Michael Applebaum has the corner office at Montreal City Hall. The view from his grand mayor’s chambers takes in the stately squares and greystones of Old Montreal, a swath of the city’s storied history.
Now, he is earning his own particular place in it. This month, Mr. Applebaum became the first anglophone in a century, the first Jewish person ever – and likely the only unicyclist and hypnotist – to ascend to the mayor’s chair. In a province known for its often fractious language politics, his victory is seen as a symbolic one for a non-francophone.
Mr. Applebaum narrowly won a vote by his peers to take over from Gérald Tremblay, who stepped down under pressure. And the new mayor faces a giant task: restoring trust in a city shaken by the drip-drip revelations of corruption, until general elections are held in November, 2013. (This week, he began that process by forming a coalition of all municipal parties on the executive committee.)
“When I decided to run for mayor of Montreal, I felt that it was necessary,” he said in an interview this week. “We’ve got to put the city back in a proper direction.”
Mr. Applebaum comes with business experience honed through jobs ranging from shoe salesman and jean-store owner to property manager and realtor. During his private-sector days, he adhered to the rule that a dollar found on the floor should be returned to the company – a credo that Montrealers, cheated out of millions of their taxes, should find reassuring.
Also reassuring, to those who say the mayor’s French isn’t up to snuff, is that he is studying his verbs.
Every day, Mr. Applebaum says, he’s reviewing the French verb-conjugating Bible known as the Bescherelle, which he keeps in an adjoining office. He’s still at the verb être – to be – which is always a good place to start.
From here, he has a year to show he can deliver on his clean-up promises in a city weary of scandal.
Some people thought they would never see a person named Applebaum reach Montreal’s highest office. But you were elected by a city council that includes sovereigntists and political rivals. What does that say?
The council voted for me as an individual, knowing very clearly that I’m an anglophone, that I’m Jewish. Montreal is a multicultural city where we live in harmony. People of all languages are able to get along. We are not judged on language but more on our merits.
You were first elected in 1994 and joined the city’s influential inner circle, the executive committee, in 2009. Until this month, you were its chairman. Why didn’t you spot signs of wrongdoing, evidence of graft and bribery at city hall?
As elected officials, we are not experts in every field and we must have the proper people to guide us and give us the appropriate answers. In the end, unfortunately, there have been, it looks like, people that used their positions to give us inappropriate information and explanations. You cannot expect an elected official to be able to understand all the specific details in a bid process.
Reports show corruption drove up the cost of public construction projects in Montreal by 30 to 40 per cent. Prominent media commentator Mario Dumont, once leader of Quebec’s official opposition, said you could be counted on not to overpay because members of the Jewish community “have a pretty good reputation when it comes to paying too much.” Was that ethnic stereotyping?
I heard about what he said. I cannot hide my background. I come from the business world. It does not bother me. I am who I am.
Several people have commented on your imperfect and heavily accented French, and for a while it looked like it would be an impediment to your rise to the mayor’s job. Do you feel your French is adequate to represent the metropolis of a French-speaking province?
I would always like to improve my French. Are people satisfied? French people realize that I’m an anglophone and I do my best in the French language. I make mistakes.
You spent a year in French immersion in Grade 7 that you qualify as a “disaster,” and returned to English schooling the following year. What went wrong
I never expected to go into politics. My objective was to become a very wealthy individual in business. So schooling for me was not a priority.
You also went to CEGEP (two-year college in Quebec) after high school but didn’t graduate.
I quit because the teacher in commerce was coming late. I told him very clearly that if you come late one more time, you have nothing to teach me, because in business you must be on time and I expect you to be here on time. He showed up one day, he was late again. I got up and said, “You cannot make people wait like this, I’m gone.”
What is your vision for Montreal?
Montreal is an incredible city. It’s very vibrant, it has all of its different quartiers, it has everything to offer when it comes to food and nightlife and tourism, and business opportunities. The city is growing when you look at the investments in housing, construction, hospitals and all of that.
What is the city’s greatest problem
The blemishes of collusion and corruption. And the mistrust that people have, rightfully so, of the administration and the functionaries of the city.
I’ve been in business, and it doesn’t matter if you steal a dollar or you steal $100,000. You’re not allowed to take a penny.
I’ve always said to my employees that if you find a dollar on the floor in this business, it’s not yours, it’s the business’s money.
You have to turn it in.
You’ve promised to recover money “stolen” from taxpayers by corrupt officials. How?
We will do everything we can to seize that money. We will also seize any property possible, and take legal action against anybody or any company that has stolen money or did collusion or corruption.
What are some of the more surprising things that Montrealers don’t know about you?
When I was a kid, I used to love motocross bikes. I used to love skateboarding. I used to unicycle. You know why I got a unicycle? When I was 13, 14, I had a two-wheel bike and it got stolen. And I was very upset and I said, “I’m going to get something that no one can ride so no one is going to want to steal it.”
I’ve also taken courses and I graduated in hypnotherapy, which I don’t practise, but if you want, I can show you tapes of me hypnotizing people and making them bark, or sing like Michael Jackson.
ou also became a Shriner when the city of Montreal was successfully campaigning to keep the Shriner’s Hospital in the city in the mid-2000s.
I have a fez. All the Shriners know me. I’m very proud to be a Shriner. They do incredible work.
People see your election as a symbolic breakthrough for Quebec’s anglophone minority. How do you feel about that?
If people feel that I represent something for them, then I’m honoured. But I’m a simple kind of fella. I go home, I have a wife, I have kids, I take out the garbage, I do the laundry, I do the shopping. Yes, there’s a lot on my shoulders. But I haven’t changed over the years.
You’ve called your 89-year-old father, Moishe, a role model to you. You started working at his shoe store part-time at age 13.
The first thing he did when I got there, he hands me a broom. He says, “Any business you go into, you’ve got to learn it from the bottom up.” My father taught me hard work. He also taught me to deal with people on the level. We’d go to a factory and he’d say hello to everybody. I said, “Why do you say hello to the guy in shipping, the guy on the machine?” He says, “Michael, you do not know who you’re speaking to. The fellow on that machine, in two years you may find out that this guy, you walk into a factory, and he owns it.”
Maybe you’re the guy on the machine. No one saw your move to the mayor’s office coming.
I’ve been very often underestimated. But that only becomes more of a challenge for me.
This interview has been edited and condensed.