The top 10 news stories of 2014

From Rob Ford to Jian Ghomeshi, Toronto was centre stage for some of the year's biggest real-life dramas. And as the world's eyes were trained on Ferguson, we confronted tough questions of our own about race, privilege and poverty in an increasingly divided city. Meanwhile, on Parliament Hill, the HarperCons blazed a path to war and pushed to remake Canada in their own ideological image.


1. The ignominious fall of Robert Bruce Ford

It seems like centuries ago in a different city that a mayor named Rob Ford stumbled and swayed in a fast food steak restaurant, boasting in drunken Jamaican patois about having dodged police surveillance. Was it decades ago that the media had to track and follow this man who claimed he’d sworn off alcohol and drugs, building the case that he wasn’t keeping his promise? Then he launched a bid for re-election with more bombast than ever, trailing a quartet of bagpipers into a cavernous convention hall in which he’d somehow stuffed a fire truck. 

Rob Ford started 2014 riding high on hubris, celebrity and other more tangible substances. He got shitfaced in Toronto. He got shitfaced in Vancouver. He wore a red tie and black shirt on Jimmy Kimmel. And he got caught smoking crack on camera a second time.

When the Globe revealed the existence of the second video, he promptly whisked himself off to rehab. After an aborted attempt to enter the U.S., he wound up at a facility in Muskoka where the scandals kept coming.

Returning to Toronto and the race for mayor on June 30 at a press conference open only to select media, he attempted to pick up where he’d left off. But a confrontation with a shirtless East York jogger who articulated the whole city’s exasperation showed that things wouldn’t be that easy. Ford was dogged by protests for the remainder of the summer.

And then, in September, the spectacular saga took an alarmingly human turn when a cancerous tumour caused him to confront his mortality. He withdrew his mayoral bid at the last possible minute, choosing to seek his old council seat instead, and immediately started chemotherapy. He became quiet, even reflective.

Easily re-elected as councillor for Ward 2, Ford ends the year as a different person. He says he’d like to run for mayor again – if his health permits.

Election sign

2. #Election2014: the ugliest – and most important – in recent memory

In an election that blasted off with incumbent mayor Rob Ford registering on January 2, it was easy to relegate the other candidates to the status of supporting players. But the tension between Olivia Chow and ultimate victor John Tory would have the most lasting impact, with issues of privilege, race, sex, class and ability storming to the forefront. 

Ford said the election would be “a bloodbath,” but no one foresaw just how bigoted it would get. Chow and several candidates for council and the school board were the targets of increasingly hateful attacks. 

The mainstream discourse, however, shifted to the question of how the leading candidates did or didn’t reflect the city they wished to govern. What it means to live in – and lead – Toronto became topics for serious consideration, a discussion that to some extent has continued. 

The election’s result may have adhered to columnist Paul Wells’s first rule of politics – “For any given situation, Canadian politics will tend toward the least exciting possible outcome” – but that doesn’t mean the journey wasn’t a worthwhile one. Hopefully, Toronto has emerged the better for it.

Jian Ghomeshi

Ben Spurr

3. The unmaking of Jian Ghomeshi provokes a national discussion on violence against women

While Rob Ford was unravelling right before our eyes, no one saw the next turn coming. But then, the weekend before Halloween, came a more precipitous fall from grace when beloved CBC Radio star Jian Ghomeshi was fired by the Mother Corp. 

The Star was about to go public with the claims of several women that Ghomeshi had beat, choked and sexually assaulted them. Worse, CBC brass had known about the rumours, as well as several alleged incidents of workplace harassment involving Ghomeshi, and had either willfully ignored them or covered them up to protect him. 

Within 72 hours, Ghomeshi went from national sweetheart and one of this country’s proudest exports to an alleged serial predator. 

We’ve yet to hear his side of the story, but indications are it’s only going to get uglier. Ghomeshi intends to plead not guilty. 

But redemption is unlikely to be in the cards. The scandal has occasioned a continent-wide discussion of workplace sexual harassment and violence against women. That’s the good news. The reverberations were felt in the corridors of power on Parliament Hill in more ways than one. First, we discovered that male entitlement is alive and well on the Hill after two NDP MPs came forward with their own stories of sexual assault and harassment at the hands of male colleagues. And then there’s the government’s anti-prostitution law, which came into effect December 6, on the same day women around the country were marking the 25th anniversary of the Montreal massacre. To critics, there could not have been a more cynical date for the law to come into effect, given the Harper government’s record on women’s rights. Now, critics say, it will remembered as the day sex workers’ lives were made more dangerous, pushing them into the shadows where people like Robert Pickton have found them in the past.

