Toronto’s Rob Ford the latest in a line of controversial, colourful Canadian mayors

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who could lose his job and be banned from political office for years if a court finds he breached Ontario conflict-of-interest legislation, is hardly the first Canadian mayor to court scandal and controversy.

Comedian Rick Mercer once called municipal politics "the depository of the truly mad," and we've certainly had our share of wingy, self-regarding, sometimes perhaps larcenous chief magistrates in our cities.

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Mel Lastman, who served as Toronto's mayor from 1998 to 2003 and previous stints as mayor of the pre-amalgamation suburb of North York, could point to some achievements such as helping with the successful creation of Metro Toronto but he was also a gaffe machine.

The one-time discount furniture dealer made Toronto a national laughing stock in 2000 after calling in the army to help the city dig out from a major snow storm.

When his wife was caught shoplifting, Lastman reportedly threatened to kill a TV reporter for his coverage. News of an affair with a married woman decades earlier also erupted when the woman's two children sued him, claiming he was their father. The claim was true but their claim to part of his estate failed.

On a trip to Kenya to promote Toronto's ultimately unsuccessful bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics, Lastman joked about he and his wife ending up in a boiling pot of water with natives dancing around. He got in hot water alright and was forced to apologize.

Lastman's grasp of the wider world came into question when he was criticized for shaking hands with members of the Hells Angels, then claiming he didn't know the notorious biker gang was involved in the drug trade. And during Toronto's 2003 SARS crisis, Lastman told CNN he'd never heard of the World Health organization.

In neighbouring Mississauga, Ont., Hazel McCallion, Canada's longest-serving mayor (12 terms since 1978) who's now 91, was found by a public inquiry to have improperly intervened in a land deal involving her son.  She remains in office and is still very popular.

When it comes to larger-than-life mayors, none were bigger than Jean Drapeau, who led Montreal for 29 years. His achievements, such as bringing Expo '67 and the 1976 Olympics to the city, were historic but his tenure was marred by controversy.

On his watch, the Olympics became a byword for overspending.

"The Olympics can no more lose money than a man can have a baby," Drapeau famously said in 1970.

But as the Games headed towards a $2-billion deficit, Montreal Gazette cartoonist Aislin (Terry Mosher) depicted a heavily pregnant Drapeau.

Ottawa's a generally buttoned-down town but businessman Larry O'Brien livened things up during his stint, 2006-10.

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His election campaign focused on major issues such as the need for rapid transit in the nation's capital and dealing with rising costs, but he also suggested putting a tourist kiosk in a location homeless youth used for sleeping.

He got into hot water when a rival candidate for mayor later alleged O'Brien offered him money and a political appointment to drop out. He stepped down after charges were laid but the case was tossed out of court.

As a Calgarian, I have a particular soft spot for Ralph Klein, who was a popular city hall TV reporter when he decided to run for mayor or Calgary in 1980, eventually serving three terms before becoming premier of Alberta.

Klein, who didn't let his mayoral duties stop him from bending an elbow at the St. Louis Hotel's bar a couple of blocks from city hall, vaulted to national prominence for blaming rising crime rates in energy-booming Calgary on an influx of job seekers from elsewhere in recession-mired Canada.

In a 1982 dinner speech, Klein said he'd protect Calgarians from "a lot of creeps" causing trouble in the city. It became known as the "creeps and bums" speech but Klein denied using the word bum, saying he'd "kick ass and get them out of town." And he went further.

"If some bank robber from someplace else complains that maybe he was roughed up by a police officer, I'm not going to get too worked up," he later told CBC News.

The comments shocked easterners, including the aforementioned Mel Lastman, but endeared him to Albertans and helped him win the leadership of the ruling Progressive Conservatives.

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And older Edmontonians will remember Bill Hawrelak, the city's longest-serving mayor, who was forced to resign in 1959 after an inquiry found he used his position to profit financially through land transactions.

Hawrelak denied the charges but eventually made a financial settlement with the city that allowed him to run again in 1963 in a campaign that culminated in a riot when protesters upset at his re-election met some of his supporters at city hall.

Two years later the courts turfed Hawrelak from the mayor's chair over yet another shady land deal. But he had another comeback in 1974, winning a convincing third stint as mayor. He died in office of a heart attack in 1975.