On Monday morning, Montrealers who follow city politics woke up in an upbeat mood: November's mayoral election campaign was looking promising, with a surprising number of quality candidates – enough to contradict the pessimists who predicted that no honourable person would want to lead a city exposed for two years as rife with corruption.
Then, came the shock. Interim mayor Michael Applebaum had been arrested that very morning by UPAC, the anti-corruption unit of the Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police, and charged with fraud and bribery. The shock carried a terrible feeling of betrayal, since Mr. Applebaum's conciliatory ways had been appreciated.
After the resignation of former mayor Gérald Tremblay, who resigned last November after allegations that he had turned a blind eye to the corruption that impregnated his administration, Mr. Applebaum had deftly brought the opposition into a coalition administration, vowing to "erase the stain on our city" without running for the mayor's seat himself. People liked his earnest, unpretentious ways, and many saw him as the logical choice for the powerful job of chairman of the executive committee after the Nov. 3 election.
The allegations have nothing to do with Mr. Applebaum's stint as interim mayor, which ended Tuesday with his resignation. They date from the time he was borough mayor in Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, and are related to two real-estate projects in this district that took place between 2006 and 2011. An obvious question is on everybody's lips: If he had skeletons in his closet, why did he play the white knight who would clean up city hall?
Still, could the police have overplayed their hand? Henry Aubin, the veteran Montreal Gazette city columnist, argued Tuesday that UPAC should have waited until after November to charge Mr. Applebaum instead of destabilizing the city, ruining its credit ratings and increasing voters' cynicism.
While those who still follow politics may be disheartened, that's not the case with UPAC, which is obviously enjoying the show. Chief commissioner Robert Lafrenière gloated about Mr. Applebaum's arrest with the tone of a Wild West sheriff, theatrically proclaiming that nobody is above the law and insisting, without providing details, that the fraud was in the order of tens of thousands of dollars. Why the grand staging of Mr. Applebaum's arrest? Was it necessary to deepen the humiliation by arresting him at home at 6 a.m., as if the mayor was about to flee town like a bandit?
There is no word to describe the devastation this latest development is bringing to Montreal – and to Quebec's entire society, for that matter. Gilles Vaillancourt, the former mayor of Laval, is already accused, along with three dozen associates, of massive corruption, including the incredible charge of "gangsterism," previously reserved for criminal biker gangs. Unsurprisingly, the public now sees a criminal behind every politician, and has completely lost faith in the political process.
The only hope is that the contenders in the next mayoralty race will be able to re-establish Montreal's credibility. Former Liberal MP Denis Coderre is using his formidable energy to mount a vigorous campaign, and the debate could be quite interesting if Marcel Côté, a co-founder of the consulting firm SECOR who's also an expert in governance, enters the race as he has hinted. But who knows what will happen tomorrow?