It was a no boos-fest.
Cheering, chanting and clapping dominated Saturday night’s Ford Fest, as the premier was celebrated by some 10,000 supporters — including his family, MPPs and newly shuffled cabinet ministers — who made the trek to the Markham Fairgrounds for the annual family friendly event.
A jovial Doug Ford took to the stage — following one of the toughest weeks his government has faced — reflecting on the year since his Progressive Conservative swept into power after 15 years.
While he has been booed at some recent public events, the only jeers on Saturday night came when he mentioned the previous Liberal government and the media.
“We are coming together and we are celebrating together and it is truly incredible,” he told the crowd, who several times broke into chants of “Doug, Doug, Doug” while waving mini “For the People” flags.
On Friday, Ford’s chief of staff Dean French resigned after his close ties to two recent “agent general” appointees were revealed, and as homophobic social media postings were uncovered on the Facebook account of one of them.
A government source told the Star that French, who is returning to the private sector, will not receive any severance.
Nor will his son’s friend, Tyler Albrecht, who was to head to New York as an agent general, or Taylor Shields, who is related to French’s wife and was set to be posted in London, England.
Controversy over the appointees’ personal ties to French overshadowed Ford’s massive cabinet shuffle on Thursday, seen as a way for the premier to reboot his struggling government.
Two high-ranking Progressive Conservatives, speaking confidentially in order to discuss internal deliberations, said Saturday that French could not be involved in the 2022 re-election campaign.
“The ghost of Dean French must be exorcised,” said one senior Tory, who is close to the premier.
“There may be those who think that he can somehow be involved still, but that is just not on,” said the insider, noting the French patronage debacle was embarrassing to Ford and to the party.
“It’s time to move on.”
A second top Tory strategist said French’s few remaining allies are scrambling to distance themselves from the ex-chief of staff since his “resignation” Friday night.
“They see the tide has turned,” said the second PC official.
French, who chaired Ford’s successful election campaign last year, was named to the campaign readiness committee in January.
“A lot has changed since then,” said the official, referring to French’s bid to have his son’s friend and his wife’s cousin awarded foreign postings that would have cost taxpayers up to $185,000 a year.
Ford revoked the appointments just 18 hours after they were announced. Later Friday, French quit after two cabinet ministers demanded the premier sack him.
“There would be a mutiny if Dean tried to insinuate himself back into (the campaign),” the second insider said.
The French fiasco has been damaging to Ford’s government as it tries to get back on track following the cabinet shuffle, which came in the wake of a poorly received budget and polls suggesting the premier is in a spiral.
Even the normally Ford-boosting Toronto Sun lampooned the premier’s travails Saturday with the cheeky front-page headline “French Toast.”
MPPs and cabinet ministers at Ford Fest didn’t want to discuss French, but wished him well as he moves back to the private sector.
“We thank him for his service — he worked very, very hard, he’s a very passionate guy,” said Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy. “We passed a lot of bills (in the past year) — 20 bills is a lot of work, it means getting the trains moving on time … and I wish him the best in the private sector.”
He said the government “is on great footing … (we’re) so excited to continue the work we are doing for the people of Ontario … (we are) a team that’s really getting things done.
“Everyone’s feeling really good and excited.”
Other cabinet ministers at Ford Fest were new Education Minister Stephen Lecce, Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney and Children, Community and Social Services Minister Todd Smith, who takes over the controversial autism file.
The road leading to the Markham Fairgrounds was dotted with signs from the Ontario Autism Coalition saying “Hey Doug! You screwed up! Our kids are STILL waiting” for proper services.
Smith said he plans a “listening tour … making sure to get out there and talk to people across the province,” especially in the north, about autism and how to best spend the additional $300 million allotted to the program.
“It’s a beautiful day, a good crowd — a good vibe,” he said of Ford Fest.
Lecce said he was “feeling very good” and has spent the last 48 hours “listening to parents and students themselves, and educators” on changes to the system.
Newly minted Associate Minister of Small Business Prabmeet Sarkaria called Ford Fest “a celebration of everything we’ve been able to accomplish, and an opportunity to come together.”
During the event, a plane flew overhead with a banner saying “public education cannot afford Ford.”
Brampton resident Sudeep Singla, who drove to the event with his parents, wife and 2-year-old son, said “I think whatever Mr. Doug Ford is doing, he is doing good. People understand that.”
He said there may be cuts in the short-term, “but this is a long-term vision that Mr. Ford has” for the province’s fiscal future.
While Ford Fest was largely a love-in, Ford himself has suffered the indignity of raucous booing on three recent occasions.
To his surprise and dismay, he was jeered at Monday’s massive Toronto Raptors’ victory celebration in Nathan Phillips Square.
Sources close to Ford told the Star that the premier was especially taken aback because Toronto Mayor John Tory and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were greeted with cheers.
That followed the embarrassment of being booed at the opening of the Special Olympics at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on May 14 and a week later at the Collision international technology conference at the Enercare Centre.
The public displays come after seven polls in the past six weeks suggest the premier’s popularity has plummeted in the wake of the April 11 budget that announced numerous program cuts.
Ford’s dissatisfaction with the budget rollout led him to replace Vic Fedeli with Rod Phillips as finance minister.
The premier moved 12 ministers and created six new portfolios as he increased the size of cabinet 33 per cent — from 21 to 28 members — in a major shuffle Thursday.
Fedeli, who attended Ford Fest — wearing a yellow apron, flipping burgers — said he is happy to be in economic development. Echoing the premier’s words, he said that puts him “in the right place, at the right time.”
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy