"Not many outside the confines of the political wing at City Hall would guess it, but our new mayor is an expert with a knife. "
-The opening of the story "Knife Fight," from Knife Fight and Other Struggles by David Nickle (ChiZine Publications)
The first time I met Doug Ford was in the early spring of 2010: a Friday soon after his brother Rob Ford registered to run for Mayor of Toronto.
I'd known Rob for years: he was a vocal, gaffe-prone city councillor from Toronto's northwest corner who was known for using his wealthy family's money to pay for office expenses that would otherwise come from his taxpayer-funded office budget. None of his colleagues on council had much time for him, but he was a darling of local talk radio and a media magnet: a big, anger-prone guy who gave off the vibe of the late Chris Farley, and could be relied on for a provocative sound-byte from the extreme conservative end of the spectrum.
I write a column for Metroland, the Torstar-owned chain of community newspapers in and around Toronto — and I hadn't been terribly supportive of Rob as a councillor. That was where Doug came in — or rather, it was the point on which he called in.
"Dave Nickle. You're the guy that hates my brother."
Those were the first words he said after introducing himself. I was in my office in the city hall press gallery, putting some stories to bed for the weekend papers, and was a little taken aback. Doug, who was managing his brother's newborn campaign, wanted to talk.
Doug made a point of being late. When he arrived, he kept me waiting a half-hour as he glad-handed around the city hall restaurant where we were meeting. When he finally sat down, he made the implicit message from that display explicit: Rob Ford was going to win the election. As far as Doug was concerned, I was personally biased against his brother's plans, and I would do well to rethink that bias. Because everything was about to change.
It was a genuinely chilling meeting. Doug smiled, and told me stories of Rob's great deeds, and his enduring popularity, and the rightness of his ideas, and how this thing was just going to happen. I think I held my ground — I recall explaining that I didn't underestimate Rob, that I intended to cover him fairly, and finally that my politics were my business, thanks. But who knows? I've had conversations with a lot of politicians over my career — premiers and prime ministers among them — and seldom do I recall leaving one of those conversations as nervously as I left that one.
It wasn't that Doug successfully called me out on shady ethics or liberal bias or something else that would later come back to haunt me. Although Doug cuts a more intimidating figure than Rob — think Brian Dennehy to his brother's Chris Farley — it certainly wasn't that he'd explicitly threatened me, because that didn't happen either. But he left me with the clear impression of having been marked, by the big brother of the guy who was going to be mayor. It was clear that Doug Ford wanted me nervous at that prospect. And as I think of it, that's what made the whole thing so chilling.
Doug's prediction was borne out. Rob Ford won the election that fall, with a pretty strong mandate, and became amalgamated Toronto's third mayor. As Rob took office along with his brother Doug — who easily won a council seat in Rob's old ward — it fast became clear that I wasn't the only one with a bad case of nerves. From the first days, the Fords made it clear that they were going to play rough — kicking off the term with a famously Red-baiting inaugural address from sportscaster Don Cherry, effecting major policy changes by fiat, filibustering public hearings on the future of libraries into punishing 24-hour marathons. The city hall press gallery (of which I was and am president) found itself fighting for fair access in a way that we had at one time taken for granted.
I reported on all of that, and wrote columns about it once, and then twice a week. But I'm not only a political journalist: I'm also a novelist and story writer, and as I was watching and describing the political story of the Ford mayoralty unfold, I also observed the changing character of city council, and maybe even the city itself, as it warped itself around the alpha-mayoralty of Rob Ford.
I wrote "Knife Fight" before anyone knew of the depths of Rob Ford's crack cocaine problem, the racism, sexism, homophobia and violence that blossomed on mobile-phone videos, eyewitness accounts and police surveillance records — before city council belatedly rose up and sent Rob Ford into a kind of exile, and long before the illness and election last month ended the Ford era in Toronto municipal government, maybe for good.
The short story is not directly about Rob Ford. I made up the mayor who sorts out his allies and enemies through formal knife-fighting tournaments in a deserted parking garage. I have never met the hard-bitten newspaper reporter who recklessly drops a challenge and steps into the ring.
But I know something about how a city fractures and forgets itself under a leadership absorbed in its own invented mythology. I've learned a bit about the extent to which otherwise-reasonable people will set that reason aside in favour of grievance and ambition. And yes, I've figured out that it's naive to think all this is solely a Toronto phenomenon. To varying degrees we are all, as my fictional knife-fighting mayor laments, "swirling into the toilet."
If there's any truth in "Knife Fight," that's where it lies.