Montreal Mayors: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Michael Applebaum & Laurent Blanchard - photo credit to The Gazette
Michael Applebaum & Laurent Blanchard – photo credit to The Gazette

Meet Laurent Blanchard, Montreal’s latest mayor.

By my count he’s number 43 in a list that stretches back to our city’s first mayor, Jacques Viger, in 1832, the year the city was incorporated.

Jacques Viger
Jacques Viger

To date Montreal’s mayors have been predominantly of the (at least publicly heterosexual) French Canadian male variety, though we once had a tradition of switching the lingua franca of our mayors with each election (i.e. from 1832 to 1908 mayors here alternated from Francophone to Anglophone).

Henry Archer Ekers
Henry Archer Ekers

The last ‘traditionally Anglophone’ mayor of Montreal, from 1906-1908, was Henry Archer Ekers, one of the founders of The National Brewery (also known as the Dow Brewery), which brewed Dawes, Dow, Ekers, Boswell and Fox Head ales, and whose siege sociale still stands at 990 Notre-Dame Ouest, a prime example of Northern Art Deco industrial architecture).

Jane Cowell-Poitras

Rounding out the necessary nod to diversity in the workplace, we’ve had several Irish and Scottish mayors, at least one born in Massachusetts (John Easton Mills) and more recently both our first woman mayor (Mairesse? Mayoratrix? Mayoress?) Jane Cowell-Poitras and our first ‘minority’ mayor, the effortlessly bilingual and arguably multi-cultural Michael Applebaum, culturally exotic only by the standards of the most militant variety of separatist Québécois supremacists.

Michael Applebaum
Michael Applebaum

Monsieur Blanchard is third in our year of four mayors, replacing the disgraced Michael Applebaum for a four month period until the next regularly scheduled election. I really hope he manages to somehow last that long without fucking up by getting named at the Charbonneau Commission, in which case it would be as a result of stuff he did several years ago but either way, yet another black eye for our fair city and further proof that the political establishment here is as crooked as a dog’s hind leg.

Gerald Tremblay

So there’s your défi Monsieur Blanchard – don’t fuck up. Keep your head down, kill people with kindness (but don’t lay it on too thick) and for the love of God – stay away from Italian restaurants.

***

Some assorted thoughts for our new mayor:

Point number one, unlike his predecessor, Mr. Blanchard should not propose to ‘clean up city hall’ or state, dramatically as had his predecessor, that a new leaf had been turned. Applebaum is up on 14 counts of fraud, conspiracy, accepting bribes etc. He’s retained former Tory MP Marcel Danis as legal counsel, and resigned the mayoralty ‘to focus on the case’.

Innocent people don’t typically tend to have a case to focus on. They’re innocent, after all. If the allegations against him are as spurious as he claims, why hire a top-shelf lawyer?

Put it this way – he might believe he’s innocent and that there’s a vast conspiracy against him. Word from the grapevine is that Applebaum was a jumpy character back when he was the borough mayor for Cote-des-Neiges/Notre-Dame-de-Grace, several times indicating he thought various concerned citizens trying to jump-start the Empress Theatre as a community cultural centre were his ‘political enemies’.

I must have forgotten about all the political intrigue and conspiracy coursing through the halls of power in Cote-des-Neiges.

Point two would be to resist the awesome temptation of being bribed or otherwise caught up in shady real estate transactions, something I think is genetically programmed into nearly all politicians – criminals in sheep’s clothing for the most part, and this city, province and rather obviously the federal government have provided so many fantastic examples of late its difficult to imagine any other reason to get into politics in the first place.

It’s good to know all these ‘pillars’ of various communities are so concerned about the message they send to the ‘most precious resource’ they all seem to work into their photo-ops. Children? they could give a damn – kids don’t vote after all.

So there’s point three – no photo ops with old people, minorities, children or the handicapped. In fact, try not to have any photo ops at all – we want you to sit at your desk and do your job, and we don’t need a photograph to prove this point. A small video camera with a live feed is what I want, so all citizens could tune in and watch the mayor working.

Because we’ll no doubt need to keep our eyes on him.

I don’t know much about Mayor Blanchard other than that he’s a career local politician, was formerly of the former Vision Montreal (Louise Harel stepped aside so that a coalition government could be formed, though it looks like that just means supporting Marcel Coté as leader of something called cityhallmtl but I’ll talk more about this later), had worked as a political attaché in the latter years of the Doré administration, and had previously worked in publishing. More recently he’s been the head of the city’s executive council, part of Applebaum’s ‘coalition government’ initiative.

Personally, he’s old guard, but I won’t judge him too harshly. If he makes it through four months and I enjoy living here while he’s in power, I guess I’ll have little to complain about.

Mr. Applebaum and his predecessor’s story are already well-known. Applebaum has been implicated by the SQ and CEIC in shady real-estate deals while he was borough mayor of Cote-des-Neiges/Notre-Dame-de-Grace. You’ll be delighted to know he’s allowed to vacation abroad despite the 14 charges hanging over his head.

Our last elected mayor is Gerald Tremblay (who received a whopping 159,000 votes in 2009, with less than 40% of citizens participating), who as you may remember stepped aside in November of last year after the heat from so much damning testimony from the Charbonneau Commission became unbearable. Keep in mind that Tremblay hasn’t been charged, just named. Perhaps he was truly not implicated, but just turned a blind eye. Maybe he had been threatened, or really naive. Who knows. The Commish has recessed for summer break.

Crime needs a holiday.

Since I started writing this the interim mayor of Laval resigned because of his apparent involvement with escorts. He started his day by saying he’d never resign and that it was a blackmail attempt. Four hours later he hung up his hat. That was six days ago.

