Jean Drapeau

Jean Drapeau, lawyer, politician, mayor of Montréal (b at Montréal 18 Feb 1916; d at Montréal 12 Aug 1999). Jean Drapeau was the most daring and successful mayor Canada has ever seen. His longevity as a politician was such that during the 29 years he ruled Montréal, 7 prime ministers and 9 Québec premiers crossed the stage. He gave the city its greatest moments: a 1967 World Exposition celebrating Canada's centennial which drew 50 million visits, and the 1976 Summer Olympic Games. But he presided over the decline of Montréal as Canada's business capital and largest city. As rival Toronto grew in size and prestige, Drapeau declared: "Let Toronto become Milan. Montréal will always be Rome."

The only son of an insurance salesman and a grande dame of an opera singer, Drapeau was a protégé of the nationalist priest and historian Lionel Groulx. He defended his own belief in a Catholic, conservative Québec as a nationalist candidate in a 1942 federal by-election and a 1944 provincial election. He lost both, but his reputation grew as he joined the shakers of his generation to defend a Catholic union during a brutal strike at Asbestos, Qué in 1949.

Drapeau then caught Montréal's imagination, leading a public inquiry into police corruption and, when Mayor Camillien Houde suddenly retired, Drapeau swept to power in the 28 October 1954 election. He was only 37. He began the slow transformation of Montréal from a riverport city infamous for its brothels and night life to a world metropolis of the first rank. Rightfully sensing Drapeau had larger ambitions, Québec Premier Maurice Duplessis smashed the Drapeau-led Civic Action League in the 1957 vote. After 3 years of brooding and the old Québec now dead with Duplessis, Drapeau purged many of his old allies, formed a private political club, the Civic Party, and, promising Montréal a subway and clean government, won the 1960 election at the same time that all of Québec was launching into the Quiet Revolution. Drapeau kept the subway promise, delivering a distinctive and expensive system, its stations florentined with stained glass and mosaics. He reformed the electoral system and modernized the police department, but ignored or skirted issues such as public housing, city planning and pollution control. In 1987 Montréal was still dumping raw sewage into the St Lawrence, much the same as it had when the city was founded in 1642.

Drapeau preferred the big show. In 1969 his labour relations grew so bad all but 47 of his 3780-member police force struck. The army was summoned to quell the looting and nationalist street riots. Yet the same year he single-handedly brought Montréal a major league baseball team, the Montreal Expos. More circuses, said his critics. Said the mayor: "What the masses want are monuments." He declared they were his contribution to La Survivance, the survival of French Canadians. But the nationalism of his youth was so tempered he stayed neutral during the 1980 referendum on Québec independence. Internationally, he won the respect of leaders ranging from Charles de Gaulle to the royal family. Wrote former British PM Edward Heath: "I was privileged to hear privately mayor Drapeau's revelations on how to gain and keep power through the manipulation of friend and foe alike. It was one of the most hilarious and entertaining talks I have ever had with a politician." One opponent called him "a combination of Walt Disney and Al Capone."

Drapeau's ruthless and authoritarian side emerged during the 1970 Québec kidnapping crisis (see October Crisis). In a city election held while the draconian powers of the War Measures Act were in force, Drapeau smeared the opposition as a terrorist front. Amid hysteria, his principal opponent was locked up with 467 others, and on 25 Oct 1970, Drapeau's private party won all 52 council seats. He rang up 92.5% of the mayoralty vote. The absolute power Drapeau won in that election allowed him to ram through his plan for the Olympics, whose massive white concrete structures incarnated his politique de grandeur. Budgeted at $310 million, the final cost was $1.3 billion, not counting the Olympic stadium tower, which stood unfinished until 1987. A provincial enquiry blamed the mayor for the cost and rampant corruption. But there was no evidence that he lined his own pockets. Montréalers re-elected him in 1978 and again in 1982, but it was the end of big projects. Over the decades he received many appeals, some tantalizing, to run in provincial or federal politics, but he sensed Montréal was his best platform and there he remained until the end of his 8th term.

On 20 June 1986, slowed by a stroke, Drapeau summoned the press to a site in the shadow of his pyramids, the Olympic installations, in the east-end neighbourhood where he began his political career and where he still lived in a modest house with his wife of 41 years. Many Montréalers wept with him as he announced his resignation. His friend, PM Brian Mulroney, appointed Drapeau to finish his political career in Paris as Canadian ambassador to UNESCO. With Drapeau gone, his Civic Party was reduced to a single council seat. The Montréal Citizen's Movement under Jean Doré took power in the November 1986 election.