After years of corruption scandals in Montreal’s administration and in the midst of damaging testimony at the Charbonneau inquiry, mayor Gérald Tremblay resigned from his post last week after a former organizer for his party declared under oath that Mr. Tremblay knew about the kickbacks his party received from contractors.
Even though three close former associates are now accused of fraud, Mr. Tremblay has always insisted that he was not personally aware of collusion and illegal financing – hard to believe, but not impossible, considering Mr. Tremblay’s personality.
A soft-spoken, devout Christian who wore rose-coloured glasses and hated controversy, Mr. Tremblay has the perpetually surprised look of someone who floats through space, unable to realize that the world is a dangerous place and that some people are wicked – a strange behaviour for a Harvard Business School graduate. Cartoonists paint him as a wide-eyed deer stunned by car lights in the middle of the road.
Torontonians never seem happy with their mayors, but Montreal has a long history of being saddled with a series of mayors who were, at best, peculiar characters.
Long-serving mayor Camillien Houde was a populist who sympathized openly with the Italian Fascists. In 1940, he was arrested by the RCMP after he urged his denizens to resist conscription. He was held in an internment camp in Ontario for four years. After his release in 1944, he was re-elected and governed the city until he retired in 1954.
Non-descript mayors followed until Jean Drapeau arrived on the scene. He was a flamboyant visionary and, indeed, Expo 67, which he championed, was a huge success. But then he tried to do it again by hosting the 1976 Summer Olympics, which ended up as a financial disaster. While he focused on big dreams, Mr. Drapeau had the good sense to leave the day-to-day management of the city to Lucien Saulnier, the strict and efficient head of the executive committee – a healthy division of labour that, unfortunately, was not imitated by his successors.
In 1986, hopes ran high as Jean Doré, a bright young lawyer, was elected mayor while his party, a left-leaning coalition of francophones and anglophones, took over city hall. This spelled a new progressive era, although the Doré administration was often overwhelmed by its bureaucratic tendencies.
When a violent summer storm hit Montreal during a weekend, Mr. Doré stayed at his cottage instead of showing up on the scene. Too rational for his own good, he justified his reaction by arguing that he was in contact with the city’s management and that, in any case, what Montrealers needed in the wake of the hurricane was not another useless politician but roofers, electricians, engineers and blue collar workers.
It was political suicide; he was defeated in 1994 by a very different man.
Pierre Bourque, a former head of the Montreal Botanical Gardens, was a horticulturist and a disciple of New Age theories, who preferred country living to city life and who once admitted that he believes trees have their own spirituality.
Predictably, he privileged nature-oriented developments to lowly issues like garbage collection, infrastructure repairs and snow removal. Another self-styled visionary, he convinced the Parti Québécois government to impose the merger of the island’s 28 municipalities into a mega-city. But his creature turned against him and in 2002 he was defeated by (former) suburbanites who voted in favour of former Liberal minister Gérald Tremblay.
Meantime, unbeknownst to Montrealers – and yes, perhaps to the mayors themselves – through the years, corruption had already become rampant within the city’s administration.