Rob Ford's War On Facts by Adam Bunch

On Tuesday, the Chief General Manager of the Toronto Transit Commission, Gary Webster, was fired. He was fired for telling the truth. By most accounts, he was a model civil servant: one TTC commissioner called him "the pure embodiment of professionalism. There is no one more truthful, with more integrity and more knowledge." His expertise on transit is recognized around the world. He'd been with the TTC for 37 years – his entire career – the first person in decades to work their way up through the commission to the very top. But when Mayor Rob Ford asked him for the facts about the pros and cons of subways and LRT, the facts showed that an LRT line makes the more sense for Sheppard Avenue. So the subway-obsessed Ford shot the messenger. It will cost the city at least a half a million dollars for the severance package. And Webster could very well launch a wrongful termination suit on top of that.

Now, there are plenty of good reasons to fire civil servants. They are fired all the time without it causing controversy. Ottawa fired their transit chief yesterday. And to be sure, Webster's tenure as Chief General Manager hasn't been flawless. Ridership may be higher than it has ever been, and the TTC may be one of most efficient transit systems in the world, but customer complaints became a growing concern during his time at the helm. So it's not just the simple fact that he was fired that it so worrying, but the way he was fired and the reason for it. That's why a crowd of supporters descended on City Hall to see Ford's allies on the TTC board vote to dismiss him. That's why the Toronto Star's Christopher Hume called those councillors "an odios quartet" who "shame all Torontonians," why Hume's colleague Royson James called them "sniveling toadies," and why, in the Globe & Mail, Marcus Gee suggested the mayor is acting like "a closed-minded bully who views anyone who expresses a contrary view as some kind of traitor."

Ford's allies made no secret of the reason for the firing. Councillor Frank Di Giorgio spelled it out. "I agree that it's without just cause, no question about it," he admitted just before he voted to can Webster. The Chief General Manager's only crime was putting facts ahead of Ford's fantasies. "In a bureaucracy," he claimed, "excellence is defined [by] the ability to put forward positions that are consistent with positions put forward by the mayor."

That is not true. In fact, it's a dangerous idea. The standard for excellence in the civil service is honesty, integrity and competence, not loyalty to a single politician. Bureaucrats aren't hired and fired with every new election. They are meant to be the experienced, steady hands who understand how our systems work. From transit planners at the TTC to scientists at Environment Canada, their expertise is relied upon to inform and educate both politicians – who come and go with election cycles and cabinet shuffles, with or without relevant experience – and the public at large. Our democratic system demands that they present the facts in as open and honest a way as possible. Politicians don't have to take their advice – elected officials are supposed to make the ultimate decision – but they are not welcome to fire them for giving it. The job of a top civil servant, as defined not just by columnists like Hume, James and Gee, but by Toronto Ombudsman Fiona Crean, is to "speak truth to power." That's how our democracy works.

And that's a problem for Rob Ford. He's not particularly fond of the truth. And he only believes in democracy in the most limited sense possible: he won the election so now he gets to do whatever he wants. He alone (or at most with the help of his rookie councillor brother, a handful of allies, and the smattering of Tim Hortons and McDonald's customers he's so fond of referencing) gets to decide which promises to keep and which to break, which spending is gravy and which $500,000 is simply the price you pay to fire a competent employee. As our mayor sees it, anything less than absolute power while he's in power would be a betrayal of his principles and the "taxpayers" who voted for him.

Joe Mihevc
One of his most vocal opponents, Councillor Joe Mihevc, was a professor of ethics with a PhD in theology before he ran for council. He sees Ford, who he has worked alongside for more than a decade now, as a political fundamentalist. “In a plural world,” he recently explained to The Grid, “I understand that my truth is different than your truth, and we can create a truth together through a process… a fundamentalist says, ‘Follow me—are you one of the believers or non-believers?’” Mihevc is not surprised that Ford has problems compromising. “Why would he compromise with you? You are wrong. The political fundamentalist can’t compromise, in the end, with what they feel is evil and wrong.” 

We have been witness to examples of Ford's absolutism over and over again in the year since he became mayor. He has declared council's will to be "irrelevant". He has dismissed even centrist councillors who have frequently supported him as "two steps left of Stalin". He has made it as difficult as possible for people to take part in the democratic process at City Hall: holding public deputations into the wee hours of the morning, forcing deputants to wait for hours in order to speak for just a few minutes, his allies ridiculing them as "communists". He has ignored staff reports, suppressed them and even blocked them from being written at all. If the facts don't agree with his plans, he tries to get rid of the facts. 

