Harry Vandekemp: Trusting the Fords to make 'wise decisions'

Owner Harry Vandekamp outside of Golden Crisp Fish & Chips.

The small white table at Golden Crisp Fish & Chips, a restaurant on Weston Road in Toronto’s working-class Mount Dennis neighbourhood, is strewn with a collage of papers and pictures.

Over the course of 45 minutes, owner Harry Vandekemp has presented a shot of his five children and another of him and Judy, his wife of 26 years, a woman he started dating in the tenth grade.

He’s grabbed a page listing all the members of his church who have come into the restaurant and what they spent; half of the proceeds from those sales will be donated back to the church’s food bank.

There’s another page printed in black and white with a picture of Toronto’s three primary mayoral candidates. Above Doug Ford’s head it reads, “Subways subways subways!” Over Olivia Chow: “Streetcars streetcars streetcars!” Over John Tory: “People like me don’t take public transit.”  (“My feeble attempt at humour,” he explains with a grin.)


On John Tory: “I thought he was middle of the road, but he's middle of the fence...He's a referee, not a coach.”

On Olivia Chow: “She is top-notch for those who are in desperate situation. There is nothing else to her. She doesn’t have the foggiest idea about business...She's passionate, creative; I don't doubt her on what she's good at. But not for mayor.”

On the difference between Rob and Doug: “Rob is more of a big teddy bear."

On his experience at a political fundraiser: “I thought ‘Wow, this is a lot like a church dinner!’ Except at a church dinner, Jesus says, ‘Humble yourself and I will lift you up.’ At the political thing, it’s, ‘Who do I step on to get higher?’”

On Rob's comments about Karen Stintz: “I think his greatest strength is also his weakness...his forwardness. We all have our off-colour jokes. That’s why it’s in Scripture many times, “Watch the tongue, it is like the rudder of a ship.’”

On the Toronto Star's coverage: “The problem was they lost their credibility because they were going so hard after nothing. So when there was something of substance...the boy who cried wolf.”

Lastly, he has a notepad in front of him, which appears to include a rough outline of the points he wants to make to answer the simple question, “Why do you support Rob and Doug Ford?”

It’s a useful reference, as the genial, high-spirited 47-year-old has plenty to say. Simply asking his age leads to a telling anecdote about starting work at the chip shop, in his family since 1961, when he was only seven years old.

“I came in on Saturdays, cleaning chip pails, cleaning the floor, stuff like that,” he says. “I got two dollars pay and I spent it. The next week I got two dollars, I saved one and spent the other. And I did that the next week. That was the last time I ever had no money.

“I knew by the age of nine, there’s good money management and bad money management.”

The value he places on efficient government led to some public notoriety last fall, when, amidst the deafening controversies surrounding the mayor’s private life, Vandekemp put up a sign in Golden Crisp's front window that read “I trust Rob Ford with my tax money.”

The sign led to a bit of a buzz in the community and interviews with several media outlets, including Montreal’s La Presse, which published a story about Ford supporters facing a “dilemma” as the mayor battled a growing scandal. Vandekemp was not pleased with the piece, saying “I shared some good stories, but it wasn’t in there.”

He says that 10 of his customers have told him they’ve been personally helped by the mayor, and he felt that the La Presse reporter should have communicated that. “It was like they wanted to bash him more; he’s had enough bashing.”

It’s unsurprising Vandekemp doesn’t appreciate “bashing.” He frequently mentions “looking for the good” in life, whether in politics or just his day-to-day. He doesn’t approve of the mayor’s drug use, but he is willing to forgive it. His faith comes up constantly, and he says his Christian values mean that “if somebody makes a mistake, and they say they are repentant, we have to go along with it.”

In a slightly quieter tone, he adds, “Even if we don’t quite believe they are repentant.”

He’s refreshingly honest about the thought process that Ford Nation had to go through to deal with the crack scandal. “We all hoped it wasn’t true,” he says, “but we all suspected it was.

“Then we all started to balance on ... Does it affect my garbage being picked up? No. Does it affect the TTC? Does it affect building permits, water, 911? It wasn’t really affecting us. So on a selfish level, what he was doing in his spare time didn’t affect us.”

He didn’t appreciate the denials either. (“I wish he was smart enough to say ‘no comment.’”)

Vandekamp: "I sleep better now because I have a strong idea that the garbage will be gone."

Vandekemp isn’t looking to elect a role model, though. He made a note for himself to mention “respect for taxpayers,” one of several popular mantras around the Ford camp. To Vandekemp, the goal isn’t slashing services and lowering taxes; it’s making “wise decisions.”

He points to the city's purchase of $2,500 chairs for a members' lounge as the kind of "frivolous" spending he believes the Fords are out to stop. And then, as he often does, he illustrates his point with a story of his own.

“We were going to buy chairs [for the restaurant] for $4,000. My wife and I were at Swiss Chalet, and they were renovating, so my wife goes, ‘What about these chairs?’

“[Swiss Chalet said], ‘Well we’ve got to get rid of them, so $10 each.’ So instead of spending $4,000, we paid $140,” he says, gesturing to the rigid, high-back booths and old-fashioned wood chairs that fill Golden Crisp’s modest, friendly dining room, decorated in shades of orange and brown for fall.

He views the role of mayor to that of a fish-and-chips shop owner: Make a good product, manage your money well and be a good member of your community. He takes the latter very seriously, hamming it up with the clientele from the minute the shop opens at 11 a.m., offering new neighbours access to his tools and volunteering on church committees.

(He also makes a point of taping a scrap from one of their brown paper take-out bags over the Sunshine Girl inside each day’s issue of the Toronto Sun. “The customers appreciate it.”)

He sees that same folksy brand of helpfulness in the Fords. He says he was “really impressed that Doug [Ford] got a chainsaw during the ice storm and was helping neighbours. I wasn’t sure if he cared about helping people, but that showed that he does.”

More Inside Ford Nation:

Understanding the Ford mystique

Bonnie Luciano: Similar life lessons strengthened her loyalty to the Fords

Iola Fortino: Believer, anti-bully and proud Ford Nation representative

Albert Wong: Just keep the taxman out of my pocket

I survived Ford Fest: Rally shows true colours of Ford supporters

People can choose who to vote for for a variety of reasons, but generally, they can break it down into two theories. One is that people will decide which candidate is best for society’s broad interests and cast their lot with them. Alternatively, they’ll determine which candidate best represents their own personal interests and support them. By that theory, the candidate that represents the selfish interests of the most voters will be elected.

Harry Vandenkamp, basically by his own admission, subscribes to the latter theory. “My pure selfish motives? Look, my garbage is gone every Wednesday. I sleep better every Wednesday now because I have a strong idea that the garbage will be gone."

With the nearest streetcar several blocks south on St. Clair Ave., he talks about the TTC in terms of subways and buses. He openly admits he doesn’t have the expertise to weigh in on the financing of transit infrastructure projects. (“I can’t comprehend the difference between 10 million and 50 million,” he says.) But he knows subways are “just so amazing,” and he won’t drive on St. Clair anymore. So to Harry Vandenkamp, subway construction makes sense.

Cycling, on the other hand, doesn’t, for a very simple reason. “Bicycles are not for here, there’s too many hills.” Possibly true in Toronto’s more sprawling inner and outer suburbs, but what about downtown?

“We’re talking about two different cities.”

(Photos by Andrew Evans/Yahoo News)