As mayor of Montreal for 29 of the past 32 years, Jean Drapeau has held office longer than any civic leader in a major North American city. By the time the 70-year-old Drapeau steps down in November, he will have outlasted seven Canadian prime ministers and nine Quebec premiers, and won eight out of
nine elections. His achievements are legendary and include overseeing the development of Expo 67, the city’s muchpraised rapid transit system, the Montreal Expos and the controversial and expensive 1976 Summer Olympic Games. Equally well-known to many Montrealers are his awesome working
habits and spartan lifestyle. At the same time, he possesses a rare degree of charisma that over the years has fascinated and charmed everyone from Charles de Gaulle—who twice met Drapeau privately, an honor he seldom accorded to heads of state—-to television host Ed Sullivan, who invited Drapeau to be a guest on his show. In a recent and rare interview with Maclean’s Quebec Editor Anthony Wilson-Smith and Montreal bureau correspondent Bruce Wallace, Drapeau reminisced about his career.
Maclean’s: Do you regret stepping down?
Drapeau: I always liked what I was doing, but the decision is out of my hands. The doctors determined that my health would not hold up through another fouryear mandate, so there is nothing to regret. I am not looking forward to the end, but since I announced my decision to retire I have only confirmed that my decision is the best one. I can still work 15 to 17 hours a day, but the volume of work I do within that time is no longer what it once was.
Maclean’s: How do you feel standing on the sidelines during the current mayoral campaign?
Drapeau: I do not mind. Well, I do in a way, because I hope the principles I applied to the administration will continue to be applied. For instance, I do not believe that things should turn completely to the right or left. I am considered to be a member of the right, but I am not a radical. I believe in social justice. But I hope a socialist mind will not govern the city.
Maclean’s: When you announced your retirement, you referred to the satisfaction your job has given you.
Drapeau: It was largely because of the role I played in cleaning up the city. That was why I came to city hall in 1954. I have done many things since, but the reason that led me to city hall was four years of work on a judicial crime probe. Maclean’s: How long did you imagine you would stay when you first ran for mayor?
Drapeau: I did not look upon the mayoralty as a career. I came to do a job, to clean up the city. I never thought I would stay 32 years. But as the years went on, I concluded that there was still more to be done.
Maclean’s: Do you ever regret not having run at either the provincial or federal level?
Drapeau: I could only regret these things if I were sure that a cabinet jobeven prime minister or premier—could have allowed me to do as much as I did, not only for Montreal, but also for Quebec and Canada. What has been done here in the past 32 years has been a service to this city, to the province and
country. I think with time this will unanimously be admitted. If some people still doubt this, I think they will come to agree in the future.
Maclean’s: You have been compared with the influential late mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley. Do you see any similarities?
Drapeau: We were friends. I would not compare my style with his, but there is one thing we had in commmon. He remained true to himself all the time. He did not change his mind just to please people. When he was convinced of something, he took the responsibility for his decision.
Maclean’s: What has been your overriding philosophy of governing the city of Montreal?
Drapeau: A few years ago, I read [former French president] Georges Pompidou’s biography. They reproduced his speeches and interviews, and [I believe] in one, he was asked ‘Do you sometimes feel alone?’ He said ‘Yes, mainly at the moment where I have to take a decision.’ Then he added, ‘It is good it is so, otherwise no one would be responsible.’ I share that belief.
Maclean’s: Are you a federalist? Drapeau: I have never hidden that. I think we have no choice. All Canadians must be staunch federalists. Otherwise, there would be 10 different countries here, and it is not proven that anyone in the country would benefit from that. If it is federalism that is too restrictive, that is not good. On the other hand, if it is too loose, that is bad too. Let us be the best we can be together.
Maclean’s: Do you regret anything you have done over the years, such as the cost of the 1976 Olympics?
Drapeau: No, always for the same reason. We cannot regret things we tried. For example, if I buy a lottery ticket at one store, and the winner comes from another store, can I regret that? I could regret some decisions only if I could be sure another decision would have been better. But how can we tell? It is too late to know that.
Maclean’s: Should Canada host more Olympic Games?
Drapeau: Even with all that was said and printed around the world about the [Montreal] Games, it did not prevent Calgary from presenting the Games, and now Toronto wants to do the same. Of course, [some say that the Calgary] Games will be modest and limited to a certain budget—we will see about that after. Even if they go beyond the budget, we must still ask, ‘Are the Games good for Canada?’ I think that there is no doubt they are.
Maclean’s: What is the secret of your political longevity?
Drapeau: The same thing that made Mayor Daley such a success. I have been faithful to myself. I belong to the average citizen’s milieu: I am not a specialist at anything.
Maclean’s: How do you feel you have been treated over the years by the media?
Drapeau: The media, generally, have been fair. Maybe some less than others, and not always willingly unfair. The dailies do not want to shut down, so to survive they must sell more copies. To do that, they must give the reader not only what he wants to read, but in the way he wants to see it presented.
Maclean’s: Your friends always remark that one of the least-known things about you is that you have a great sense of humor.
Drapeau: It took years before people realized that I had a sense of humor. I do not see why. I have a collection of 4,000 cartoons of myself from papers and magazines from Canada and around the world. I keep cartoons that are not only of me. When I read newspapers or magazines that have cartoons with a reason to attract me, I keep them. And even when we are working seriously, if something happens out of the ordinary, I take a minute and I laugh. That is relaxing, and then I continue to
work seriously. That is my vacation. Maclean’s: When was the last time you actually left Montreal to go away on vacation?
Drapeau: I have never taken one except for my honeymoon in 1945. I went to a national park in the Quebec City region on that occasion. Of course, I have travelled frequently to many parts of the world on business. If you mean a vacation where I just sit and look at the lake and do nothing, that is not a vacation. I may now really travel, starting with Montreal. Before I go anywhere, I want to be a tourist in Montreal.
Maclean’s: Can you describe what you are doing in your last days in the mayor's office?
Drapeau: Very little has changed. I still do all my normal duties, and on top of that, along with the 12,000 letters I receive on the average every year, I have received more than 1,000 letters from across Canada since I announced my retirement. As always, I will answer them all personally, no matter how long it takes. Things will only change the morning I get up and do not come down here. I am not bothered with that. I still have so much to do. The best recipe to prepare for the future is to do what we have to do every day in the present. Maclean’s: Would you now be interested in receiving a federal or provincial appointment?
Drapeau: I never answer hypothetical questions. I am mayor until November. What will I do after that? I do not even give it one minute of thought. I might say yes to something today and not be in the mood after.
Maclean’s: Will you ever write your memoirs?
Drapeau: I do not think I would have enough time to write my full memoirs. I would prefer to write testimonies to specific things. I cannot say that after I have been here this long, I have nothing to say. I have been here one-third of a century. If historians or journalists later want to write about this period, I might be able to facilitate their job by writing about different subjects I know about.
Maclean’s: You have had a long and varied career as mayor. What, more than anything else, do you hope to be remembered for?
Drapeau: More than anything else, as I have always said, it is the pride of the city. When I was first elected in 1954, you could not find anyone in Canada or anywhere in the world who would say nasty things about Montreal more than Montrealers themselves. Now, Montrealers, even when they make a distinction between their own and another great city, are convinced that Montreal belongs to the whole world. They are proud, and I can only hope that there will be continuing reasons to make them proud,
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