The transit debate has made this especially clear. The overwhelming expert consensus is against Ford's plan to extend the Sheppard subway line – and even more so his plan to bury the Eglinton LRT. He wants to spend billions of dollars to dig a tunnel below Eglinton for light-rail vehicles that are specifically designed to run above ground – and to do it in places where there is ample space for them to run on the surface. Meanwhile, the existing Sheppard subway line runs well below capacity at an enormous cost to the TTC. Job growth in the area has never come close to what was expected when the line was first proposed 25 years ago. As a result, it's estimated that for every ride on the line, the TTC loses an average of $4 in operating costs and the interest on loans taken out to construct it. Building all of the proposed new stations would add to the problem at a cost of billions more. Last year, when Ford asked Gary Webster as Chief General Manager to explain why the TTC's preference for Sheppard had changed from subways to LRT, Webster laid out the fact- and number-based reasoning in a report.

Ford's reaction was to bury the report and make sure no one ever heard about it. Then, when it came time for a report on the Eglinton LRT, he made sure his allies on the TTC board voted against even having staff look into the issues involved. They didn't even want to know the facts; the political equivalent of putting your hands over your ears and shouting, "LA LA LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU."

But facts don't just go away when you vote against them. And in the case of the Eglinton line, they were so obvious and overwhelming – and the mayor's attitude so bull-headed and blinkered to reality – that even some of his strongest allies couldn't support his plan. His own hand-picked TTC chair, Karen Stintz, led the charge against Ford's transit plans after watching his supporters vote against the LRT report. “It was at that moment,” she told the Globe & Mail. “I thought if the TTC wasn’t even able to write a report to talk about the issues, then we weren’t ever going to get to a point where we could resolve them.”

She and other councillors worked together to hammer out a series of possible compromises with the mayor, but he wouldn't budge an inch. So within days, a special meeting of City Council was called and Ford's plan was roundly rejected 25-18. Instead, council would support the expert-backed plan to save billions by running Eglinton's LRT on the surface where possible and use the savings to build another line on Finch. As for Sheppard, a panel of experts would gather more information about the pros and cons of extending the subway line or building more light-rail instead. It was one of the most embarrassing mayoral defeats in the history of Toronto.

Gary Webster
But it wasn't enough to end the mayor's war on facts. He simply opened another front by declaring war on the people who provide them. When the Star published the contents of the report Webster had prepared and Ford had buried, it seems the Chief General Manager became the mayor's next target. He would be fired for presenting the facts in the most honest and impartial way he could, just as our entire system of government relies on him to do.

"With Mr. Webster, there is no spin, just the facts," Gee suggested in his Globe piece. "What really angers the Fords is that the facts in this case are against them... Successful governments can’t work this way. To make good decisions, they need good, impartial information, not yes men. But yes men, apparently, are all the Fords want."

This week, Ford's allies made that very clear. Webster's firing sets an example for all of the other bureaucrats whose impartial advice we rely on. The message to the civil service is a blunt one: if you report facts the mayor doesn't agree with, you are putting your career and your livelihood at risk. Don't look for the truth, look for ways to toe the line.

It would be all too easy to dismiss Ford as a petulant child throwing a tantrum because things haven't gone his way. In many ways, he is. But he is also threatening to do real and lasting damage to the way government works in this city. He is trying to chip away at the foundations of our democracy. And he is not alone. He's just a local example of a brand of conservative who wages war on information itself. From creationists to climate change deniers, they are suspicious of knowledge, believe a reliance on facts is elitist, and that evidence-based decision-making is socialism run rampant. The Daily Kos has called it "a dismissal of the very notion that objective fact can be determined." Stephen Colbert calls it truthiness.

Luckily, in Toronto, City Council has the real power. And a majority of our councillors have already shown a willingness to use it – to stand up to our blind bully of a mayor. Before the vote to fire Webster had even taken place, rumours were circulating that council will dissolve the TTC board as soon as possible and replace Ford's die-hard allies with new members. Here in Toronto, at least, it seems there are people ready and able to defend the information we rely on.

The same can't be said for every level of government. In part two of this post, we'll talk about Stephen Harper.


Full disclosure: I once spent a summer temping as a Buyer and System Contract Administrator at the TTC. 

Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at


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