CANADA

Battling on many fronts

Crises rock Montreal Mayor Pierre Bourque’s government

BRENDA BRANSWELL February 17 1997
CANADA

Battling on many fronts

Crises rock Montreal Mayor Pierre Bourque’s government

BRENDA BRANSWELL February 17 1997

Battling on many fronts

CANADA

Crises rock Montreal Mayor Pierre Bourque’s government

BRENDA BRANSWELL

In the comfort of his spacious office, with a brilliant yellow flowering plant perched on his desk, Montreal Mayor Pierre Bourque enjoyed a slight reprieve from the turbulence that has rocked his administration for months. Since Bourque, visibly shaken, faced reporters in November to deny allegations made by his former chauffeur that he had personally laundered illegal campaign contributions, the mayor has lurched from one crisis to the next, including the protest resignations of five councillors from his Vision Montreal party in late January. Last week—much of which was remarkably scandal-free—a tired-looking Bourque acknowledged in an interview with Maclean’s that the atmosphere at City Hall was not a healthy one. “But it isn’t having an impact on the city’s work,” Bourque asserted.

Not everyone agrees.

While some opposition councillors say that the bureaucracy continues to chug along relatively unaffected, others assert that the turmoil is having an impact on municipal government. And given the city’s continuing economic crisis—including, among other things, an unemployment rate of 12.6 per cent compared with the national average of 9.7—Montreal clearly cannot afford a drawn-out political scandal. Noted Gérald A. Ponton, president of the Montreal-based Alliance of Manufacturers and Exporters of Quebec: “It’s very difficult to have the necessary leadership when council is ready to draw knives at each other.”

Has leadership, in fact, suffered? Some observers point to last month, when Bourque was forced to call off a planned trip to Asia as part of the Team Canada trade mission. Instead, he stayed home—to hear the results of Quebec chief electoral officer

Pierre-F. Côté’s investigation into the allegations by Maurice Brault, who worked as Bourque’s chauffeur during the 1994 municipal campaign, that the mayor illegally funnelled $2,000 into the party’s coffers during the campaign. Côté ruled out laying charges against Bourque under the provincial Elections Act, noting that there was insufficient evidence of wrongdoing on the mayor’s part. But the chief electoral officer took aim at Bourque’s party, laying seven charges of illegal campaign funding against Vision Montreal. That brought to 212 the number of charges laid against the party and its workers under the electoral law since 1994—and also resulted in the resignation of Vision Montreal’s legal adviser, Daniel Caisse, who faces two of the charges

himself. And Bourque’s missed opportunity to take part in the Team Canada mission—and personally lobby on the part of Montreal for valuable business contracts—left some critics upset. Said opposition councillor Marvin Rotrand: “If you have a successful Canadian team and everybody is represented—all the provinces and most of the major cities— Montreal’s got to be there as well.”

Electoral-law violation charges, though, may be the lesser of Bourque’s problems. He must also contend with the ongoing disintegration of the Vision Montreal party. In January, while Côté was investigating Brault’s allegations against Bourque, the mayor announced plans to fire two lieutenants from their posts on the city government’s executive committee (the eight seats were I all held by Vision Mon5 treal councillors). Accord1 ing to Bourque, Sammy

1 Forcillo and Pierre Goyer

2 were trying to erode his £ authority. “They had their

own agenda,” said the mayor at the time, “and they were not loyal to our decisions.”

The mayor’s move angered many Vision Montreal councillors—and was followed by a string of five resignations. Among them were Goyer and Forcillo, who denied Bourque’s allegations, and subsequently won a court injunction preventing Bourque from dismissing them from their jobs. That has left the mayor presiding over an executive committee steeped in tension. And while the hemorrhaging from Vision Montreal ranks appears, for the moment, to have ended—the party still holds 32 of the city council’s 51 seats—the possibility of further defections remains. “I know there are many councillors who are questioning their future,” says independent councillor Robert Laramée, one of the five

who quit Vision Montreal in January.

Others wonder whether the ongoing scandals will divert Bourque’s attention from key issues. Among them: the Quebec government’s proposed new regional decisionmaking body for the Greater Montreal area. Peter Trent, the mayor of the City of Westmount, says that Montreal will have to be represented by a strong voice to ensure that the provincial government does not attempt to limit municipal powers. But Trent, who also heads the Conference of Suburban Mayors (which represents all Island of Montreal municipalities except Montreal itself), expresses concern that Bourque’s political problems could prove to be a distraction. “If you’re forever putting out fires,” Trent observes, “you have to ask yourself whether you have the time left over.”

been viewed as a Bourque supporter. But recently he told a television interviewer that he found it increasingly difficult to work with the mayor. “I have trouble establishing priorities with him,” Ménard said. Closer to home, critics charge that Bourque, the former head of the city’s Botanical Garden and a municipal civil servant for more than 25 years, employs a personal style that is much too authoritarian. According to opposition councillor Sam Boskey, some municipal civil servants who sit in on the closed executive committee meetings have complained that the proceedings “seemed to be like a king and his advisers back in the 14th century.”

The mayor categorically rejects such criticism and says he will continue to delegate authority. And Bourque loyalist Zajdel main-

reer as a civil servant. The neophyte mayor has learned some lessons from the political storm. ‘What I take from this experience is the harshness of politics,” says Bourque. Still, his ardor for the job does not seem to have waned, and he already talks about running in the next municipal election, which will be held in 1998.

On the streets of Montreal, during the city’s winter of discontent, the public has been preoccupied with a more immediate issue: snow removal. Montreal was once noted for its brisk response to snowfalls. But after two recent back-to-back storms—in which scores of pedestrians were hospitalized with broken limbs and other injuries— the city’s sluggishness in clearing the streets has left people dismayed. While some suggest a link to the political troubles

Bourque, who regularly puts in a six-day work week, discounts suggestions that his party’s problems have affected anything other than morale. “I haven’t changed my habits,” says Bourque. “I’m doing the same work as before.” Loyal Vision Montreal councillors have also come to his defence. At a news conference last week, they accused the media of exaggerating Bourque’s problems. Calling the mayor an honest, decent man “who means the best for the city,” Vision Montreal councillor Saulie Zajdel declared: “He’s still a good man who’s more than capable of doing the job.”

That may be so. But veiled criticism of Bourque can be heard outside of Montreal as well. The provincial minister responsible for Montreal, Serge Ménard, has generally

tains that the mayor retains the support of his caucus and party. Trent, meanwhile, considers Bourque an honest, hardworking mayor and believes it is possible for him to recover politically—and still wield clout. “It depends to what extent he can accept opposition—and the extent to which he can work on a more collegial basis.” Trent notes that, initially, Bourque may have adopted the centralized style of legendary Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau. And, he adds, “I suspect he may find in the 1990s that another style is perhaps more appropriate.”

In his office, Bourque appears personally wounded by the political upheaval. He points out that he donates his $110,000 salary to charity and lives off the city pension he receives as a result of his lengthy ca-

at City Hall, most Montrealers attribute the problem to the cash-strapped city’s recent decision to chop $8 million from its $48-million snow removal budget.

According to André Lavallée, the leader of the six-seat opposition Montreal Citizens Movement, the snow removal situation is “a very clear symptom of what’s been happening in Montreal for two years.” Montreal taxi driver Gilles Lortie, meanwhile, says that even tourists have noticed the deterioration. Lortie says that he has listened to many complaints from out-of-town visitors who see the uncleared streets and ask: “What is happening in Montreal?” It is a question heard all too frequently—and given the recent political upheavals experienced by the mayor, not only about snow.

BRENDA BRANSWELL in Montreal