LGBTQ

David Hawe

4. International struggles for LGBTQ rights come to Toronto

February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, were notable less for the glimmering spectacle than for unspooling in the shadow of the country’s ongoing assault on LGBTQ rights.

Equating gay people with pedophiles, Russia’s then-new law prohibits the promotion of homosexual “propaganda” to minors and has led to widespread persecution, both state-sponsored and not. Canadian athletes participating in the Games were actively discouraged from taking a stand, prompting necessary questions about sport’s responsibility to the larger society.

Back in Toronto, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam arranged for a rainbow flag to be raised at City Hall in solidarity with Russian queer people, which triggered the ire of Mayor Ford, whose homophobia at last became explicit.

Ford was out of the picture when Toronto hosted WorldPride in June, a massive event celebrating how far the world has come and a fiery statement about how far it has left to go. The largest ever Trans March flowed down Yonge, demanding the federal government adopt the trans rights legislation it’s been holding up.

The issue came up again and again: how can Canadians support queer people in places like Russia and Uganda? How can we support queer refugees seeking asylum in our country? 

In June, Premier Kathleen Wynne, a proud lesbian, won a resounding victory for her party in the provincial election. In December, the International Olympic Committee added “sexual orientation” to the non-discrimination clause in its charter (but maintains its unreasonable hurdles to participation by trans and intersex athletes).

Toronto continues to make its mark and find its place in the context of larger human rights endeavours. NOW’s Pride issue put gay Russian teenager Justin Romanov on the cover. Recently granted refugee status, he submitted our story in support of his application.

Bill Blair

Cheol Joon Baek

5. The axing of police Chief Bill Blair

As ousters go, Blair’s as top cop wasn’t the bloodiest. Still, its suddenness – revealed in a July 30 statement from the Police Services Board that it wouldn’t be extending his contract – caught many off guard. 

Until that week, Blair had been making a last-ditch pitch for reappointment, calling a press conference to announce the findings of Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci’s report, Police Encounters With People In Crisis, commissioned in the aftermath of the public outcry over constable James Forcillo’s shooting of Sammy Yatim.

The board was none too subtle about the reasons for Blair’s exit, citing the need for “organizational renewal,” signalling that Blair had pissed off both left and right. He’d antagonized reformers on the board who’d watched community policing efforts built up under David Miller devolve into the racial profiling practice of carding, and cost-conscious councillors on the right who felt he wasn’t doing enough to cut the bottom line. 

As for legacy, Blair’s will go down as tainted. Besides the Yatim shooting, a shadow was cast by his excuses for police brutality during the G20. 

Andrea Horwath

Michael Watier

6. Andrea Horwath gambles with the soul of the NDP and loses big time

After more than a year of toying with the idea, the Ontario NDP leader pulled the trigger on an election when nobody expected it, even some in her own party. Horwath’s timing proved disastrous, precipitating the loss of three seats in NDP fortress Toronto and with them the balance of power at Queen’s Park.

Party insiders argued that Horwath had no choice, that she smelled the winds of change in Ontario and a dreaded return of the Tories to power and couldn’t wait for PC momentum to build. But then the ONDP went after those very same votes with populist pocketbook issues, in the process abandoning the political middle – and the party’s social conscience – and letting the Liberals ride to a majority. 

The brain trust behind that calculus is gone now, sacrificed in a post-election purge as part of Horwath’s fight to survive as leader, proof that she’s learned her lesson. But her and the party’s future remain uncertain. 

At the post-election NDP policy convention last month, a chastened Horwath said all the right things about rebuilding riding associations and relations with municipal leaders, community activists, equity-seeking groups and First Nations. She now has promises to keep, but it’s hard to believe party strategists have really kissed those retail politics goodbye.

Poverty trap

7. The widening poverty trap

From overcrowded shelters to predatory corporate landlords pricing low-income renters out of Parkdale and a 29 per cent child poverty rate that is tied with Saint John, New Brunswick’s for the highest in the country, economic disparity was a growing problem in Toronto in 2014. 

