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.”