Montreal has chosen a non-traditional leader to steer it through a roiling period of turbulence brought on by corruption, tapping an anglophone to lead the city for the first time in at least 100 years.
Michael Applebaum, until last week the chairman of Montreal’s powerful executive committee, narrowly defeated rival Richard Deschamps on Friday in a city council vote to emerge as interim mayor until Montrealers go to the polls in a year.
The 49-year-old Mr. Applebaum succeeds Gérald Tremblay, who stepped down earlier this month amid revelations of rot in his administration. The interim mayor is pledging to be a bridge-builder by including members of opposition parties on Montreal’s powerful executive committee.
“The title of mayor is not something that interests me. But we need change,” Mr. Applebaum said in an interview on Friday.
Mr. Applebaum undertakes the formidable task of restoring integrity and public trust to a demoralized city seared by scandal. Among his pledges will be an attempt to recoup public funds squandered by wrongdoing, and open up meetings of the executive committee to public scrutiny.
“We have to clear this up. We have to put the city back on track,” he said.
The move of a non-francophone to the highest office is seen as a symbolic step in a city and province often defined by language. Tensions in Montreal have notched up since the election of the Parti Québécois government, and the province’s Education Minister last month referred to English as a “foreign language.”
Mr. Applebaum’s victory by a vote of 31-29 itself marked a spectacular reversal.
He had been passed up by his Union Montreal party as mayorlty choice in favour of Mr. Deschamps last week, prompting him to dramatically quit his party and launch his bid for the top spot as an independent. He recast himself as a whistleblower and set about building support from city councillors from all parties.
His candidacy initially appeared to be doomed, not over his qualifications but over the quality of his French. Mr. Applebaum had faced anonymous complaints from members of his party that his French wasn’t good enough for the title of Hizzoner in Montreal.
Mr. Applebaum attended English public schools in Montreal and learned French working at his father’s shoe store, and later at his own clothing stores in Montreal. He has cast the language controversy aside and says there are more pressing matters at city hall than his mother tongue.
“We have a multicultural city, a city that speaks many languages but is a French city, first and foremost,” he said.
“I’m a proud Montrealer, a proud anglophone, Quebecker and Canadian. But I’m able to work and speak in the French language, and that is what’s great about Montreal.”
Not only is Mr. Applebaum’s first language English, but he is Jewish, a fact noted by many in a city where mayors have come from the Catholic, French-speaking majority for a century. On Twitter, some had already taken to calling Montreal “The Big Applebaum."
Mr. Applebaum said there is absolutely no question of removing the crucifix that hangs over the city council chambers, something that has been raised by city councillors in the past.
“That cross is part of the history of Montreal,” Mr. Applebaum said, “and I do not have a problem with it.”
Married and the father of three children, Mr. Applebaum was first elected to city council in 1994. He also worked in real estate before seeking public office.