A November report, one of a number setting out graver and graver poverty statistics, noted the “massive and growing polarization of income in our city,” to the point where there are almost as many millionaires as there are children living in poverty. 

There was a glimmer of good news in the summer when the province increased the minimum wage from $10.25 to $11 an hour and indexed future increases to inflation. 

But overall the economic outlook remains troubling. The city is becoming increasingly segregated as mixed-income neighbourhoods downtown are replaced by enclaves of the wealthy, and racialized Canadians still earn 81 cents for every dollar that white Canadians do. 

Newly elected Mayor John Tory has pledged to make implementing an anti-poverty strategy a priority in 2015, and has asked downtown Councillor Pam McConnell for recommendations. That can’t happen soon enough – or without the help of the provincial and federal governments. The epidemic is already making it difficult for thousands of young people to grow up healthy, get an education or find meaningful employment. 

Zehaf Bibeau

8. Canada goes to war in Iraq – again

Stephen Harper committed the country to war in Iraq, this time to fight ISIS, the latest terror bogeyman, which suddenly achieved status as a household name in the summer when its YouTube videos of the beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as British aid worker David Haines, went public. 

Up until then, Canada was prepared to support the Islamic extremists, who’d been fighting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in the three-year-old Syrian civil war. 

Then, on October 22, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau stormed Parliament Hill, killing a soldier on duty at the national war memorial and handing Harper the justification for joining another so-called coalition of the willing in Iraq. He declared in a speech to Parliament after the drama that Canada would not be intimidated by terrorism. 

It’s more likely, however, that Zehaf-Bibeau, who suffered from drug addiction, was motivated more by the government’s refusal to grant him a passport to fly to Saudi Arabia than by an allegiance to ISIS. The RCMP claimed to have a video ZehafBibeau made before the attack, but have declined to release it. 

While Harper decided to commit Canadian troops to fight the latest terrorist scourge, his government was abandoning the broken and wounded vets from Canada’s last war in Afghanistan, cutting their benefits and ignoring the alarming suicide rates of those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Harper

9. HarperCons spread reefer madness

South of the border, 2014 marked the beginning of a reefer revolution: four states legalized the recreational use of marijuana and more joined the ranks of true believers when it comes to the medicinal benefits of pot. 

In Canuckistan, however, an all-too-familiar reefer madness took root. Prince of pot Marc Emery was back from exile after serving five years in a Mississippi prison for selling pot seeds. Emery has promised to help bring down the federal government that turned him over to the DEA in the name of that lost cause known as the war on drugs. But reefer madness prevailed: the feds tightened restrictions on medical marijuana and turned over production of weed for medpot program to a handful of big producers. 

On the street, meanwhile, the cops continued to practise zero tolerance, busting young people at an alarming rate, wasting more and more precious police resources despite out-of-control police budgets and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police’s naming prescription drug abuse as the real problem among young people. 

Police point to the social costs of drug abuse to justify stricter enforcement. In BC, however, where pot production is a multi-billion-dollar industry, the Union of British Columbia Municipalities, fed up with growing enforcement costs, is calling for decriminalization and taxation. Who’ll lead the charge? 

Demar DeRozan

Mike Ford

10. Demar DeRozan and the Toronto Raptors leap into a country’s consciousness

It wasn’t just the crowds outside the Air Canada Centre during last spring’s magical – and ultimately unsuccessful – playoff run against the Brooklyn Nets. Or the famous “Fuck Brooklyn” exhortation from team GM Masai Ujiri. Or that finally the city had something to cheer about after our more famous hockey franchise’s familiar late season collapse. The Raptors not only captured the imagination of a nation. They also introduced a hockey-first country to a whole other, more diverse approach to sports. 

On top of all that, captain and star player DeMar DeRozan has shown a loyalty to the city never seen. Other Americans drafted by the Raptors in the past have cut and run for teams stateside once their requisite rookie contract was up. Not DeRozan, who signed a contract extension even before his rookie contract was up for renewal. The loyalty seems to be paying off: several players have re-signed in the off-season to continue the march to a hoped-for first NBA championship.

The fans, meanwhile, are as rabid as ever. 

news@nowtoronto.com | @nowtoronto

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