Le grand Jean


Glen Allen January 1 1976

Le grand Jean


Glen Allen January 1 1976

Le grand Jean


Glen Allen

The council chamber of Montreal’s City Hall is as sepulchral as Canada’s Senate— a place of grinding sobriety. Below, it is all old bleached oak and fusty plush. Above, snarls of dour houseplants set in boxes strain through the gloom toward a fake Florentine ceiling. On one wall an outsize crucifix hangs in eternal agony. Democracy, this room seems to say, may be alive alright, but it’s not feeling very well. All the same, there was a rare buzz of excitement in the chamber’s public gallery one late November evening, just before a meeting of the Montreal Urban Community, Jean Drapeau presiding. The word was out. Drapeau—perhaps the best-known Canadian outside Canada and a man who in his 18 years as mayor had bent a city and some said a whole country to his will, architect of Expo 67, Companion of the Order of Canada, holder of six honorary university degrees, the key to the city of Miami, Florida, the 150th anniversary gold medal of Little Rock, Arkansas, and Man of the Year (1967) of the International Material Management Society—was heading for the last roundup. He was finally going to pull the pin, say bye-bye. Quit.

It was his first public appearance since the government of Quebec had taken over the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, a project he had coaxed from the little seed it was 12 years ago to the billion-dollar extravaganza it is now. But that wasn’t all. There had never been such a conjunction of crossed stars in this remarkable man’s remarkable career as there was this night.

Scandal had visited the Olympics project. That afternoon, in the old Palais de Justice next door, the Montreal Olympic Organizing Committee had called a press conference—in the very room in which Jean Drapeau had made his name in the early 1950s as the fearless prosecutor for the Caron vice probe—to try to explain why 100 police had made dawn raids on the homes and offices of Olympic contractors and officials. And the Montreal Urban Community, that shaky five-year-old bund of the city and suburbs Drapeau had helped establish to share police and other services, was having money trouble: one or two boisterous suburban mayors were already. drawing an awful but not entirely preposterous parallel to New York. Then there was the Quebec crime probe: Drapeau had said it wouldn’t turn up more than a few bookies, but investigators were finding gangs of criminals whose very size and brutality staggered the imagination. There was grumbling in the streets, too. More and more of Drapeau’s constituents were wondering why municipal services— roads and police, ice rinks and snow removal—were all of a sudden so god-awful. They wondered why Montreal had become so ugly, a huge work-in-progress, a Pittsburgh in perpetual motion where the main streets were like valleys between tacky construction projects. In Drapeau’s own Civic Party a bright young businessman named Yvon Lamarre, vice-president of Montreal’s executive committee, was telling everyone what he would do if he were mayor—build some public housing, find some green spaces, change the property tax system—the things Drapeau had promised and never done. It was nothing less than a territorial challenge, the young bull taking on the old. And the unkindest cut of all, some of the other 35 councillors in the party, a faceless group of legislators fondly known as “les Nouilles” who come to council to sit and vote for the master’s plans and go home again in utter silence, had plucked their shiny Olympic pins from their suit lapels. It was unthinkable— sheep do not turn on the shepherd. As Jacques Parizeau, Parti Québécois guru, said in one of his pungent editorials in the pro-independence daily Le Jour, Drapeau’s fortunes had fallen so far “you don’t even feel like attacking him anymore.”

But the onlookers in the city hall gallery should have remembered that when it comes to Drapeau elegies are premature. Not only did he not talk of quitting this night, there wasn’t the slightest hint of distress in his implacable gaze as he bent into his tall green throne at the head of the room. He wasn’t saying good-bye. Not then and maybe not ever. If they wanted him out they’d have to get a crowbar. And yet, marvel of resilience though he is, Jean Drapeau was still in trouble when he emerged from that meeting. The world knew it. Canada knew it. And Montreal knew it.

