Montreal a Disaster: What Went Wrong? | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Montreal a Disaster: What Went Wrong?

It says something about a city when tales of bravery in the face of ORGANIZED CRIME are apparently a prerequisite to governing it.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 9, 2009

Montreal a Disaster: What Went Wrong?

It says something about a city when tales of bravery in the face of ORGANIZED CRIME are apparently a prerequisite to governing it. Five weeks into an increasingly bizarre election campaign dominated by scandal, graft and good, old-fashioned backstabbing, Gérald Tremblay wants it known that he is scared for the well-being of his family. MONTREAL's mayor and leader of the municipal party Union Montréal (Quebec has parties at the city level) is vying for a third term. He says his decision to clean up city hall during the past four years has made him a target of Montreal's criminal underbelly. He recently reminded voters of the time police found two fire bombs behind his country house in 2005. Then there was the time when, as Quebec's industry minister, he denied a liquor permit to a Montreal-area wine producer - who was subsequently found dead in the trunk of his own car. "I'm not naive," Tremblay told Le Devoir last week. "I'm very well informed. I knew exactly what I was getting into with the city of Montreal."

Not to be outdone, Tremblay's opponents offered up their own brave bona fides. Tremblay's main challenger and leader of the rival party Vision Montréal, Louise Harel, reminded voters that her late husband, journalist and union leader Michel Bourdon, was repeatedly threatened by the Mafia. Richard Bergeron, of the upstart Projet Montréal, says he has requested police protection, though he makes it clear that his crusade against municipal corruption hasn't garnered him any death threats - yet. "Everyone knows where I live," he told a reporter recently.

While other cities grapple with garbage collection, snow removal and other humdrum realities of municipal politics, Montreal has, in the past several weeks, become a chaotic and dirty throwback to its bad old days. Allegations of mobbed-up favouritism, brown envelopes stuffed with cash, wildly inflated city contracts, an aggressive blue-collar union perpetually at odds with the mayor's office: these, not its many charms and joie de vivre, are Montreal's stock in trade these days.

Just who gets to fix this disaster will be decided soon: Montrealers go to the polls on Nov. 1. All three mayoral candidates - including Tremblay, who claims to have seen and heard nothing of the excesses perpetuated on his watch - have promised once again to clean up city hall. Should Tremblay fall, and there is a growing chance that he will, he will be replaced either by an ardent separatist and former Péquiste minister (Harel) who often refuses to speak English, or a relative political neophyte (Bergeron), whose greenish anti-corruption credentials are undermined by his staunch belief that 9/11 was an inside job perpetuated by the U.S. government.

The winner will inherit a chronically underperforming city burdened by an archaic governmental structure, a bloated public sector (Montreal's city council has twice as many elected officials as New York City), and what many say is an endemic culture of corruption. More and more of its citizens are taking refuge in the suburbs, while big business continues to flee for Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. Montreal is saddled with the largest debt of any major Canadian city, and its infrastructure is a leaking, potholed mess. It costs 30 per cent more to build a stretch of road in Quebec than anywhere else in the country, and a recent multi-million-dollar water contract was cancelled after its cost ballooned from $154 million to nearly $356 million. The city's political culture, one of its disgraced former politicians said recently, is hopelessly, institutionally crooked, "infected with gangrene." Meanwhile, the province's language hawks are yet again glancing sideways at the supposed creeping English presence among the city's immigrant populations. The parade of bad news afflicting what a La Presse columnist once dubbed "a beautifully messy Latin city" has raised the question: how could something so beautiful go so wrong?

Montreal's political and social landscape didn't look nearly as grim eight years ago, when Gérald Tremblay rode into office with a promise to bring democracy and transparency to Canada's second largest city. A former perfumer, hockey agent and provincial cabinet minister in Robert BOURASSA's Liberal government, Tremblay has cultivated the image of a squeaky-clean (if somewhat bland) politician whose idea of excitement, until his knee surgery three years ago, was a nice, long run through his neighbourhood of Outremont.

And Montreal welcomed him, in large part because he was so beige. The city has long been considered Quebec's existential nightmare, "the rottenest city on the continent," according to religious pamphleteer Evanston Hart in 1919, a place where every vice and threat - games of chance, naked flesh, the lion's share of English people in the province - could be experienced in abundance. Though the city has since been rehabilitated somewhat, its reputation for secretive, top-down governance à la Jean Drapeau (who took power in the 1950s and ruled for nearly three decades) remained, all the way to Tremblay's predecessor, Pierre Bourque. In his first two years in office beginning in 1994, Bourque's party pleaded guilty to 122 counts of electoral and campaign finance charges. "Ever since Drapeau, Montreal mayors have had the tendency to last a couple of terms and then get into trouble," says Harold Chorney, a professor of public policy at Concordia University in Montreal.

