A sharp businessman, ardent federalist and reluctant politician, Marcel Côté had a passion for the city of Montreal. Even after running unsuccessfully in the 2013 mayoral campaign as the man who could build bridges between people and clean up a scandal-plagued, lumbering city hall, he showed his devotion by accepting a post as special adviser to the winner, Denis Coderre, for the sum of $1 a year.
“He was a man of vision and an incubator for ideas. He could give you 20 of them over the course of a few minutes, of which two were feasible,” said Mr. Coderre in an interview. “What I loved about Marcel was that he had no filter. He called a spade a spade and he was always challenging the status quo.”
Tall, thin and rumpled, with tousled hair and a gap-toothed grin that gave him a youthful mien, Mr. Côté died May 25 at the age of 71 after suffering a heart attack while participating in a 100-kilometre charity cycling race in Joliette, Que. It was a sudden end for a man who never stopped, who bounded when he could have walked and cycled when he could have driven. Russell Copeman, a member of the city’s executive committee who ran for municipal office under Mr. Côté’s banner, Coalition Montréal, was one of the few people who moved as quickly and tirelessly as he did .
“I saw Marcel the Friday night before he died, at a gala benefit for an organization that provides meals to low-income students in schools,” Mr. Copeman recalled. “I left at about 9:15 p.m. because I was exhausted. He was still boogieing on the dance floor ….”
Jean-Yves Ménard, a partner in Secor, the management consulting firm Mr. Côté co-founded in 1975, recalled the interview he had to become a partner: It lasted less than 10 minutes, during which Mr. Côté fielded several phone calls and dealt with two or three employees who needed to speak with him. “At the end of the interview, he simply said, ‘I think you can do the job’ and that was that,” Mr. Ménard said. “ He was untiring, a multitasker who’d come into a meeting with 10 or 15 people around the table, take calls, leave, come back and pose the most pertinent questions. He was 71 going on 31, the eternal Marcel.”
Marcel Côté was born on July 29, 1942, in the town of Malartic in Quebec’s northern Abitibi region. It was then a thriving mining town with a population that peaked at about 7,000. One of six siblings, he grew up wearing hand-me-down clothes; the family did not own a car. Each summer, the family would travel to Montreal to visit his maternal grandfather, Léon Trépanier, a journalist, municipal politician and president of the nationalist Société Saint Jean-Baptiste . His apartment on the city’s east side was young Marcel’s favourite holiday destination, for he loved to listen to his grandfather’s stories.
“What a man!” Mr. Côté told the Montreal newspaper 24 Heures in an interview in October, 2013. “He was the guy who, in 1925, gave us the St. Jean Baptiste holiday.”
After obtaining a master’s degree in economics from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Mr. Côté became a fellow at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. He moved to Montreal in the early 1970s, where Secor would grow into the largest management consulting company in Canada before being bought by KPMG in 2012, always championing local firms as they broke barriers to become the powerful “Quebec Inc.”
From 1986 to 1988, he served as an economic adviser to Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa. He then spent two years as a strategic consultant to then-prime minister Brian Mulroney. Along the way, he wrote five books, including If Québec Goes – the Real Cost of Separation, with David Johnston, now the Governor-General.
Mr. Côté was also a Renaissance man, a member of the boards of many Montreal institutions, from Les amis de la montagne, dedicated to the preservation of Mount Royal, to the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the Compagnie Marie Chouinard modern dance troupe. In 2012, he was awarded the Prix Arts-Affaires de Montréal, an annual prize honouring those who make a mark through their support for the arts.
Simon Brault, former head of the National Theatre School who is now director and chief executive officer of the Canada Council for the Arts, said Mr. Côté could not be pigeonholed. “It didn’t matter if it was contemporary art, experimental theatre or avant-garde dance, Marcel was there,” he said.
“He was everywhere, bridging the gaps between provincial, federal and municipal scenes, a consultant who was outspoken, who believed in debate and sharing his ideas with anyone who would listen. He believed ideas could change reality,” Mr. Brault said.
Mr. Côté, never good at distilling his thoughts into 30-second news clips, was also wont to make statements that caused controversy. He once called Montreal the “champion of aborted projects,” and in an interview with Radio-Canada during the student strikes of 2012, he said “the Mafia is more democratic than the student associations; [their] meetings are bogus and they are given legitimacy when they have just 10-per-cent turnout.”
Accustomed to working in party backrooms, he rued having to rein himself in as the face of a coalition that included polar opposites such as Mr. Copeman, a former Liberal member of the National Assembly, Louise Harel, the former Parti Québécois minister-turned-municipal politician , and Marvin Rotrand, the long-serving council member from the city’s west end.
Mr. Côté did it because he felt Montreal needed what he had to offer. He understood that it was at its nadir, with a corruption scandal that reached into the corridors of city hall. Two mayors had already quit under clouds. Gérald Tremblay, who has always insisted he knew nothing about illegal contributions to his party, left in November, 2012. His interim replacement, Michael Applebaum, who insisted that he was clean, quit in disgrace after he was arrested in June, 2013, and charged with 14 offences, including fraud, corruption and breach of trust.
Mr. Rotrand, who had never met Mr. Côté, was intrigued when he heard the name being bandied about political and business circles as an alternative to mayoral hopefuls who were already in the race or expected to join.
“I called and invited him to a meeting at my house,” Mr. Rotrand recalled. “What Marcel offered was refreshing and new, a putting aside of battles between separatists and federalists in favour of making a stronger Montreal. One of his best assets was one of his worst when it came to being a politician – because he was able to work with and see the best in everybody, even his opponents.”
Mr. Côté ran for mayor on a pragmatic, business-oriented platform that stressed drawing young families back into the city, the creation of more green spaces and the establishment of an independent body that would determine how much the construction firms involved in the corruption scandal should repay the city. In the end, he garnered only 13 per cent of the vote, but did not reflect his true impact.
“What he managed seemed impossible – a coalition with strong sovereigntist and federalist figures – and a lot of people said he was their second choice,” Mr. Rotrand noted. “You can see his lasting impact in that Mayor Coderre is calling his group a banner, not a party, and debate during meetings is more respectful than it has been in the past.”
Mr. Côté leaves his partner of more than 40 years, Louise Drouin; his sister, Hélène; and brothers, Jacques, Jean, Pierre and Michel.
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