Hormidas Laporte—Municipal Reformer
BUSY MAN’S MAGAZINE
J. G. LORRIMAN
From nail-maker to Mayor of Canada’s greatest city, seems a steep climb, even in this country of strange reversals. And yet, traced through such intermediate stages as grocery clerk, retail grocer and wholesaler, it represents the story of Hormisdas Laporte.
THE lives of men who have risen from the masses
to occupy positions of
honor are often pointed out as encouragement to young men of the present day. But they are so often examples of what a combination of luck, bluff and graft can do, that conscientious young men derive little inspiration from them. Such, however, is not the case with the subject of our present sketch. A hard and almost unceasing worker, a man of great ambition and high ideals, Hormidas Laporte so won the confidence of his fellow citizens by his honesty and courage, that he became their natural leader in the campaign against municipal corruption. It is as the municipal reformer of Montreal he is known from end to end of Canada.
The little French-Canadian village of Sault-au-Recollet was the birthplace of Laporte, on the seventh of November, 1850. His early education was limited to a short course in the parish school of that place, as his parents did not possess the means to give him better advantages. If
Laporte had not possessed pluck beyond the ordinary measure he would no doubt have remained in that station of life, but at the age of fourteen he made his first independent move, when he came to Montreal and engaged as nailmaker with a manufacturing firm.
Although his work was particularly burdensome, nothing could break the spirit of young Laporte. He entered a night school and enthusiastically began the study of commercial subjects. His natural talents were sharpened by this training, and inside of four years he found himself capable of accepting a clerkship in a wholesale grocery.
Some men look upon such a position as the summum bonum. Once perched upon the dizzy stool of a ledger-keeper or accountant, they settle down to a life of contentment. The future to them is a long vista of figures in column and trial balances that refuse to balance. Still more— the vast majority, perhaps—accept a clerkship with visions of roll-top desks, but, lacking some element of aggressiveness, they, before long,
subside into the same rut as their fellows.
Laporte belonged to the other class—the clever, the ambitious, the aggressive. He was not satisfied to receive his monthly pay in a yellow envelope, even though it did get fatter from year to year. The sight of "the boss" behind the glass partition had no terrors for Laporte, who feared not to "walk the carpet." Rather, it inspired him with the desire to become a "boss" himself. He applied himself even more closely to his work, carefully nursed his savings, and in 1870 hung out his sign on the corner of St. Martin and St. James streets, as the full-fledged proprietor of a grocery store. True, it was small, but the man behind the counter was not. He soon made customers, and his business policy was so thoroughly popular that his trade grew to large proportions.
Likewise, Laporte grew as well. If the majority of men would have been satisfied with a good retail business, he differed from them. He saw its limitations, and he could brook no hedges about him. So he jumped the hedges, and assailed greater possibilities, entering upon the wholesale grocery business in 1881. As time went on, and his business increased, he took in various partners until, finally, in 1894, the partnership was converted to a joint stock company, having as its president Hormidas Laporte. There is to-day no better-known wholesale grocery house in Eastern Canada that that of Laporte, Martin & Cie.
Such, in brief, is the story of Mr. Laporte’s business career, but the public is far more interested in his successful fight against municipal impurity. That Montreal to-day enjoys a comparatively clean and honest civic government; that the giant
trusts are no longer plundering the people of that city with impunity; that streets are better paved, and parks more numerous and more attractive, is due, more than anything else, to the persistent struggle of Mr. Laporte and the party of which he was the leader.
To understand the difficulties under which Laporte labored, and to appreciate the sweeping reforms effected during his term in the council, it will be profitable to review briefly the conditions existing previous to that time.
The period in Montreal’s history when graft and corruption reigned supreme may be placed as between 1882 and 1899. During this time the city’s debt increased by $16,000,000. A carnival of the most reckless extravagance prevailed. The civic treasury was the happy hunting ground of the asphalt and paving contractor. Thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars were expended in widening back streets, by a system which permitted the expropriation fiend to busily plunder the public chest. And yet, in spite of the tremendous disbursements, the city’s streets were becoming worse and worse, with the inevitable result that claims for damages of all kinds were constantly being filed against the city. Judgments aggregating more than six hundred thousand dollars were thus charged to its rapidly growing debt. And even these damage suits were seized upon as an opportunity of distributing patronage, so that the law costs and witnesses’ fees constituted a formidable item in the grand total of extravagance. The columns of the daily papers were ever exposing scandals innumerable.
