Today, Rob Ford passed away after an 18 month battle with cancer. A father, brother, son, councillor and Former mayor of Toronto. Ford’s tenure as Mayor was one of the wildest rides of my life. As a journalism student we couldn’t have had a better way to learn. Let me share with you the memories I had as a student following Rob Ford.
Before being a journalism student I was in Liberal Arts, yet followed city council almost religiously. I wasn’t a fan of Ford when he started his mayoralty, but he started to grow on me. I didn’t quite understood why Rob Ford was such a hated man till I started doing my research. Always thought he was hilarious from what I saw in videos.
One time in the summer of 2011 my friends and I didn’t have anything to do, so we sat at the chairs beside Ford’s office. Rob walked out of his office with a football and said “Goodnight Boys!” waving his hand and walking towards the now infamous elevator. My friends and I didn’t make much of it. We were young and we just said goodnight back. Little did I know, Rob Ford would be a huge part of my future in journalism.
When I started journalism school we were given soft, fun stories. For me it wasn’t fun. I wanted to do something big, a real story that would make headlines in the news. And so I started chasing Rob Ford stories. The stories would simply be Ford denying that he used drugs, drinking in public and or fighting for a subway in Scarborough.
The day Scarborough was voted to have a subway was a wonderful day for Rob. He was ecstatic. Surrounded with Scarborough city councillors he was talking to the media in the council chambers. That was my first scrum with Rob Ford. Since then, I was hooked.
When Toronto Star writers Robyn Doolittle (Now with Globe and Mail) and Kevin Donovan wrote the article about Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine, I couldn’t believe it. I spoke to my classmates in disbelief and they told me “why are you surprised? Have you seen what he has done?”. I never took the article seriously. To me it was just another Rob Ford scandal that The Toronto Star wanted to write up.
Fall of 2013 began, it was my second year in journalism school. Questions continued to follow Ford about his crack cocaine use. Getting back into the groove of school I continued to cover Mayor Ford. Those were the days where media would camp out outside his office, waiting for him to come out and ask him the question “Have you smoked crack cocaine?”. And it didn’t matter what the debate at council was, that question is almost guaranteed to be asked.
On October 31st 2013, I was in class with my professor and former CTV News Toronto Anchor Bill Hutchison when Police Chief Bill Blair spoke to the media after a successful police raid called “Project Brazen 2”. In the press conference Chief Blair said “We have retrieved a video file that was previously reported in the media”. Watching it live I yelled out to Bill “Bill! Toronto Police got the crack video!”. I jumped and clapped then making my hands into fists. This was the moment I realized why news is always exciting. Bill said to me after “Okay, now you got the news, get your notes ready for your live hit”.
November 5th. I was in radio class finishing off a news quiz when my classmate Ameer told me “Hey Kris, did you hear? Rob Ford admitted to smoking crack”. I immediately grabbed my phone and saw notifications from the news apps I have on my phone. Right after class I was scheduled to go to work (Black’s Photography). I knew Rob was going to speak again, so I skipped work and ran to city hall to join the scrum.
When I got to the front of his office there was dozens of members of the media. Cameras, reporters, step ladders, lights, and then there was me with my iPhone 4. I was squished by the glass with almost no way out. Norm Kelly came out of the office saying he spoke to the mayor. Next was a Rob Ford staffer who came out. A reporter from CityTV was behind me. She asked “Who are you with?” I was young and didn’t know what to say, so I just said “I’m a Seneca journalism student”. The reporter quickly said “You’re not that important, let me get infront of you”. I wasn’t sure how the journalism world worked yet, so I let her go infront of me. Later I spoke to one of my professors and told them the story. They advised me to say I’m with Say News (Seneca @ York). That was the first time I experienced such a fight to get their mic in a scrum.
Amin Massoudi came out and said to have your media passes ready. I didn’t have one, all I had was a student card that said “JRN” (Short form for Journalism). And so I walked away, with all my hopes of being in the room for the most infamous moment of Toronto history fading away. Till I ran into a CTV Camera man who asked why I was leaving. I told him I didn’t have a media pass. He said “Just use your student card! It will work!”. And so I got in. I could barely see anything inside the small room, all I could see is cameras and heads. I stood at the back with Adam Vaughan who later walked out when Ford said he will not step down. And I also was standing right beside the reporter who asked me to let her go in front.
Days later I would go to city hall to try to catch Ford. And eventually City Council had a special meeting to ask Ford to get help. It was a very aggressive meeting. It seemed to be a meeting to just let Rob Ford know politely that he needs to step down. City Hall’s chambers were packed to capacity. With American news outlets covering the story as well. The crowd bled into the rotunda on the main floor. When one of the councillors was questioning staff, Rob Ford and his security guard walked around the chamber filming the crowd with an iPhone. The crowd started heckling and so did Rob. Then Doug Ford, Rob’s brother got into it as well. I rushed out of my seat and went to film the fiasco. The yelling and screaming lead to Rob Ford running over Councillor Pam McConnell. Speaker Nunziata called for a recess and all hell broke loose.