I love the dedication and their ability to flat out do the opposite of what they earlier said they wouldn’t do, without any attempt to justify their switch. They don’t think they owe us an explanation. They never do.

Personally I don’t get it – an escort is just someone you pay to have sex with, hardly scandalous especially given it was the mayor’s money, and not that of the taxpayers of Laval.

Oh, wait… I think I see the problem now.

Back to the shit show in Montreal.

Pierre Bourque (at left)
Pierre Bourque (at left)

It seems that nearly all of our mayors in recent memory started with high hopes and ended their careers in one kind of scandal or another. Tremblay advocated an end to forced mergers and promised local small government and commonsense solutions. Prior to him, Pierre Bourque promised to actually deliver on civic improvement initiatives his predecessor didn’t deliver on and cut ‘big government’ waste. He committed political suicide by pushing through forced mergers with the help of the PQ, a measure which literally blew up in his face and sunk his political career. Bourque’s predecessor, Jean Doré, won in a landslide against Jean Drapeau in 1986 (along with the Montreal Citizen’s Movement) by promising to be a more people-focused and less dictatorial mayor than the former Grand Chief Drapeau.

Jean Doré
Jean Doré

He further promised not to get mixed up in the costly mega-projects characteristic of the Drapeau Era, instead preferring to cut waste at City Hall while developing grassroots initiatives to improve city living. He ended his two terms in office caught up in a failed real-estate mega-project (the Overdale Debacle) and was deemed an unfit leader because of an apparently lax attitude to running a tight ship. It didn’t help that he had a $300,000 window installed in his office, nor that he razed a low-rent but viable neighbourhood for condo projects that were never built and had a police force running wild beating up gays and viciously murdering minorities while turning a blind eye to the biker gangs.

Jean Drapeau

Prior to Doré we have Jean Drapeau, a comparatively ‘good’ mayor in that he presided over the city’s last prolonged period of sustained development and growth. Drapeau began his thirty year career as mayor first in the mid-1950s, when he was a crusading urban reformer who won on a platform of eliminating corruption and vice (sound familiar?), largely by tearing down slums. Drapeau greenlighted expropriations for mega projects throughout his tenure, leading to the elimination of the Quartier de Mélasses (where Radio-Canada is today), Griffintown, Goose Village, a sizeable chunk of what was once Chinatown’s northern extension (where Complexe Guy-Favreau and Complexe Desjardins stand today) and what would eventually be converted into an arguably still working 1950s social housiong project, the Habitations Jeanne-Mance. He’d be defeated by Sarto Fournier in 1957 (Fournier was very well connected to Union Nationale boss and Banana Republic dictator Maurice Duplessis, the super-villain who ruled Québec before the Quiet Revolution) but would be returned to power three years later as part of the well-tempered societal modernization of Quebec and Montreal in the 1960s. Drapeau changed his campaign tone too – from now on it would be about putting Montreal on the map. He’d be greatly assisted by Liberal premier Jean Lesage and later premiers Bourassa and Lévesque, in addition to Prime Ministers Pearson and Trudeau, all of whom were very, shall we say, Montreal-focused. It’s good to have friends in high places – makes me wonder what goodies might float our way with a Montrealer as Prime Minister in less than two years…

From 1960 to 1986 Jean Drapeau was mayor and not universally liked (though, somehow, he managed to cultivate over 80% of the popular vote and faced no serious opposition during his time in office). Under his tenure the city grew and changed dramatically. Drapeau was instrumental in delivering the Métro, the modern city centre we enjoy today, Expo 67, Place des Arts, the Olympics and even the Montreal Expos baseball club. No mayor has done as much for our city before or since his reign (and at thirty years, what a reign it was).

Camillien Houde
Camillien Houde

But for all the good he did it is weighed down by his own corrupt practices. Mafia involvement in the construction of Olympic facilities and corruption within the unions were primary factors contributing to the massive cost overruns associated with the games. There are a number of apartment towers throughout this city built with concrete originally intended and ‘delivered’ to the Olympic park construction site, yet re-directed by those in the know. Drapeau was responsible for the nearly-criminal act of destroying Corrid’Art and his slash and burn style of urban redevelopment was not only inelegant but often antagonistic to the people’s interest.

Drapeau may have even ‘cooked the books’ during an election in which his opposition was eliminated after being infiltrated and broken up by the Montreal Police, rendering votes for his opponents ineligible and giving Drapeau a victory with over 90% popular support. Those were the days…

As a city, we need to decide what we want in a mayor, so that we don’t get sucked up into a pointless popularity contest that delivers nothing but more of the same. We need to establish our own metrics for judging a mayoral candidate’s chances of winning, and not fall prey to sophisticated marketing techniques that sell us yet another hands-off mayor. Perhaps most importantly, we need a mayor who fundamentally understands this city, its people, and what makes it great. We need to decide what kind of mayor our city needs, now and for the next ten years. Do we want a builder? Do we want a reformer? Do we want an architect? Do we want someone who’s politically well-connected? Do we want a renovator, a renewer or a redeveloper?

I think we all should spend a moment a think about what we want in a mayor – not just the qualities of the person but most importantly their plan for this city, whether it be growth or renewal – before we head to the polls in November. Otherwise the best we can hope for is another Drapeau, and his breed are rare these days.

But if we ask ourselves first what we want in a mayoral candidate, and define the context of the election before the candidates or media has a chance, the people ultimately manage to wrestle a bit of control over the rhetoric and could maybe make this election about something, rather than simply being the inconvenient selection of our next underwhelming mayor.

2 thoughts on “Montreal Mayors: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

  1. Nitpick: Jean Doré’s «$300,000 window» was the cost for transforming the whole attic upper-floor of City Hall into office space, as well as to bring City Hall in line with fire prevention regulations.

    Hardly a scandal.

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