Under this regime of corruption and bossism the city was brought to the verge of bankruptcy. Indeed, on
one occasion the humiliating spectacle was seen of a bailiff seizing the furniture of the council chamber for debt. This incident, though partially in jest, yet serves to illustrate the hopeless state into which the city’s finances had fallen. Many pages could be covered with instances of misgovernment, but a few will suffice to indicate them. The gas company secured a ten years’ franchise to supply gas in the city, at $1.20 per thousand feet, when it should have been but 60c., or, at most, 75c. The city council, despite numerous protests, and without calling for tenders, passed the reports of the light and finance committees, giving the electric company a ten years’ extension of its contract for street lighting, at a rate of $119 per arc light per annum, when it was known that an offer of $100 existed. The difference meant voting away a round million of the peoples’ money. Contracts for paving were frequently let in a similar manner, and an attempt was made to have the city pay the whole cost of the St. Lambert Hill expropriation, which was finally accomplished with half the cost payable by the proprietors.
In the midst of these transactions Mr. Laporte, in 1896, was nominated for the Centre Ward, to oppose Aid. Rainville, who was one of the mainstays of the old regime. The contest was very sharp, but Mr. Laporte was defeated by about forty votes, his supporters claiming that this was due to the stuffing of voters’ lists with the names of French colonists who had no right to vote.
In 1897 the alderman who held the second seat in Centre Ward resigned on account of absence from the city, and Mr. Laporte was elected by acclamation to fill his place. Under these circumstances he took his seat
in the council, with the avowed intention of opposing illegitimate expenditure of public money and he was not long in showing his color. One of his first steps was to support a motion abolishing the patronage system in purchasing supplies for civic departments, and substituting a single buyer. Later on he strongly opposed a motion to abolish the requirement that aldermanic candidates candidates should be able to read and write.
He thus became identified, with the movement for reform which was then setting in more strongly. In 1898 he was re-elected in the Centre Ward for two years, and found himself associated in council with a little knot of aldermen w7ho were the genesis of the reform party. There were Aldermen Ames, Martineau, Lariviere and Gagnon, but Laporte’s natural qualities of leadership soon made him the recognized head of the movement.
The connection thus formed between these aldermen was the turning point in Laporte’s political career. Comprising some of the ablest men in council, the little reform party, although outnumbered, made a brave struggle against the methods then in vogue, and gained a large share of public sympathy. From that time on the five worked together, in election campaigns as well as in sittings of the council, and the impetus given to Laporte’s cause by the magnificent organizing ability of Aid. Ames was no doubt the factor that made sure his succession to the mayoralty.
One incident must be mentioned, in passing, to show how effective the efforts of Laporte’s reform party became. One of his followers, Aid. Gagnon, was elected a member of the water works committee and, as such,
discovered many irregularities in the administration of that department. The superintendent seemed to be pulling wool over the eyes of the committee, and Laporte demanded an investigation. The disclosures made were sufficient to cause the resignation of the official.
Similar good work was done in other departments, and the hands of the reform party were greatly strengthened for the election of 1900. Laporte was now universally considered the leader of good citizenship and reform. He and his followers made a vigorous stand in this campaign, and when council first met he found himself at the head of eight men instead of five. Still better work was done during the term of that council. In fact, although the municipal reform party was still in the minority a distinct improvement was noticed in every department except that of roads.
But the triumph of Laporte and the reform party came in 1902. Nearly all his old followers were returned and he now found himself for the first time at the head of a majority. It was a reform council, and therefore a Laporte council. He was the animating spirit, and his the quiet personality which swayed all administration for the next two years. He accepted the presidency of the committee of finance, and in this position was one of the most successful aldermen who ever sat in the council of Montreal. Under his management some of the most important suits in years were settled in the city's favor. Trusts and monopolies were humbled, and the finances were so ably managed that Mr. Laporte was able to say at the conclusion of his term :
"When the movement for reform began the revenues were and had
been so badly managed that there was no money left for street improvements, and the city was very much down at the heel. Last year we were able to spend $977,323—almost a round million—on road works."
