The Tragic Mayorality of Jean Doré

Jean Doré and Nelson Mandela - July, 1990
Jean Doré and Nelson Mandela – July, 1990

Former mayor Jean Doré passed away on Monday, June 15th, after a seven month battle with pancreatic cancer.

From 1986 to 1994 he was our geeky young mayor with the Magnum P.I. moustache and something of a breath of fresh air after twenty-six uninterrupted years of Jean Drapeau. He led the the opposition Montreal Citizens’ Movement to a landslide victory in the 1986 municipal election and will be remembered for a number of modest accomplishments, many of which revolve around the 1992 celebration of the city’s 350th anniversary.

Under his administration the city got its first computers and adopted its first urban master plan. The Pointe-a-Calliere archeological museum, Place Charles de Gaulle and Place Emilie-Gamelin were all inaugurated. Major investments were made in renovating and beautifying Old Montreal, the Old Port and the park islands, not to mention turning the Champs de Mars from a parking lot into an open green space. Saint Catherine Street was renovated and beautified, McGill College was redeveloped to take its present form. Several tall buildings were completed, significantly increasing available class-A office space available in the city (this includes 1000 de la Gauchetiere Ouest, 1250 Boul. René Lévesque Ouest, the Laurentian Bank building, the Montreal Trust building, Tour de la Cathedrale etc).

Despite these significant developments and the relative success of the 350th anniversary renewal and beautification initiatives, Doré lost the 1994 municipal elections to Pierre Bourque, the guy who had previously run the Botanical Gardens and was responsible for the vastly unpopular megacity merger of 2002-2006.

In retrospect, it’s difficult to explain how Doré could lose to Bourque. Doré was the first of three recent mayors who served roughly equal amounts of time, started with a lot of promise and ended their term unpopular and considered something of a ‘do-nothing’ mayor. That said, in terms of his individual accomplishments I would still rank Doré head and shoulders above Pierre Bourque and Gerald Tremblay.

Conflicts arose within the Montreal Citizens’ Movement soon after Doré was first elected in 1986. The major scandal of his administration being the Overdale fiasco, in which a small though vibrant community was expropriated and bulldozed to make way for a massive downtown condo project that never materialized (the location is currently being developed into the ambitious YUL condo and townhouse project). This led to the MCM losing some of its more prominent Anglophone members and support from the urban Anglophone community (a fact which was compounded by Doré’s insistence of a strict interpretation of Bill 101 as it pertained to outdoor commercial signage, not to mention renaming Dorchester after René Lévesque when the former premier passed away in 1987). Later still, his administration would be criticized for not paying down the massive debt left by the Drapeau administration, and was subject to enhanced scrutiny on public spending as a result of his predecessor’s lax attitude to keeping balanced local books.

Other economic and political factors handicapped Doré. During the 1986-1994 period there was a global recession tied to the end of the Cold War and localized restructuring as a consequence of NAFTA and the privatization of numerous crown corporations, many of which had been located in Montreal. The local manufacturing and civil engineering sectors took a heavy hit, as did textiles and food processing, areas of industry that were once foundational. All of these factors were well beyond the influence of the mayor of Montreal. The national question that resurfaced at the time certainly didn’t help, as Montreal, Quebec and Canada’s future was perhaps at its most uncertain point roughly during the same time period as Doré’s mayoralty (consider the failures of the Meech Lake (1987) and Charlottetown Accords (1992), the Oka Crisis (1990) and the re-election of the Parti Quebecois (in 1994, leading to the referendum the following year).

Call it a matter of bad timing – I think Doré would have been an exceptional mayor had he come to power a decade earlier and maintained closer ties with the activist/grassroots foundation of the Montreal Citizens’ Movement. And yet, conversely, the main problem with his administration lied in a lack of political maturity. He only shone compared to Drapeau for the latter’s long political demise over the course of a decade after the Olympics, and yet would ultimately be judged as inferior to man who saddled us with billions in debt and a depopulated urban core.

Personally, I think Doré shone brightest hosting Nelson Mandela in July of 1990 (click here for Mandela’s speech), shortly after Mandela’s release from a South African prison. He wasn’t supposed to stop in Montreal on his international tour, but Doré made it happen with less than 24 hours to organize a large public ceremony at the Champs de Mars. 15,000 turned up to see Mandela thank Montreal in its efforts to combat Apartheid. He then visited Union United Church, arguably the historic epicentre of Montreal’s Black community (on a tangential note, I’m very happy to see the UUC’s congregation returned home on Sunday June 14th to their historic church on Delisle Street in Saint Henri. The congregation had been forced out in 2011 after an inspection revealed the building was in danger of structural failure and required extensive renovations, renovations which have since been completed).

Mandela’s visit was a high point in an administration consistently beset by circumstances and events well beyond the individual control of the mayor but that nonetheless contributed to an overall sense of malaise that became somewhat entrenched in the character of Montrealers at the time (and which I’d argue we’re only beginning to really emerge from). Consider six months prior to the visit the city endured the horror of the Polytechnique Massacre, and a month after the visit we’d be contending with the Oka Crisis.

All things considered, he did a good job and the city benefitted (for the most part) from his administration, though situation and circumstances being what they were, he probably did as much and as best anyone could do.

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