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Philip Preville: Ford Nation is not who you think it is

Crackgate revealed that the city’s crippling political divide isn’t between downtowners and suburbanites—it’s between the rich and the poor, and it’s only getting worse

Philip Preville: Champion of the Working Class

What will it take for Ford Nation to abandon their man? That’s become one of the great riddles of our time. In late May, as lurid stories swirled of crack videos, hashish trafficking, murders, firings and resignations—all coming on the heels of Ford’s lawsuits, the alleged ass grab and a reported removal from a military ball for drunken behaviour—a Forum Research poll showed that 40 per cent of Toronto voters continue to be die-hard Ford supporters. Among those who voted for the mayor in 2010, 75 per cent still approved of his job performance. The anti-Ford camp tends to explain this stubborn refusal to accept mounting evidence as a symptom of the culture war between downtown and the suburbs. On one side are the elitist downtown progressives who favour transit, walkability, cycling, densification, lattes and street festivals; on the other side are the suburbanites, who prefer private space, low-density living, commuting by car, Tim Hortons and backyard barbecues.

This narrative doesn’t tell a true story about Toronto. There is a deep divide in the city, but it’s a class-based conflict between haves and have-nots—or, more precisely, between neighbourhoods with improving prospects and neighbourhoods on the decline. And Ford Nation hails largely from the latter.

We know from the 2010 municipal election results that Ford Nation essentially surrounds the old City of Toronto. These outlying areas are also home to the highest concentration of visible minorities in the city and have seen the biggest drops in individual incomes. Ford drew some of his strongest voter support from wards that are the poorest, the most ethnically diverse, or both. Up in the northern reaches of Scarborough-Agincourt’s Ward 39, for example, where Ford garnered 63.7 per cent of the vote, visible minorities make up more than half the population, and English is the mother tongue in less than a quarter of households. By contrast, in Trinity-Spadina’s Ward 19, where together George Smitherman and Joe Pantalone received almost 75 per cent of all votes cast, visible minorities make up only 30 per cent of the population.

Those kinds of numbers extend right across the city. Zack Taylor is an assistant professor of urban politics at U of T who has studied the 2010 election results in depth. According to him, visible minorities made up more than half the population in all the wards where Ford won overwhelming support, compared to just 27 per cent in what Taylor wryly calls “Smitherman Village.”

Wealth plays a role, too. The city’s most affluent areas—places where the average income is $104,000 per year, many of which are located in Old Toronto—generally voted against Ford. And while the mayor did carry some wealthy neighbourhoods, his margins of victory in those areas tended to be smaller.

Ford fared much better in inner-suburban neighbourhoods where average incomes have been on the decline. According to a 2010 study by U of T’s Cities Centre, average incomes in vast swaths of Etobicoke and nearly all of Scarborough dropped between 1970 and 2005 from $29,800 to as low as $22,500. In the city’s 13 so-called priority neighbourhoods—including Malvern, Scarborough Village, Jane-Finch, Weston-Mt. Dennis and Jamestown—incomes declined the most.