected by his colleagues last week.
“I don’t think anybody likes being a lone wolf. But it’s the position that they put me in – I never put myself in that position,” Ford says.
He still gets angry about what he calls the hypocrisy of council in stripping his powers, even after admitting it probably saved his life.
“There’s many councillors down here that drink and do drugs. I know it, the people know it. That’s fine,” Ford says.
He believes if he had kept his name in the mayor’s race, he would have won.
“Most definitely,” he says.
Shortly after Ford was diagnosed with cancer, the family decided Doug Ford, who had also been a city councillor, would take his place. But Ford admits it wasn’t the right fit.
“I love him dearly, but he just doesn’t got a personality like myself,” Ford says.
Still, Doug Ford finished second with 330,000 votes – the rock-solid “Ford Nation” base. He was about 60,000 votes behind Tory – and Ford believes a swing vote of about 30,000 red Tories, or right-leaning Liberals, could be won again.
Ford says his brother is looking to run provincially or federally. And if Ford survives his battle with cancer, he too would be interested in shifting gears.
“I’d love to be a finance minister,” Ford says, turning his head to look at me.
“I’ve been mayor. So I always look for different challenges.”
Even after everything that’s happened, Ford seems genuinely perplexed by the attention.
I tell him I’m surprised he agreed to meet with me, after his public battles with the media at the height of the crack scandal.
“I deal with media every day. I don’t hate the media. I’m not sick of them,” he says.
Towards the end of the interview I ask Ford if he can step back from himself and see his situation from an outsider’s perspective.
Does he finally understand why people are so interested in his story?
“I never really got my head around all this stuff,” he says.
“I’m just a normal guy.”
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