Jean Drapeau was born 59 years ago to Joseph-Napoleon and Berthe Drapeau, a Montreal couple of modest income who had roots sunk deep in French-Canada. In fact the first Drapeau, a young tailor named Antoine, had come to Nouvelle France in 1665 when there were barely 3,000 souls in the whole colony. Jean was a dutiful and even loving son to his parents all through their lives ( he was deeply affected by his mother’s death several years ago.) At the University of Montreal he studied arts, economics and then law, worked part-time as a social worker, wrote biting little fables about the English and the French for a student paper and became a champion debater (though one critic said after a debate at Laval University, “We would have preferred a Drapeau with a little less hot air”). After articling in a law firm Drapeau, a convinced French-Canadian nationalist and a bit of a lefty to boot, committed his first political act. In a federal by-election in the Montreal riding of Outremont he carried the banner of an anticonscription group he had helped form called La Ligue pour la Défense du Canada. The year was 1942. He lost, but not before catching the eye of French-Canadian statesman Henri Bourassa who remarked “that young man will go far.” (He also attracted the eye of 17-year-old campaign worker Marie-Claire Boucher, the girl he later married.) He ran again in a provincial election two years later, this time for the Bloc Populaire, a nationalist and reform party that, poorly organized as it was, had drawn to it the very cream of Quebec’s thinkers and young turks. This time he lost his deposit.

Beaten but not bowed, Drapeau went back to the law office he had established, and although he was no Perry Mason—a colleague says he had several conspicuous defeats defending accused murderers—a group of reform-minded citizens who had petitioned Quebec’s Superior Court for an inquiry into the city’s troubled police force chose him as their chief prosecutor. The hearing was held before Justice François Caron and Drapeau shone like the sun, turning up links between City Hall, organized crime and the police which set Quebec society on its ear. Those same citizens, members of what was called the Civic Action League, decided to run Drapeau as their candidate for mayor in the 1954 municipal elections and, although he had not been their first choice, he won easily. After three years of an energetic and open administration he lost office to Sarto Fournier, now a Senator, went home and brooded.


When he returned in 1960 it was with his own newly minted Civic Party, a manoeuvre that left his old allies in the Civic Action League high, dry and dizzy with indignation. In 1962, J. Z. Leon Patenaude, one of their number, wrote a bitter but perhaps prophetic little book called Le Vrai Visage de Drapeau in which he compared the mayor to General Franco and called him a “danger to democracy.” But Montrealers didn’t know or care what Patenaude was talking about and reelected Drapeau with massive margins in 1962 and again in 1966. Expo was on the way. It hadn’t been his idea, but he had sold it to the country. He opened the Metro after the project had been lying in the pending file for 40 years. He built the Place des Arts and helped bring the Montreal Expos baseball club to the city.

The Olympics plans date from 1963. Drapeau was at a trade fair in Lausanne, stopped in to see the Olympic museum there and was intrigued with the games’ history and meaning and especially with the man who had re-invented them, the Baron Pierre de Coubertin (a man. Drapeau once told this reporter, who was, along with the founder of the Red Cross, his personal hero). He went back the next year just to look some more, and then returned again to pick up application forms: he wanted the games for Montreal. He lost the 1972 games to Munich, even though he had offered to throw in free room and board for the athletes. But he was already thinking of 1976. “No one really doubted at the time that it could be done,” recalls John Parker, a Civic Party councillor from 1962 to 1974. “Everyone had questioned him on Expo and it had come off and he was the toast of a continent, and in caucus he always had all the answers.”

But even before he won the games in May 1970, things had begun to sour for Jean Drapeau. Terre des Hommes, the Expo remnant that still opens every summer, was short of funds—Drapeau had to beat the bushes for money. There was that strange adventure, Le Vaisseau d’Or, a restaurant he opened in the basement of the Windsor Hotel. He said he had to think of his family and future, but he lost his shirt. When he closed the place a year after it opened, he owed more than $30,000 in back rent. Then the taxman found he had failed to file returns two years running and he was fined $50. Meanwhile, Lucien Saulnier, chairman of the city’s executive committee and the man who ran Montreal while Drapeau thought mighty thoughts, quit. Drapeau’s famous voluntary tax lottery scheme was taken over by the province. His house was bombed, apparently by terrorists. He managed to alienate Montreal’s fickle police force in a labor dispute. He became publicly prudishkeeping bare-chested African dancers out of the city, closing dirty movies, badgering publishers of underground newspapers. For reasons that still defy examination he chose Jacques Saulnier—Lucien’s brother—as Montreal’s new police chief, despite allegations that Saulnier liked getting nice presents from people. Then there were the 1970 municipal elections and the October Crisis—they arrived coincidentally. Drapeau lost sympathy with many moderate and left-of-moderate French Canadians for the patently false claim that the opposition municipal party was kissing kin to the Front du Libération de Québec.

