By Sally Barnes
If having an affair was a crime, our jails would be packed like sardines—with people ranging from homemakers to royalty, religious leaders to tradespeople, and top dogs in the worlds of media, politics, entertainment, sports, business, and labour.
Like cancer, few if any families have been spared the pain and consequences.
This past weekend, media from around the world joined domestic journos in reporting how the mayor of Canada’s largest city has resigned for having an “inappropriate relationship” with a young woman who was a member of his staff when the affair began. (It ended some months ago.)
The woman is 31, less than half the age of the deposed, long-married mayor. As a woman of a certain age, I have to question whether there would be as much fuss if the unidentified person involved had been 45 and considered less innocent and more capable of taking care of herself.
That is just one of the many questions being mulled by friends and supporters of John Tory, whom all describe as buttoned-down and a very good person and mayor while his opponents find merriment in his highly publicized fall from office and grace.
I first met John when he was the leader of the Young Progressive Conservatives. I‘m guessing he was 20-ish at the time—maybe younger. I was attending an event with former Premier Bill Davis, for whom I worked at the time, and I have this memory of the YPC president looking out of place in a serious suit while most of the other young Tories were in casual attire.
Over the many decades since, I have admired his work ethic, commitment to the public good, intelligence, loyalty, and leadership abilities.
City Hall colleagues say he’s first to arrive in the morning and last to turn out the lights at night. He’s everywhere.
John Tory especially shone during the pandemic when he looked as worn down and fearful as the rest of us but managed to encourage and inspire front-line workers, rally the public, and foresee how to deal with the aftermath.
He ran for a third term last year because he wanted to complete what he couldn’t get done when the pandemic blew everything off the rails and left a gaping hole in city finances and services.
Let me make it clear that I don’t condone the “bad judgment” John Tory has apologized for in what can most kindly be described as a case of infidelity, deception, and bad judgment.
But does the furor and penalty suit the crime?
Tory chose to enter public life and he certainly knows that politics is no game for sissies. Over the years, his family has paid a huge price in the time and energy he has devoted to charitable work, public service, and elected office.
As during the pandemic, his firm hand on the tiller is especially needed at this time with municipal services in jeopardy, a budget to be decided, and an opportunity for him to play a leadership role in convincing provincial and federal governments to deliver financial aid to municipal taxpayers.
Should he have resigned?
Most people will agree he has chosen to do the right and honourable thing—unlike many politicians at the federal government level who think they can get away with anything if they just apologize and get on with life.
I’ve been astounded by the outpouring of public interest in this story and it grates that in my long experience, so many get away with this same kind of behaviour without media interest and/or penalty.
Put simply, it is not a crime for two consenting adults to have an extramarital fling but if you just woke up from a long winter’s nap you could be forgiven for thinking that Mayor John Tory has been exposed as a triple hatchet murderer.
Social media has provided a torrent of support for Tory and spewed out an avalanche of hatred from many who disagree with his politics, salivate over his job, or just need to vent their anger with the world.
It’s also interesting that there is much public clutching at pearls over the sanctity of marriage. That’s curious in an age when so many couples are eschewing marriage altogether and “lifers” have almost become oddities in a society awash with divorces.
The media leaped upon the mayor’s resignation like a pack of starving wolves.
Unprecedented human suffering from earthquakes abroad and political scandal closer to home took a back seat to media titillation of sex in a city here in the great white north.
In the United Kingdom, where the public thirst for sex stories knows no equal and paparazzi are considered gutter snipes responsible for the ongoing torture of the royals and the death of a princess, our little sex tittle-tattle must seem quaint to listeners of the BBC and readers of The Times of London.
If there is any winner in this sordid story it’s Premier Doug Ford whose dalliance with developers with connections to the green belt begs media scrutiny. The Star’s exposé on the mayor grabbed the headlines and the Ford shenanigans story was bumped inside the paper.
With Canadian prissiness (and I agree), our mainstream media has resisted naming John Tory’s partner in this “inappropriate relationship.” After all, she may have been a willing participant (there is no suggestion of any coercion, bullying, job benefits etc) and she was not bound by the code of conduct that applies to elected officials.
By contrast, social media—which never misses an opportunity for outrage—was quick to share her name and photos.
Some seize upon the story as a #MeToo moment, an example of abuse of power in the workplace. Yes, John Tory was in a superior position and he was wrong and downright stupid to get personally involved with a member of his staff.
But this mature woman had been hired for a responsible position on the staff of the elected head of one of the largest governments in Canada and it is an insult to impugn her abilities and competence by casting her in the role of victim.
Yes, I am a committed feminist. And, yes, I believe in truth, equity, and fairness.
As for the media’s role in this whole episode, as a former journalist, I am disappointed and somewhat disgusted.
The story has changed a bit. Originally, a Star editor explained that around last Christmas the city hall bureau decided to check into rumours that the mayor’s 44-year marriage to Barbara Hackett was in trouble. She was reportedly spending much of her time at their home in Florida and didn’t show up for his election victory.
Watergate this is not. What were the Star’s Woodward and Bernstein doing? Peeking into bedroom windows? Checking if John remembered Barbara’s birthday and sent her flowers on Valentine’s Day?
Anyway, in that process, they stumbled on the affair angle. But a Star reporter now says it was just two weeks ago that they learned of the affair that by now was long over.
Stop the presses! The Star even called Barbara Hackett at home asking her to comment on the story they were about to publish with all the prominence of a declaration of world war. (She declined.)
I believe passionately in the public’s right to know about people and issues that affect their lives. But I don’t believe in the right to do temperature checks on politicians’ marriages. When I was in the news biz the rule of thumb was that personal lives were out of bounds unless a politician’s ability to do the job was affected. I guess the rules have changed.
Those already lining up to succeed John Tory might well be considering their own marriages and relationships before they take the leap. Politicians and others (men and women alike) all across this country take note and it’s my guess that more than a few are having sleepless nights since the Tory resignation hit the fan.
John Tory has given much over many years and had much more to give at a time when the public is losing faith in our democratic institutions and polls show a majority believe claims that public services and the country itself are “broken.”
He is a moderate in an angry world tempted by extremists.
There is a creepy cancel culture feel and smell to all this—like another public figure being dragged off and sent to storage as society grapples with how to correct old practices, beliefs, and human behaviour.
Pray tell who and what is next.
Sally Barnes has enjoyed a distinguished career as a writer, journalist and author. Her work has been recognized in a number of ways, including receiving a Southam Fellowship in Journalism at Massey College at the University of Toronto. A self-confessed political junkie, she has worked in the back-rooms for several Ontario premiers. In addition to a number of other community contributions, Sally Barnes served a term as president of the Ontario Council on the Status of Women. She is a former business colleague of Doppler’s publisher, Hugh Mackenzie, and lives in Kingston, Ontario. You can find her online at sallybarnesauthor.com.
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