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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Joys of Municipal Politics - Montreal Style

My first real journalistic job (having a beat, building contacts, establishing trust, working the story) was as the CBC's local TV news reporter covering city hall.

This was back in the mid-70s, and Montreal had just hosted the olympic games. The city spent a fortune on the facilities and Mayor Jean Drapeau had bragged that the "olympics could no more have a deficit than a man could have a baby."

From the brilliant Montreal Gazette cartoonist, Aislin: Mayor Drapeau calls a Montreal abortionist...

What a shock when the bill came due along with allegations of union kickbacks, sweetheart deals with developers and construction companies. And of course, allegations of mafia involvement throughout.

For a young reporter still in his 20s, it was heaven.

The accusations of municipal corruption were so insistent that the Montreal media dined out on this story.

Jean Drapeau's party had run Montreal, Tammany style, for years. He was mayor, virtually uninterrupted from 1954 to 1986, with only three years out of power.

Like many powerful mayors, Drapeau was also a visionary. He oversaw the building of the Montreal metro system, the Place des Arts concert hall. He brought the World's Fair to Montreal - Expo '67. (Full disclosure - I was a guide on the La Balade trains that summer). He brought major league baseball to Montreal (Allez les Expos!)

But the triumph of Mayor Drapeau's political career was his undoing. The tab for the olympics was $1billion, payable for the next 30 years. Drapeau also made a huge mistake by borrowing from Swiss bankers. As the Canadian dollar declined against the Swiss franc, the amount due kept getting larger, and municipal taxes got bigger.

Drapeau himself, was not particularly corrupt. But he tolerated some very dubious characters around him and in the political party he founded, the Civic Party.

By the late 1970s, a home grown opposition began to emerge. Called the Montreal Citizens Movement (MCM), it was headed by an ex-Jesuit, Jacques Couture (who spoke almost no English). MCM was a political catch-all for the mildly leftist, hard core Quebec separatists, disaffected Anglos, Marxist theoreticians and a few lingering supporters of the FLQ, the terrorist organization that had tried and failed to start a revolution during the October Crisis of 1970.

By the time I started reporting, the violent revolutionaries were mostly gone or silenced. But Montreal could be a tense place in those post FLQ years. It was still possible to end up trying to get an interview with a politico who would refuse to speak in English, even though his knowledge of the language was probably better than mine.

And there were strikes. Lots of them. The Quebec unions were full of class and linguistic grievances with hot blooded labour leaders. Michel Chartrand was one who would never give an interview without a dozen well placed expletives (Maudits anglais!). Chartrand made his interviews very tough to edit...

Drapeau's Civic Party was eventually thrown out of office and a new generation of more civic-minded and more liberal politicians took their turn at running Montreal.

There were more than a few characters in Montreal politics in those days. And a lot of nervousness about whether Quebec might one day separate from Canada. But nothing like the oddities we see today in Rob Ford's Toronto city hall.


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