For years, it seemed Tremblay would buck the trend, thanks to Montrealers' yawning indifference to municipal matters: barely 35 per cent of voters bothered to cast a ballot in the 2005 election. Whiffs of scandal - the city's real estate corporation, run by Tremblay's former chief of staff, was found to have made a sweetheart land deal to a well-connected developer - bounced off the mayor, as did the news that the city's consultant and outsourcing budget had nearly doubled over six years.

Tremblay managed to withstand the revelation last April that Frank Zampino, his former right-hand man on the city's powerful executive committee, had twice vacationed on the yacht of Tony Accurso, whose firm was ultimately awarded a $356-million water- meter contract without any debate in city council. "Frank Zampino didn't make the best decision," the mayor said of his lieutenant's choice of vacation. The mayor nonetheless defended the water-meter contract, only to cancel it when an auditor general's report said it was rife with "irregularities [and] deficient management."

Still, a poll conducted in the heat of that scandal gave Tremblay a five-point edge over his closest rival, Benoit Labonté, a former member of Tremblay's party whose electoral campaign included promising to bring a major-league soccer team and the world's fair to Montreal, as well as a pledge to make city hall more transparent. "Tremblay ahead, despite it all," read an incredulous La Presse headline in May. The reason? "People find him to be a congenial, pleasant and decent man who is surrounded by people who are maybe less than that," Chorney says. "Tremblay was heroic in the federalist media. Everything in Quebec revolves around how this does or doesn't make a contribution to the issue of sovereignty. There was a feeling among Anglos that Tremblay, a federalist, might be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch, so they turn a blind eye to certain excesses." Judging by the election results, which saw Tremblay beat rival Pierre Bourque by 16 percentage points, French voters largely followed suit.

The first truly devastating bombshell came earlier this month, shaking Montrealers of their indifference: a Radio-Canada investigation into the province's construction sector uncovered a wide-ranging price-fixing scheme in which 14 construction companies colluded to fix bids on public construction jobs, and in some cases used Hells Angels muscle to intimidate rival firms. One of these contracts included the refinishing of the facade of Montreal's city hall, though most were for road construction and repair in and around Montreal.

These firms, the investigation alleged, would typically pay three per cent of the value of the public works contracts to what one former Transport Quebec official dubbed "the Montreal Italian Mafia." Coincidentally or not, an ensuing La Presse investigation found that a former Union Montreal fundraising official named Bernard Trépanier was in charge of a scheme that saw three per cent of the value of contracts distributed to political parties, councillors and city bureaucrats. (Mr. Trépanier, dubbed "Mr. Three Per Cent" by La Presse, denied involvement in the scheme.)

Furthermore, La Presse noted, 16 of the 272 firms who worked for the City of Montreal since 2005 received nearly half the city contracts. The overwhelming majority of them went to ... Tony Accurso, the yacht-owning friend of Zampino, and a politically connected businessman who has extensive construction interests in both Quebec and Ontario. Accurso also had business ties to Claude Blanchet, husband of Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois. In 2007, Accurso allegedly picked up the $14,000 tab for an Action Démocratique du Québec fundraising dinner held at Accurso's restaurant. Zampino himself left city politics to work for Dessau, an Accurso-owned company, in January 2009 (though he left the position three months later).

"Tremblay is either crooked, incompetent or just lacks the courage to attack difficult problems," says John Gomery, he of the Gomery commission on the sponsorship scandal, who now serves as honorary chairman of Bergeron's Projet Montréal.

But Tremblay's party certainly hasn't had a monopoly on scandal. Louise Harel promised to clean up city hall "with a broom" - en français, bien sûr, given her triumphant inability to speak English. She chose as her running mate Benoît Labonté, who kindly stepped aside as leader of her party, with a promise from Harel that he would become president of the city's powerful executive committee if she was elected. Armed with near-instant favourable polls, Harel depicted Tremblay as dithering, clueless and willingly blind to the corruption going on under his nose. She called Labonté, a borough mayor, formerly with Tremblay's Union Montréal banner, "a man of principle" who left Tremblay's side because he couldn't stand the stench.

The Harel-Labonté juggernaut (such as it was) lasted four months - until a journalist for the online newspaper Rue Frontenac found that Labonté himself had met with and solicited money from none other than Tony Accurso on several occasions in 2008. Labonté peppered his subsequent, vehement denials with threats of lawsuits against Frontenac. By way of her Twitter feed, Harel denounced the "false accusations." Her indignation lasted all of 24 hours, however; the next day, Labonté was fired.

Labonté soon found himself in a nondescript hotel room in front of Radio-Canada's cameras, wearing what might be described as post-catastrophe casual, admitting to everything he'd denied over the last week. Yes, he'd lied. Yes, he'd met with Accurso several times. Yes, people close to him accepted cash from Accurso on his behalf. Moreover, Labonté said, there is corruption of this sort at every level of government - even in Harel's Union Montréal party, where "sectoral finance" was code for soliciting campaign donations from big business, illegal under Quebec law. "The reality is that every party, municipal as well as provincial, and there are no exceptions, collects cash and gives it to front men, who then write a cheque to the party in question," Labonté said.

