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Ilona Dougherty says she frequently encounters cynicism and a feeling of powerlessness among voters.Graham Hughes

The clerk at the alpaca wool store in Montreal's Plateau neighbourhood confesses she doesn't follow municipal politics – even now. The man delivering meat to the Greek restaurant echoes the sentiment of many with a dismissive wave – "They're all crooks." Even the man with the sack of grapes yelling an opinion stream at pedestrians goes silent when asked if he will vote for Montreal's next mayor.

Past construction cones and the people lounging on the flank of Mount Royal, a pair of McGill University students have managed to cut through the thick layer of cynicism enveloping Montreal city politics. (An extra coat was laid on thick this week with the arrest and resignation of the self-declared corruption-fighting interim mayor, Michael Applebaum.)

Joey Shea and Samuel Harris are excitedly discussing the launch of a new student group. They are not exactly an average sample of political engagement, but on this day only they seem to be interested in discussing what needs to happen to pull their city out of the morass of corruption through November's civic vote and beyond.

"People are pretty fed up and apathetic," said Mr. Harris, a political history major and member of McGill's student council, who has a keen interest in municipal politics. "When the supposed corruption fighter himself turns out to be [allegedly] a corrupt opportunist, well, you can see how people get to that state. Sadly, it's the exact opposite of what we need."

It may be understandable that Montrealers have been beaten into hopelessness, but snapping out of the apathy and cynicism that keeps voters home on election day may be the only way out for a city that has become as synonymous with corruption as it is with old-world charm and joie de vivre.

Study after study has shown that the higher the level of citizen engagement and oversight, the more likely the forces of graft and kickback can be beaten back. When the people fail to brandish a democratic stick over officials by demanding transparency and accountability, gangsters in mob towns like Montreal, Chicago and New York are pleased to throw officials a few carrots in the form of cash and take over city business.

"The only way corruption can happen is if people aren't paying attention," said Ilona Dougherty, who nine years ago founded Apathy Is Boring, a charitable organization dedicated to boosting voter turnout among the young. Ms. Dougherty, a Montrealer, says she frequently encounters cynicism and a feeling of powerlessness among voters. "My response is: 'This is how they're getting away with it.' "

Residents of Montreal, Laval and other outlying suburbs don't have to look very far back to see what their disinterest in civic politics has wrought.

During the last municipal elections, in 2009, the broad strokes of the scandals that envelop Montreal and Laval were already known, but fewer than 40 per cent of eligible voters showed up and re-elected their mayors.

Voters in both towns knew about several shady land deals, the inflated contract costs and many of the questionable political donation practices.

They knew mayor Gérald Tremblay's second-in-command, Frank Zampino, had vacationed on the yacht of one of the city's biggest construction contractors, Tony Accurso.

Voters knew a former member of the provincial legislature had accused Laval's mayor, Gilles Vaillancourt, of trying to pay him off with envelopes of cash.

Mr. Tremblay was re-elected with a third of the vote, eking out a win on a three-way split with one candidate who was considered too radical by many and another who could barely speak English. Mr. Tremblay resigned last fall after outrage over corruption that went on under his watch finally boiled over.

Mr. Vaillancourt cruised to his sixth mandate with a huge margin of victory, earning once again the title "King of Laval" for his unchallenged, iron grip on power. He also resigned last fall and was arrested on corruption allegations. Since then, every city councillor except one has been implicated in an illegal political financing scheme.

Now that criminal charges such as fraud, gangsterism and bribery are tagged onto the scandals, will the people rise to throw the bums out and take their city back?

The provincial election last summer offered some cause for hope, when 74 per cent of eligible voters turned out – a 10-year high spanning four elections. Jean Charest's Liberal government was defeated, at least in part because of Quebec's corruption scandal.

"I'm not convinced anything major is going to come out of this," said Thomas Naylor, an economist at McGill who has written books on petty corruption and greed. "I don't expect guillotines in Dominion Square, but nonetheless … when people say they've given up, in many ways it's a cop-out. It's an admission of weakness. There needs to be a fundamental change in social attitudes that you can do something, that you have the right to be heard. We're not there."

Civic disengagement in Montreal is a symptom of a severe lack of a sense of duty that permeates Canadian society, Dr. Naylor says. All citizens, from the richest businessmen to wage slaves, have lost a sense of responsibility to build their society. "Instead of thinking about getting rich as a lifelong process, it's looked at as something to grab. 'Grab and run' has become a prevailing ideology, and our politics are a symptom of it," he said.

Ms. Shea, one of the McGill students, says the timing is wrong for people to rise up on corruption. Quebeckers are exhausted from more than a year of student protests over tuition. Mr. Harris adds that most of the alleged criminal acts that have seen public officials hauled off in handcuffs this winter and spring date back five to 10 years. In many ways, 2009 was the peak year for scandals in Quebec, not 2013.

Besides, she says, it's not particular events, such as a mayor or three being hauled away, that cause people to become engaged. It builds slowly, when people realize their lives are affected by how their city is governed.

It starts when the city angers residents by taking away the stop sign in front of their houses, she says.

"It really is a matter of one stop sign at a time."

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