He was on the phone just before Ontario Prime Minister Doug Ford was due to make a virtual long-term care announcement in early November.
The Prime Minister, who for years was a particularly combative and partisan politician, used the seller’s side of his personality to stay in touch with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and to check the pulse of the federal government.
Moments later, Ford couldn’t wait to tell reporters that he had just spoken to his friend, the deputy prime minister. “We all communicate constantly. I mean all the time, ”said the prime minister with his trademark enthusiasm and exaggeration. “I was literally on the phone with the Deputy Prime Minister just before I walked in the door.”
On paper, Ford and Freeland seem opposites, but they have forged a fruitful, if unlikely, relationship.
Freeland graduated from Harvard and became a Rhodes Fellow before embarking on a successful journalism career that took her around the world. She has written several books and is methodical in her work. Ford, on the other hand, does not have a post-secondary degree. He took over his father’s label business in the Etobicoke suburb of Toronto and followed his younger brother into local politics. He is clear, instinctive, shaped by populist tendencies, and has never been mistaken for a political wonk.
Yet circumstances so collided that Freeland and Ford became the most unlikely political odd couple. Current and former staff in the Prime Minister’s office spoke of the closeness of this relationship and filled in some details for iPolitics.
The pairing has become more visible during the pandemic; The two often get in touch before their co-workers find out. This is part of an effort to speed up the response to the deadly virus. Every other day or so the Premier will be the first to call Freeland on his BlackBerry to check in and get the latest information. Sometimes he tries to get her perspective on something that Ontario needs. Freeland has also turned to Ford, for example to procure additional personal protective equipment (PPE) for Quebec. Ford, perhaps drawing on skills he’d developed at his family’s midsize label company, found what Freeland was asking for.
The origin of this relationship, however, predates the pandemic and is due in part to U.S. President Donald Trump.
Just days before Ford received his majority mandate, Trump introduced tariffs of 25 percent on Canadian steel and 10 percent on aluminum. This posed an immediate problem for the newly elected progressive Conservative government of Ford, as steel and aluminum are mainly exported to Ontario. Without an appropriate response, the provincial auto industry would be badly hit by the policy. It would be particularly problematic for a politician who had promised to restore Ontario’s productive power.
Relations between the new Prime Minister and the federal liberals – especially Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – had always been tense. During the 2015 federal campaign, Trudeau said that then Prime Minister Stephen Harper should have been “embarrassed” camping with Ford and his brother Rob. Doug replied that Trudeau was “incompetent” and called him “hypocritical” for criticizing Rob’s drug use. He was referring to Trudeau, who admitted smoking a joint at a dinner party.
That frosty relationship continued when Ford became Prime Minister, and he seemed pleased to applaud Trudeau in public statements.
“I will notify the Prime Minister,” he would say. “We have already taken Kathleen Wynne’s hands out of our pockets. And Justin Trudeau, you’re next. “
At their first meeting, Ford’s office quickly highlighted the differences between the two regimes of government, particularly with regard to irregular border crossings, refugee funding and carbon retention. While the meeting was still in the Prime Minister’s office, Ford’s team distributed a press release mentioning some of these differences.
Later in the fall there was a more cordial meeting with then-Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. “There’s only one way … we’ll get rid of the carbon tax (and that’s) by getting rid of Justin Trudeau,” the prime minister said in his office, referring to Scheer as “the next prime minister of Canada”. ”
However, Ford changed direction when it renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Instead of using it to beat up the federal liberals, he took a unified approach – also because the federal point person Freeland had a high level of respect in Queen’s Park.
“She is a very remarkable woman,” said a senior executive in Ford’s office.
While Freeland worked with prime ministers across the country on NAFTA, a disproportionate amount of time was devoted to Ontario given the importance of steel and aluminum. And so Ford and Freeland formed their surprising friendship. Despite their different politics and personalities, “they just click,” added the Ford employee.
“She has had a pretty good relationship with the Prime Minister,” said Mitch Davidson, Ford’s former executive director of politics who is now executive director of the StrategyCorp public policy and economy institute.
“There was a lot of forced cooperation there,” he said, characterizing the NAFTA negotiations as a problem that was neither wanted nor jointly tackled.