Put off but undeterred, Harel stashed away her broom. She would need nothing short of a vacuum to clean up this mess, she said.

That's an understatement. Even beyond all the corruption, Montreal has become unruly and dysfunctional. It's perhaps easy to see why it's so difficult to get things done when you consider the city has four levels of municipal government and 105 elected representatives - by comparison, Toronto has 45; New York City, 51. It's also saddled with one of the largest public sectors of any North American city. Tremblay put this system in place to keep several recently (and forcibly) merged boroughs from separating. It didn't even succeed in that aim; in 2005, 15 mostly English boroughs voted to leave the amalgamated city. Result: these boroughs pay taxes to the city of Montreal, yet their citizens cannot vote in the municipal election. It also means these boroughs have become de facto fiefdoms that regularly stymie island-wide projects like expanded rail service and highway access. The city's governing structure is "a Swiss-cheese mess," says Concordia's Chorney.

Maybe it's why so many people and so many businesses continue to leave. According to a recent Quebec government report, 21,000 Montrealers decamped for off-island suburbs between 2007 and 2008 - a bigger exile, percentage-wise, than from Quebec's desolate, perpetually destitute North Shore, and the sixth year in a row that the city lost more than 20,000 people. Head offices, too: Montreal, according to a recent Fraser Institute report, continues to lose them to other parts of the country - even though the threat of separatism, Montreal's eternal albatross, has been practically non-existent for some time. People who remain, according to statistics, are less likely to finish school (the city has a 45 per cent dropout rate), more likely to be unemployed, less likely to get a physician, and more likely to become pregnant at a younger age than anywhere else in the province. And the usual tussles over multiculturalism continue. Former Péquiste premier Bernard LANDRY, decrying the fact that immigrants and anglophone students now outnumber their old-stock French counterparts in Montreal-area schools, recently called for the provincial government to modify BILL 101 so as to restrict access to English colleges, known as CEGEPs, for recent immigrants. Old ghosts, it seems, die hard.

The man who wants desperately to hang on to all of this is still standing - shaking in his boots, maybe, but standing nonetheless. At one moment, Mayor Tremblay denies knowing anything about payoffs, price fixing or mob connections within city hall; the next, he says he is scared for the well-being of his loved ones because he has stood up to these very influences in the past. He has even brought his non-denial-denial shtick to the airwaves. "One of your colleagues at work decides to do something a little shady," Tremblay says in one radio advert. "Do you think they're going to tell their boss or you? Face it: they're not going to tell anybody."

His dithering might be serving him well for now. The Gazette, whose journalists broke several key stories about spending irregularities within Tremblay's government over the years, endorsed the outgoing mayor regardless. "[T]he least distressing candidate in an unprepossessing field," read an editorial earlier this week. Tremblay also has boots on the ground: come election day, Union Montréal has the (unofficial) use of the Quebec Liberal party's formidable vote-getting machine, the very same one that has helped deliver three successful elections for Premier Jean CHAREST. Internal Union Montréal polls suggest Tremblay will likely squeak back into office, albeit by a greatly reduced margin. "They're taking advantage of the fact that [Montrealers] have been asleep," says former Montreal police chief and one-time mayoral candidate, Jacques Duchesneau.

There is one Montreal party with ethics on its side. Indeed, this election campaign has turned into something of a perfect storm for Projet Montréal, whose plainly simple environmental policy - less cars, more public transport and green space - is nearly as righteous as its financing rules, which are stricter than those set out in Quebec law.

The party is particularly popular in the Plateau, the artist- and hipster-infused bohemia where its leader Richard Bergeron has held a seat since 2005. "We have a monopoly of virtue," Gomery says - largely because of Gomery himself, who joined the party in August, when its support was in the single digits. Things have changed: according to the most recent polls, Projet Montréal is nearly tied for second place with Harel's Vision.

And it would likely be more popular were it not for Bergeron, the man who founded it. Simply put, he believes in the mother of all conspiracies. "Regarding the two other planes that crashed, one at the Pentagon in Washington and the other in a field near Pittsburgh, Pa, we enter into what I refer to as a macabre farce," he wrote in Les Québécois au volant, published in 2005. "It might be that what we witnessed on Sept. 11, 2001, was a simple act of state banditry of titanic proportions." It's a telling, sad indication of the state of things in Montreal: the only mayoral candidate untouched by scandal believes 9/11 was an inside job. At the very least, Bergeron shouldn't expect a congratulatory call from the mayor of New York should he win.

Scandals eventually fade, and any city, given the proper leadership, can tackle corruption. Gérald Tremblay is right to be scared - for his political future, for his family, but especially for the future of the city. The old, dysfunctional scandal-ridden Montreal of yore was a fun myth. The newer version is just sad.

Maclean's November 9, 2009