Later in the day they went back to normal council motions, it was quiet and Rob came to the side. I ran up to him and introduced myself. I was followed by media and I asked Rob if I could get a photo. (Which was the one above). I shook Ford’s hand and he said “If you need anything, and I mean anything you give me a call”. He handed me his business card and a magnet. Council was put on hold cause Ford created a lot of chatter with the media. Ford explained to council that “someone asked to take a photo and so I did, that’s all”.
Rob and Doug started to do rounds of interviews, basically with every network. Even CNN. Conrad Black hosted an interview with Ford. It was raved about. I was waiting outside Ford’s office for Conrad Black to come out. He took the backdoor and about a dozen journalists and camera men followed Black into the parking lot. We found him and asked him questions. He was very simple with his answers, some questions he didn’t even answer. I was working on a story about Rob Ford being a bad influence on youth. So I asked him the question “Do you think Rob Ford is a bad influence to the youth?” he answered “No, I do not think he is a bad influence on the youth”. That question made headlines.
In J-School it was a requirement to take a documentary film class. My class was lead by James Cullingham who directed In Search of Joe Blind Death: The Saga of John Fahey and is the National Director for CAJ (Canadian Association of Journalists). By that time I was known with my classmates that I was a Ford-a-holic. I did all my stories on Ford. So it wasn’t a surprise to them when I said I was going to do a Rob Ford Documentary. I worked closely with James to produce my documentary and it required many hours at city hall.
With all those hours spent waiting for Ford outside of his office, I met some really amazing people. I met Momin Qureshi a 680 News reporter who also graduated from Seneca. I also met Robyn Doolittle, Natalie Johnson, Cynthia Mulligan, and many more. Momin helped me get an internship with 680 News, which till this day I am thankful for.
I knew my documentary wouldn’t be anything without an interview with Rob Ford. I sent an email and called Rob Ford’s office to request an interview. Using his line of “If you need anything let me know” to try and get the interview. With no success, I decided to go another route. Ask Doug Ford for an interview. The Thursday I was supposed to interview Doug, he surprisingly flew out to Los Angeles to be on The Jimmy Kimmel Show. His office cancelled on me. But I continued to push for an interview. Eventually the Tuesday he came back, he opened a twenty minute slot for me. I knew this would be a great opportunity for my journalism career. I was stumped on how to ask questions. Do I ask the the hard ones? Or do I start soft and go hard when he is relaxed. I went over my questions with Bill and James. I had 24 questions for him.
The day came and we walked into his office. Set the cameras up and Doug was ready. His assistant asked if he wanted her to stay. She insisted for herself to stay just incase it get’s too much for Doug. Surprisingly, Doug answered all my questions. Even about Rob Ford and his drug problems. After the interview we spoke off camera. He offered me a job with the campaign they are running. We took pictures and he offered to show us Rob’s office. On our way out we got caught in a media scrum. That was the first time I felt bad for the Fords who always get surrounded by press. When we got into the office, Doug gave us T-shirts that said “FORD NATION”. We walked into Rob’s main office. It was filled with memorabilia and a giant framed picture of his father, Doug Ford Sr. What an experience. When other news outlets can’t get an interview with the Fords and me, a student journalist scored the greatest interview in my career.
Continuing my work on the documentary we traveled to Etobicoke to check out the spots that were notable to the crack scandal. We went to the front of his home, we went to the home where Rob Ford posed with two murdered men, and The Steak Queen where Ford rambled inebriated in a patios accent.
After the documentary was completed, it was presented to Seneca. In the audience was Seneca President David Agnew. It was later uploaded to YouTube and was taken down due to copyright issues (I will fix it when I get the chance).
The documentary closed the book on my journalism schooling and following Ford almost everywhere. When Rob checked into rehab we all knew it was for good. The day that he returned it was deja-vu all over again. Dozens of media outlets camped out outside his office waiting for those elevator doors to open. When he returned many were glad and he looked much healthier than he used to. That was the last time I scrummed with Rob Ford. I ran into Rob a few times during the election. I believe the last time I saw and spoke Rob Ford was at Taste of the Danforth. That day he followed me on Twitter and it was one of the happiest days of my life (Such a low standard of happiness)
Wherever you maybe now Rob, I hope you are at peace. It was a wild ride and I thank you for letting me be part of it. You were a huge part of the City of Toronto and a huge part of my journalism career. Cancer is the worst way to go. I’m thinking of your family during this difficult time. You were one time the most hated person in the city, but at the same time you were one of the most loved. Don’t worry, we will take care of the city the way you wanted to take care of it. We will fill those potholes, we will save the money, and we will never forget what you’ve done for us.
Rob, thank you.