Secrecy had always been Drapeau’s strong suit. There has perhaps never been a Canadian public man about whom so little is known. He makes Mackenzie King look garish by comparison. Some things about Drapeau are common knowledge in Montreal, but they are little things. He hates hippies, for instance. He likes to drive fast in his navy-blue Lincoln Continental. His clothes are so square that when he took to wearing loafers a few years ago it was as jarring as if anyone else had started sporting earrings. He sometimes drinks a glass of wine or a small liqueur, but he doesn’t smoke. He has three sons, one of them an aide to Health Minister Marc Lalonde. His life has been threatened 100 times in 25 years. Despite his claim that the Olympics will inspire Canada’s youth, he couldn’t care less about sports himself ( he was last seen indulging—it was a game of tennis—about 30 years ago). He stopped eating spicy food after it ruined his schedule on a trip to Europe and likes hamburgers dressed with a wisp of lettuce and nothing else. A former City Hall employee who traveled with him to Quebec City recently says the mayor ordered boiled beef and vegetables in the parliamentary restaurant and was so taken with his meal he sent his compliments to the chef. He drinks a glass of warm water before going to bed, and the only times anyone can remember his being ill was when he collapsed during his 1944 election campaign and again in the 1950s when he had a bad headache during a meeting at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel and had to lie down. The “n” in the “Jean” of his neatly penned signature runs into the “D” of the Drapeau.”

When he forgets himself Drapeau shows flashes of genuine wit, but more often his humor is studied and careful. Earl Garrety, a former television reporter who dogged the mayor’s heels for years, says, “He used to tell these shaggy-dog jokes in English, and you’d always laugh at the wrong time. And you saw his dog Due? Great big bull mastiff. Every time there was a press conference Due would be there too and invariably he would want to fart or drink water. He’d drink half a fire-pail of it and you’d get your microphone down there so you’d think it was a bloody vacuum cleaner coming at you, but Drapeau wouldn’t even smile. He’d just say ‘Go away. Duc!’ ” Going by J. Z. Leon Patenaude, the man who wrote the tough book about Drapeau, he doesn’t hold a grudge for long. Patenaude is now director of an international book fair that comes to Montreal and needed the mayor’s cooperation. “You see I hadn’t talked to him in 13 years, and I had to call him. But he didn’t say anything, and he is now our strongest supporter. I see him as often as two or three times a week. We never speak about politics.” Nor has he ever been brushed by serious scandal, unless you count the discovery three years ago that since 1967 he had been accepting free mayoral limousines from different car companies every year on a rotating basis. (The city now pays for the mayor’s car.)


People say he is capable of great kindness. One colleague, who (like almost everyone who works with Drapeau) would not be quoted by name, says: “If you went to school with him in grade three or grade four he still has time for you when you are in trouble. He’ll not only help, he’ll try to manage your life in the bargain. He’d go to your mother’s funeral or send your wife flowers if she was sick. But you don’t hear about this side of him. He likes to keep it anonymous.”

But it’s all trivia. The secrets remain. Even people who call themselves Drapeau’s friends aren’t quite sure where he lives: it isn’t the family home, an attractive though far from splendid north side bungalow that has been patrolled by security guards since it was bombed in 1969. Someone says Drapeau has an apartment on Sherbrooke Street East, about two miles from the Olympic Games site, although he has never seen the mayor there. Drapeau’s movements almost seem calculated to throw the curious off his trail. Though he says he works 100 hours a week, one day he will appear at City Hall at 6 a.m., the next at 9 a.m., and he doesn’t use the front door if he can help it. He won’t talk at all to reporters anymore—his relationship with the written press approximates guerrilla warfare—but even when he did, his press conferences were models of discretion— and then some. Reporters were forbidden to ask him about anything but the issues at hand. If the occasion for the press conference was the mayor’s Christmas message, then the mayor would answer questions about Christmas and nothing else.