And so NAFTA formed the template for the pandemic.
Ford was back in Freeland with his BlackBerry – for a long time his smartphone of choice – to find out about PPE, rapid tests and other pandemic problems.
“For him, the easiest way to fix a problem is to go straight to the source,” Davidson said, adding that this has been part of the family brand since Doug’s late brother Rob was a councilor. Rob liked to ask voters to bypass official processes and let him fix their problems instead. “That’s a good quality in a pandemic because there isn’t a lot of time (to get things done),” Davidson said.
This constant contact continued even when Dominic LeBlanc replaced Freeland as Minister of State Affairs and Freeland was promoted to Minister of Finance.
“We communicate on a wide variety of things, be it health or business,” the prime minister said at an event hosted by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce in October.
“It’s a Team Canada approach,” he added, repeating the language of the federal liberals.
Katherine Cuplinskas, Freelands spokeswoman, said Ottawa made efforts to keep lines of communication open during the pandemic.
“During this global pandemic, our approach has been to work closely with our provincial and territorial partners,” she told iPolitics, without highlighting a prime minister. “The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have been in contact with Canada’s Prime Ministers every step of the way. This has been a real effort by Team Canada. “
While Ford has praised Ottawa for its pandemic response, Ottawa wasn’t quite as reciprocal.
Simon Jefferies, a former Ford and Scheer spokesman, said their messages are determined by context. There’s daylight between the provincial PCs and the federal Conservatives in their pandemic approach; Opposition leader Erin O’Toole has been more critical of public health measures – including those taken in Ontario – than Ford.
“The federal and provincial Conservatives are in very different political positions,” said Jefferies, senior vice president of Jenni Byrne + Associates. In his view, since the federal Tories are the official opposition in a minority government, they need to be ready for elections in the short term and their news needs to reflect this. In contrast, the PCs in Ontario are in the majority, which gives them a lot more leeway to befriend the liberals, even if some red meat-starved conservative partisans dislike it.
“Erin O’Toole does his job to highlight the federal government’s failings, while Doug Ford does his job by working with the federal government,” said Jefferies.
This means that neither their messages nor their political interests are always coordinated.
It’s not the first time the federal and provincial conservatives have disagreed. While Ford was a happy partisan warrior in his first year in office, he faded from the federal scene when his government lost popularity and culminated in a loud chorus of boos as he took the stage during a celebration of the 2019 Toronto Raptors NBA championship victory . Scheer and his team feared Ford would pull them to Ontario and dared not pronounce his name on the campaign.
While he often engages in partisan battles, Ford stayed on the sidelines during the 2019 campaign. After the federal Conservatives were beaten in Ontario that year, Ford took a different approach: he vowed not to promote O’Toole, the new leader, but instead to bury the hatchet with the federal liberals, whose strong Ontario mandate did so allowed to form a minority parliament.
But the politics of the day won’t stay in place either. It will be interesting to see if federal liberals change their news as an election approaches, Jefferies said. “Will they try to hold provincial governments responsible” for inadequately responding to the pandemic? he asked himself. This could cause the Kumbaya relationship between the federal liberals and the provincial PCs to ultimately fray.
Jefferies added that it could also deteriorate on certain issues like long-term care standards as the federal government promised to put national standards in place while Ontario was on the defensive about the roughly 2,000 deaths from COVID in its nursing homes since March; Just over half of all nursing homes in Ontario have experienced an outbreak.
While the relationship is positive in the midst of a crisis, it could nonetheless cause long-term complications, Davidson said. For various reasons, the pandemic has resulted in normal jurisdictional boundaries being overlooked in the name of expediency. But when the crisis subsides, these issues could re-emerge, with the usual controversy over funding infrastructure, healthcare, transit and communities.
Despite the underlying fault lines, nobody expects the Ford-Freeland relationship to fall apart. “They understand what each other is going through” and act like each other’s therapists, sharing difficult emotions in times of crisis, a source in the prime minister’s office said.
Jefferies expects their friendship to survive even a possible change in the political landscape next year. “Their relationship is kind of for the history books.”
An excerpt from this article originally appeared in iPolitics Holiday Magazine, which was published earlier this month.