Such is the state of things in Toronto that it’s no longer any great surprise to find that Mayor Rob Ford has been caught on camera while intoxicated. Even the latest, novel twist to the saga—that in his most recent clip, Ford is rambling in a Jamaican accent—isn’t exactly shocking. After all, a bad Bob Marley is the go-to accent for drunken white guys all across the country. Couldn’t we have gotten some Sri Lankan, or Trinidadian, or Burmese? I mean, if you are going to get loaded and inexplicably appropriate a West Toronto inflection, the least you could do is be a bit more original.
But for all the inevitable analysis and outrage over the newest entry in this sorry tale, I’d venture that Ford’s fake patois takes the focus away from another, far more interesting accent employed by both him and his brother—their Canadian one.
I would understand if, for many Canadians, the response to that were, “Wait a minute, what accent?” Which is exactly the problem. Though we all inflect our words, Rob Ford’s accent isn’t just blankly “Canadian” or “Torontonian”—it’s part of a set of mannerisms and beliefs that allow the millionaire mayor to be “a common man.” That might endear Ford to you, or it might fill you up with rage, but the familiar Canadian inability to talk about class as something more than just socio-economics—that it’s also an identity—not only prevents us from understanding how someone like Ford gets elected, it also hampers understanding of our culture at large.
The idea that accents connote more than where you’re from is a little foreign to us Canadians; we tend to associate connections between class and accents more with Britain and, to a lesser extent, America. In the U.K., a cockney or thick Midlands accent, for example, might mark one out as working-class, while south of our border, an accent from rural North Carolina or deep Texas has, however unfairly, come to connote being uneducated or worse (Stephen Colbert famously unlearned his Southern accent when he saw it was associated with backwardness).
Though it would be nice to say that Canada has escaped such stratification, it’s wishful thinking. Pay attention to Rob’s Ford’s pronunciation of “a billion dollars,” or brother Doug Ford’s elongated vowels punctuated by sharp consonants that go up in pitch a little, accompanied by an exhale in breath. Then take a listen to Margaret Atwood, Stephen Harper, or Peter Mansbridge. The Fords’ pronunciation is farther back in the mouth, with more rounded O’s and A’s. It is an accent in line with the Trailer Park Boys, Don Cherry, or Stompin’ Tom Connors. It is, to put it plainly, a working-class accent.
That we tend not to publicly call it that may be a sign of our egalitarian Canadian ideals—our wish to not pin people in their place, or just make people feel bad or lesser. A Newfoundland or Quebecois accent is something people point to with pride, but unlike with cockneys or American southerners, the Canadian hesitancy to talk about class at all means that drawing attention to an accent related to it just seems like insensitive criticism, or even classism. The point in marking it out, however, is not to separate a supposed elite from the commoners, the erudite from the ignorant—rather, it helps to complicate the simplistic idea that class is only about wealth or privilege.
In reality, Ford’s accent and others like it are subtle, often-ignored signs of belonging to a group, a situation in which class is a category of identity akin to ethnicity. It’s an identification that can sometimes be voluntary, or transitory, but most importantly, it’s one that crosses socio-economic barriers, rather than being defined by them.
And that’s the crucial point—the one that helps to explain what is to some the maddening contradiction that a man who inherited wealth and is a millionaire can still be considered “a regular guy.” Something similar happened with America’s George W. Bush, Alberta’s Ralph Klein, and others, too. It partly stems from conspicuously displaying certain cultural signifiers like being into hockey or football, while part of it is being a very hands-on leader, as Ford’s famous visits to community housing suggest he is. Yet, it’s also just about how he speaks—not only his stilted, grammatically iffy style, but simply that the way he pronounces things shows that he’s just a normal fella like “us.”
Only when you understand that “being a regular guy or gal” comes down to community or identification can you then get why these (typically white) men not only speak like “regular Joes,” but, in their mannerisms, accents, and “common-sense” pronouncements, identify themselves as being “of the people.”
It’s a phenomenon that I’d argue would be impossible to maintain were it not also for exclusion and some obliviousness on the part of some of Canada’s left. Not understanding, for example, that the enduring support of “Ford Nation” isn’t simply a result of a hoodwink or ignorance, but a genuine identification on the part of the mayor’s supporters—that it isn’t just that he is like them but that he is one of them, irrespective of differences in wealth—is a profound mistake. But it’s also a blind spot enabled by the fact that we simply aren’t accustomed to talking about class as a way of identifying ourselves.
Of course, I’m not sure that’s entirely a bad thing, either. Sure, not understanding class as a way of defining yourself culturally, even if it is in opposition to a bogeyman of “leftie pinkos,” seems to hamper our understanding of Ford. On the other hand, though, there are plenty of good reasons to not give in to the language of class, and instead stick to questions of income and social capital. After all, if class is about “an identity,” it easily gets looped into other social hierarchies based on race, gender, and sexuality, and it’s only a short hop from there to the prejudices of old in which an elite group tut-tuts about the lower classes and their crass hip-hop, idle chatter on that confounded Internet thing, or that awful slang the kids are using these days.
I’m no advocate for giving people more ammunition to discriminate. But Ford’s enduring popularity and the increasing murmur of something like an American-style “culture war” brewing in Canada seems to suggest that we at least need to name what we’re talking about. Because, though a politician like Ford might be able to pull off a semi-reasonable Jamaican rant, it’s his regular, everyday, hey-I’m-just-like-you-buddy accent that is the key to understanding why he is still around.