If his secrecy was confined to his personal life it wouldn’t matter, but it isn’t. Drapeau has also done his best to keep information about city affairs from the duly elected opposition councillors at city hall. It isn’t enough that they are paid a paltry $7,500 annual salary, or that they have no office space and little in the way of research facilities. Their questions in open council meetings go unanswered too. Only recently has the mayor agreed to a 15-minute question period before every council meeting, although the person to whom the question is addressed isn’t obliged to answer if he doesn’t want to. In Drapeauland there may be a need to know, but there is never a right to know. Take the Olympic Games. Many contracts have been given without public tender, and about 40 have been opened and renegotiated over council’s head. Drapeau says the public tender concept is overrated—putting things in the newspapers doesn’t make them fair and honest. Georges Marchand, a Civic Party councillor and chartered accountant who left the party last year because he was appalled by the way Drapeau and his lieutenants conducted fiscal affairs, says: “Only in very unusual circumstances should a contract be let without tenders, but they were doing it all the time.”

A high-ranking City Hall employee who resigned recently says Drapeau is really “a very warm person of simple tastes. He’s the sort of person who knows when to buck people up and when to congratulate them. But he tells lies very easily. And he is certainly not a great administrator.”

Ah yes, administration. Y et another side of the man to consider: the visionary who has no patience for detail. But sound administration is what Montreal has needed—and hasn’t had—for years. Administration would be such things as developing and regulating industrial growth. When Drapeau came to office, Montreal had l'A head offices to Toronto’s one. Now Toronto is way ahead. Drapeau seemed ready to promote only—Lord deliver us from wax museums—the tourist trade. Which is fine, if you want to create minimum-wage jobs. Administration is public housing and urban renewal programs. The most elaborate promise came just before the 1966 election, when he said there would be $125 million for housing right away and a billion over 20 years. The money has yet to show up. Between 1970 and 1974 his government helped renew only 3,000 homes in a city centre where more than 100,000 dwellings are in lamentable shape. Administration is filling in the holes in the streets, holes that by now are almost old enough to vote. It is treating sewage—Montreal still dumps it raw into the St. Lawrence. It is watching costs. Anyone who has presided over a 900% increase in the cost of a project such as the Olympics—the “modest” games Montreal promised to stage five years ago—is not looking close enough.

Why do people keep voting for Jean Drapeau? One theory is that he represents a victory over English Canada—he is smarter, quicker and more enterprising than his confreres in the “other” Canada, a man of weight and stature who seems always to get his way. It’s a theory that complements the most compelling hypothesis—for that is all that is possible—of what makes Drapeau tick: that he is still the nationalist he was a generation ago.

French-Canadian nationalism has worn many cloaks in the past half century.Its disciples have been churchmen, conservatives, patriots, radicals, socialists, or men like Drapeau who were a bit of everything (except socialist). Nationalism has not only survived, it is as strong as ever in the form of the Parti Québécois, which won 30% of the popular vote in Quebec in the last election and about 50% of the vote among French-speaking electors in the city of Montreal. Its one constant is the yearning for some kind of special place, a province/nation with a name like “Laurentia,” a land along the St. Lawrence where a unique language and culture would live and grow. As late as 1962 Drapeau was still talking about some form of associate status in Canada for Quebec. And well into the late 1960s his speeches spilled over with references to his “people,” “national dignity” and “emancipation.” As mayor of Montreal. Drapeau saw an opening for action: Montreal could be both the centre and cornerstone of a strong francophone Quebec province. Everything that made Montreal stronger, that made it known outside Canada, especially in Europe, was one more step to fulfilling this old dream that ached away inside of him. Montreal could be a latter day Pont d’Avignon, the bridge on which the whole world dances.

All this explains—so the hypothesis goes—his “politique de grandeur, ” his fairs and games, the building and rebuilding, the imperious haste and urgency and secrecy. Or it explains some of it.'ÿ1