On the approach of the 1904 elections the reform party naturally turned to Mr. Laporte as its candidate for mayor. He was opposed by two candidates, one of whom was supported by the large corporations and the liquor interests. But Laporte was so popular that no private or corporation interests could defeat him, and he went in by the largest majority ever given in Montreal. Both his opponents lost their deposits. It was a case of "Eclipse first, the rest nowhere," and the whole city—French and English, Roman Catholic and Protestant—rejoiced at his success.
As mayor he fulfilled the promises of his apprenticeship. No more methodical man has ever presided over the destinies of Montreal. He was invariably punctual at meetings, and the manner in which he attended to the immense correspondence entailed by his position won the admiration of all. To all civic employes he was courtesy personified. No words but those of praise are heard of him at city hall. And, as ever, he was a hard worker. He would not let slide any of his duties, and as a result of the long-continued strain his health broke down in November of last year. He was compelled to give up heavy work and sxmnd a vacation in Florida, whence he has just returned within the past couple of weeks, much improved but not yet fully restored.
To a stranger, ex-Mayor Laporte lends an impression of a somewhat cold and unresponsive nature. But
his friends know that this is but a mask by which he protects himself from impostors.
Of infinitely mild disposition he possesses in a marked degree all the tact common to born leaders of men. And he has ever been remarkable for his diplomacy in dealing with opponents. These he does not try to crush with invective, but rather to win over by persuasion.
Mr. Laporte has been a municipal reformer indeed, but he must not be confounded with the fire-eating revolutionists who have corrected abuses in other large cities. His victories have all been won quietly, systematically, inevitably, impairing no friendships. If any proof of this were needed it would be furnished by the fact that the Montreal Council, Board of Trade, Chambre de Commerce, and other commercial and social organizations in which he is interested, are at present combining in a testimonial, which will be tendered him shortly.
In public speaking, Mr. Laporte has never shone. His addresses are nearly always read, and in speaking to his constituents he has generally preferred to use his native tongue. On the occasion of his nomination for mayor, although his opponent addressed the meeting in both French and English, Mr. Laporte was content to present his claims in French alone. His temperament is naturally a retiring one, yet he was practically forced to the front of the reform party by reason of his fine grasp of finance and his innate qualities of leadership. The newspaper man and professional interviewer alike have found him all but hopeless for he cannot be prevailed upon to talk about his own achievements. His dislike for social functions is as well knowm as is the pleasure he
finds in his own home life. He is a man of the people, made great by the people, almost against his own wishes.
And yet there is a strange contradiction in his character. Modest he undoubtedly is, but in the face of opposition or personal attacks he becomes at once watchful and aggressive. A good instance of his sensitiveness to attack occurred when he was president of the finance committee. It was during the time of the great coal strike, after Mr. Laporte had been successful in organizing a civic coal supply to relieve want on the part of the poorer citizens. The management of this fund was criticised in some quarters and Mr. Laporte bitterly resented the imputations. In fact he even threatened to resign his presidency, whereupon the criticisms were at once retracted.
In appearance Mr. Laporte is rather above medium height and gives the impression of one who has taken undue advantage of a good physique by over-work. The illhealth from which he has suffered of late months has left him without the springy step that formerly characterized him, but his strong mentality remains. His full beard throws into great prominence the penetrating eyes which, with his ample forehead, give evidence of an intellect keen and receptive.
Immediately on seeing him one expects him to go right to the point— and so he does. He wastes no words and will tolerate no hedging. This is largely the secret of the attention he is able to give to his wide activities, for besides the offices already mentioned Mr. Laporte has been closely identified with the social, benevolent and financial institutions of his native province. He has
at various times occupied, among others, the positions of president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, president of Alliance Nationale, president of Union St. Vincent, and harbor commissioner. He is still president of the Dominion Grocers’ Guild, president of St. Jean Baptiste Society, director of the Provincial Bank of Canada, of Le Credit
Foncier Franco-Canadien, of the National Life Assurance Company, and of “La Sauvegarde” Assurance Company.
The career of ex-Mayor Laporte should teach young men of the present day that distinguished positions await men of great ambition, of tireless energy and of unimpeachable honesty.