For the Fords, their father’s rags-to-riches saga lies at the heart of the family mythology—a narrative of true grit that Rob Ford has adopted as part of his own political persona. Whenever he talks about growing up in the shadow of all that striving, he still sounds awed, parroting the mantra of a stern but adored disciplinarian as if it continues to echo in his ear. His father “would do anything for his kids,” he says, in the staccato burst of maxims that make up his normal mode of speech. “But you gotta work, be on time, never miss a day of work. You don’t sleep in at the Fords’ house. You’re up and at it.”
Despite that strict credo of self-reliance, Ford is, in fact, a product of upper-middle-class privilege who wanted for little growing up and never had to scuffle for a job. Not long after he was born, in 1969, the baby of the family, the Fords moved into the imposing ranch-style six-bedroom house his father built at the end of a leafy cul-de-sac off Etobicoke’s Royal York Road. With a full-sized swimming pool and gardens out back that have hosted nearly a thousand visitors, it was one of the best addresses in an otherwise modest neighbourhood, party central for the Ford siblings and their friends as they were growing up.
Doug Sr. might have been careful with a dollar, but he spared no expense for his kids. When Rob dreamed of becoming a pro football player, his father sent him to a summer football camp—but not just any football camp. He was dispatched to the youth camp of the Washington Redskins, who had just won the 1983 Super Bowl with two of his heroes, star running back John Riggins and former Toronto Argonaut Joe Theismann. From there, it was on to South Bend, Indiana, and workouts at the legendary University of Notre Dame campus—an extravagant tour of gridiron nirvana beyond the wildest fantasies of your average North American teen.
That experience gave him bragging rights at Scarlett Heights Collegiate, where his determined weightlifting bulked him up enough to play centre on the school’s football team and earned him a reputation as a scrapper off the field. He yearned for stardom on some college roster, but he ended up enrolling at Carleton University in Ottawa, where he found no such glory. He won a spot on the Ravens’ offensive line but appears to have spent most of his first and only season on the bench. University officials say his coach has no memory of him, and some former players suggest he may never have dressed for a game. Although Ford scoffs at that claim, John Lindsay, an Ottawa real estate agent who recalls warming the bench with him, regards the scenario as probable. As Lindsay points out, they were vying for action against older teammates who were seasoned 300-pound hulks. “I know it might sound strange now,” Lindsay says, “but Robbie was a little guy.”
Ford was already well into the 2010 mayoralty race before it emerged that, contrary to his suggestions to a Toronto Star reporter, he had never actually graduated from Carleton. At first an aide claimed that he’d left Ottawa “two credits short of earning a degree,” but soon it became clear that he had dropped out much earlier. Shortly after his first lacklustre football season, he was back home, where a job was waiting on the DECO sales staff. In a family where none of the four siblings has completed a post-secondary degree, that lack of academic credentials did not prevent him from later being named the company’s chief financial officer.
Now Ford will say only that he was summoned home from Carleton to help run the family business—“There were some issues I had to deal with,” he says cryptically—but two years ago a spokesman explained that he’d come back to help his sister, Kathy, a recovering heroin addict, who “fell upon hard times.” A hint of those hard times surfaced in 1998 when her former common-law husband, Ennio Stirpe, the father of her son, arrived at the Caledon house she was sharing with a new boyfriend and killed him with a sawed-off shotgun. Eleven years later, Stirpe had just gotten out of jail after serving two thirds of his manslaughter sentence when he ran afoul of the law again, knifing a girlfriend so savagely she was blinded in one eye. “Ford’s ex-in-law convicted in stabbing,” proclaimed one headline last December—an attempt to link the mayor to the attack that might have seemed unnecessarily sensationalist at the time. Then, within weeks, another incident in Kathy Ford’s turbulent love life brought patrol cars screeching to her brother’s doorstep.
Early one morning in January, Ford’s neighbours allegedly saw a convicted drug dealer named Scott MacIntyre trying to force his way into the mayor’s grey-brick bungalow near Scarlett Road. Agitated about his recent breakup with Ford’s sister, MacIntyre claimed he only wanted to talk to the mayor about retrieving his belongings, but he was charged with uttering death threats, forcible entry and possession of heroin and cocaine. Among reporters on the police beat, his name rang a bell. As it turned out, MacIntyre was the same boyfriend who, during a 2005 party at Kathy’s parents’ house, accidentally “shot the top of her head off,” as Ford put it, requiring her to undergo plastic surgery. Their parents, who had been holidaying in Florida, rushed back to Kathy’s bedside. Eventually, police dropped charges against MacIntyre, who appears to have called 911 before fleeing in Diane Ford’s black Jaguar. “Our family has been through everything—from murder to drugs to being successful in business,” the mayor later told a reporter. “Nobody can tell me a story that can shock.”
Through it all, the family has rallied around the mayor’s sister, building her an apartment on their parents’ property and administering a million-dollar trust fund their father set up for her. “We all backed Kathy 100 per cent,” Ford once explained. “Maybe what she was doing was wrong, but you don’t just throw people out into the street for doing the wrong stuff.”
All four siblings still live within a few miles of the Etobicoke house in which they were raised and a short drive from the family firm where all have spent the majority of their working lives. Fiercely protective, they have a history of circling the wagons at the first sign of trouble—one that helps explain some of the secrecy and insularity Ford has brought to city hall. “The Fords don’t trust anyone,” says the mayor’s former chief of staff, Nick Kouvalis. “They just don’t.”