One-Hundred Sixty Thousand Votes Standing in the Shadow of Drapeau

No wonder he smirked…

I’ve been reading Daniel Poliquin’s excellent biography of René Lévesque, part of John Ralston Saul’s Extraordinary Canadians series. It’s revealing to say the least, particularly because the author relates some fascinating perspectives on Montréal, as adopted home of the late premier. He loved Montréal very much, and lived the full-tilt lifestyle as one might expect from any seasoned local. I’m working on finding a decent citation and so far have only come up with this chronology of key dates in Montréal civic political history to address the point Poliquin brought up that so floored me. And that point is this: up until 1970 or 1971, tenants in Montréal did not have the right to vote in municipal elections.

That’s right. If you didn’t own property in the City of Montréal, and rented like the vast majority of Montréalers still do, you simply could not vote for Mayor; suffrage was limited to land-owners, a concept tracing its lineage back to the Ancien Régime. Drapeau, one of our city’s most accomplished though still highly polarizing mayors, would have been elected at least four times without the consent of the vast majority of people who lived in the city he governed. And it was was a mere forty some-odd years ago in which that changed. Today, the Mayor is elected directly by all adult citizens and upon election becomes the de facto mayor of Ville-Marie borough. The residential population of that borough is still largely, if not almost exclusively, renters who are primarily students in their twenties. Not a demographic that votes much in any election, unfortunately.

Mayor Tremblay, you’ll be delighted to know, was elected by about 159,000 voters in 2009, out of total of just over 400,000 votes cast out of a total city population of 1.62 million people. Despite the fact that there is somewhere in the region of a million eligible voters, only 40% participate, and that’s being generous. And thus, 160,000 votes might be all it takes to become the new mayor of Montréal next year, unless we somehow break into the 60% territory, which is apparently all you need to run Canada. It’s disappointing that the hard-fought victory to have the bare-minimum of universal suffrage in Montréal municipal politics would be so easily forgotten. As a city, our level of civic engagement is remarkably poor when it comes to selecting the primary person responsible for making our city as great as it can be.

And so, we elect duds.

We’re blessed because, despite it all, there are still more than enough moneyed people in this city who have the ability to effect great change, and in too many cases to list very positive change, regardless of who’s occupying the position of Mayor. Lucky though we may be, this is far from sustainable, and in order to take a leadership role within Canada, in order to more efficiently secure our financial and economic strength, we’re going to need a more engaged population creating, through the democratic process, a more able local government. We need a Mayor who is representative of the People, because a sufficient majority directly elected him or her to said post. And thus, the determining factor is no longer what money you have, what friends you owe favours to, but rather of whether the mayoral candidate can effectively channel the wants, dreams and aspirations of the citizens into a cogent plan for development. We must break with the ill-advised tradition we’ve created, in which Mayors begin their careers promising to clean up City Hall and end them in near total ignominy after succumbing to the temptations of the near total power of office. We are quite literally retarded because we simply refuse to break the existing mould.

Once upon a time I had a conversation with Phyllis Lambert about our mayors, and what she may have thought about any of them, past and present. She said what I expected her to say. Drapeau was a pseudo-autocrat and occasional dictator who started strong and ended mired in scandals of one kind or another, and every mayor who has come since has lasted about the same amount of time, always repeating the same cycle though with far less actually being done each time. Doré was initially revolutionary, and fell just as flat later on as Bourque would with the second attempt to unite all on-island municipalities into a single city.

Drapeau had tried it the first time it didn’t work, though four cities were ‘voluntarily annexed’ during his time in office.

It seems as if all mayors since Jean Drapeau stand in his shadow, and despite promising the growth and development of his era, they all instead seem to fall victim to same traps and treasons that made Drapeau infamous – graft, nepotism, exorbitant purchases, collusion and corruption in the construction industry, and myriad admittedly mis-guided ventures designed to stimulate local growth (such as the 1976 Olympics, the Floralies, under Drapeau; the Overdale redevelopment scheme, the redevelopment of the Old Port & Old Montréal, under Doré etc.) Granted some of the schemes sort of worked out in the long run, but they still left a bad taste in our collective mouth. Our last municipal election was mired with allegations of influence peddling and Mafia involvement in the corruption industry. This is precisely what led to a major drop in Drapeau’s popularity in the late 1970s (as a result of apparent bid-rigging in various Olympic contracts).

This might be a good time to remind us all of the very definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again, each time expecting a different result. We keep electing the same kinds of people, and they all go down the same way. Tremblay likely won’t continue as Mayor as of next year, but the question remains as to whether or not his successor will be in any way shape or form legitimately different from the membership of this Indirect Cult of Drapeau. Tremblay’s staked his re-election hopes largely on how well the private building spree announced of late actually gets off the ground, pardon the pun. If these projects stall due to a correction in the local housing market – something that local financial institutions like the National Bank and the Banque Laurentienne are actively warning about – he may fall under the weight of years of pent-up corruption allegations and a skyline of towering Ilots-Voyageurs. Plus, unlike the shrewd Charest, Tremblay will likely have to contend with whatever the Charbonneau Commission comes up with, and I doubt it will be pretty, though it likely won’t reveal anything we didn’t already know.

So how do we get away from this endless cycle of mediocrity and self-perpetuating disinterest? The number of participating voters is declining, and it’s rather astounding how few people actually decide who is going to helm the economic power of Canada’s second most vital economic region. Upsetting too, given the relative disinterest of various recent Mayors towards directly implicating themselves in ameliorating the quality of life within the very borough he represents – Ville-Marie, population roughly 80,000, mostly students, immigrants and other low-wage earners. The citizens of Ville-Marie borough are far from engaged in local politics given that so many people who work there don’t vote there and that those who do own land are likely filthy rich and not actually residing in the borough, though likely immediately to the West. Those who rent, despite having the right to vote, are hardly encouraged to do so, given the suspected transient nature of the residents.

What I find odd is that Tremblay has focused a fair bit of his years in power in adding more property owners to the collective whole of the City of Montréal, and now Ville-Marie Borough more specifically, though he’s done comparatively little to foster the establishment of what I would describe as ‘committed and engaged citizens’. Thus, no school development, few options for residents to develop their own small businesses within the borough, let alone acquire their long-lived-in properties from the people who, let’s face it, sometimes treat the residential areas of the borough as little more than slums, allowing beautiful old buildings to fall into disrepair so that they may be redeveloped, in some cases, generations later. Moreover, the buildings being developed aren’t designed to support families, but an apparently endless supply of singles and couples without children. Without the necessary services to attract and retain families within the city proper, it’s unlikely these new residents will stay, and less likely they’ll take an active enough degree of personal involvement to effect much change later on.

You’d think Tremblay would want to secure a new urban voting base…

Still, all that said, as it stands it seems as though less than 200,000 votes is just about all it would take to become mayor, a rather enticing fact. How hard would it be these days to get a largely, nominally disenfranchised urban electorate to show up and make a mark for dramatic change in this city, possibly for someone far removed from the local political establishment?

I can’t wait to meet what I hope will be an endless parade of Dark Horse candidates, each one more unique and particular than the last. Our city is due for a shake-up.