Iola Fortino is driven by her faith.
The single mother of twin teenage boys and resident of Ward 15 works in downtown Toronto in a bilingual customer service and compliance position and is one of the most vocal supporters of Ford Nation, which she feels aligns with her strongly conservative and Catholic values.
If her name is familiar, it's because she has appeared in several media reports in recent months, most visibly as the Ford supporter who was ejected from the mayoral debate on Sept. 23, which was Doug Ford's first as candidate for mayor.
She stood up during the debate and – according to the Toronto Star article, which she says quotes her accurately – applauded Ford for going to "the family cottage during Pride, that’s why we love him. We need Ford Nation.”
Iola Fortino's account of what happened at the Sept. 23 mayoral debate, from which she was ejected:
"I already went in there with frazzled nerves, and upset, because that day was the same day that a boy had been [stabbed] at a high school and died. And here we were in a high school. When I sat down I thought, 'shucks I want to ask a few questions, or have a chance to ask' ... they were talking about youth and jobs ... I couldn't even concentrate.
"So I said here's my opportunity to voice this, because this is very important, it hits us all. And I have two boys that are 17 years old, they're in high school. Now that they're talking about youth and unemployment, it's like 'hello, I think these kids need help in the schools first.' The violence, the drop-out rate, there's something going on in the education system that we have to fix.
"I stood up, and I didn't even think, it didn't occur to me that everyone's watching on TV. I had all good intentions, I never thought that I'd be kicked out and they'd plaster my name and picture on the newspapers, for which I am not guilty of anything.
"What I said was: 'I want to thank Robert Ford for not attending gay Pride and we need Ford Nation.'
"I said this coming from a spot where I kind of felt anger. I don't regret those words. They are in no way homophobic.
"... So I said thank you because he has been the only politician that hasn't been politically correct – by saying no to going to gay Pride."
Fortino voted for Rob Ford in 2010 and says she's been a staunch Ford supporter for the past year or two, beginning "when I started feeling he was really harassed with his addiction."
She says she wasn't as active at first, but that she supported him all along.
“I guess it's made me more vocal,” says Fortino, “because I do not like being mistreated, bullied … the media really bothers him, every step of the way, trying to catch him doing wrong.”
She has not met Rob Ford personally, but she briefly met Doug Ford in September, when she dropped off a care package at the hospital for the ailing mayor following the diagnosis of a cancerous tumour in his abdomen.
A York University graduate in French, class of 1982, Fortino sends her sons to a local Catholic school. In 2012 she ran during a byelection for Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) trustee in Scarborough's Ward 8.
“On my poster was the face of Jesus,” she says. “I didn't make any calls, I didn't do any work, and I got 33 [per cent of the vote].” (In fact, Fortino received 33 votes total.)
Fortino sees herself as someone who stands against bullying. Fortino believes that Rob Ford was bullied by the media and city councillors before the change-up that saw Doug Ford step in as the mayoral candidate and Rob step down after his medical diagnosis.
Fortino emphasizes a number of links between the Fords, Ford Nation and her own beliefs and values, including her support for Ford's decision to sit down while the rest of council stood up to applaud the city's Pride organizers for a successful World Pride event this summer.
"Everybody stood up and Ford sat down. Is it not his prerogative to sit down? He didn't agree with gay Pride. He has a choice to sit down or stand up. What is this? Is this not a democratic society? Don't oppress us. Don't tell us what to think and feel and do."
She credits the Fords with making her more aware of local politics and, in turn, causing her to get more involved. Becoming part of Ford Nation has made her more vocal, she says, and "it's made me see the importance of being involved in local government."
She trusts the Fords to run the city and resolve the problems that she says can only be fixed if people complain about what's not working.
“I want to vote for them because things are working in the city,” she says, adding that when she complained about a traffic light in her area, it was dealt with quickly, and she credits Rob Ford.
“Why would I change when what was here works? I love these guys, they're real, fun, charismatic, smart. They're not followers, they're leaders.”
“To me, they represent democracy. … Olivia Chow to me represents more of a social welfare state, whereas Ford represents things are going to work, and if you think of it, Ford Nation has worked so far. I'd rather stick to what's worked for the city.”
“It's conservative values that will be for the best interests of everybody.”
Of Rob Ford, Fortino says “I love him,” but sees different qualities in his brother that inspire her confidence in his bid to be mayor.
“I think [Doug Ford] is trying to do good for the city and for people. I can trust him with the elderly. I can trust him to do good for the children, the youth, I can trust anyone that's with him, I can trust him with any race, anybody, it's obvious he's a man of integrity.”
It’s a thread Fortino continues throughout her two telephone interviews with Yahoo Canada News. When asked if she represents Ford Nation, she agrees she does, and characterizes it with the same simplicity as she describes the Ford brothers.
“We're just average people that want to be heard,” she says. “We have a voice, because the average person often times is not heard and with Ford Nation we feel our voices will be heard, we feel things will get done. The [Ford] supporters are good people, they cover all the different races, nobody excluded. … They're moral people. Ford Nation has helped every segment of society and every level.”
It’s telling that Fortino assigns what she sees as political victories to Ford Nation rather than the Fords themselves. As she sees it, it’s all one thing.
“I believe that Ford Nation takes the money out of stuff that is not necessary, surplus ... he says there's too many libraries and it's true, you go in there ... everybody's on their computers at home on the Internet ... libraries are empty. ... They know how to take the money out to make it benefit the average person in need.”
She believes Ford Nation is made up of people who, like her, are standing up for what’s right.
“Ford Nation represents justice, and the human race. … What are we going to do, close our eyes and close our mouths and pretend this stuff isn't happening with the homosexual agenda forced on us. Calling us homophobic because of our religious beliefs, or our moral beliefs – because we have to agree and embrace it? To me this is oppression. We can't say boo. We have no freedom of speech, we have no freedom of religion.”
Fortino says she loves everyone. But she wants to see homosexuals converted. “This is what we hope for all of them,” she says. She has worked with pro-life groups in her community, and says it is a sin to practice being gay.
“Nobody will change my mind about this. We pray for them all. We pray for their conversion.”
Much of Fortino’s passionate support of the Fords is based around the affirmation of her beliefs and values she sees reflected in their policies and behavior.
At first, she says Rob and Doug are interchangeable “because they're both men of integrity. The difference is Rob had had this addiction.” But she later distinguishes a key trait.
“When it comes to character, it's quite obvious that Doug is different. To me he's a gentleman, he doesn't have any problems, doesn't have the addiction, when that young boy died he mentioned prayer and God.”
“Both of them believe in the human race. I saw Rob helping Toronto Housing, with the old people. …”
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But no matter which Ford, she returns to the bullying theme.
“They've been knocked. This is not normal in democracy. It's a full-out jihad against us right now, the media attacks on the family.”
Fortino seems proud of Rob Ford for his “never give up” message released during his early days in hospital following the cancer diagnosis. For her, it demonstrates again what kind of people the Fords are.
“They're real. I didn't think that politicians could be real,” she says.
“And Ford Nation has [been real] and I think that's why people can relate to them.”
(Photos via The Canadian Press, Reuters, Iola Fortino)