Montreal election: Since Jean Drapeau, mayors have had to walk fine line on separatism

Drapeau, Doré, Bourque, Tremblay: How four mayors handled the thorny issue of nationalism

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“How did you vote in the 1995 referendum,” Projet Montréal mayoral candidate Valérie Plante was repeatedly asked this week.

She hasn’t answered, saying only that she doesn’t “self-identify as a separatist.” Plante’s team includes both separatists and federalists, and she promises sovereignty will not be an issue if she’s elected mayor.

“I don’t see how this is relevant for Montrealers — if this would have been the reason I was doing politics I would be at the provincial or federal level,” she told the Montreal Gazette editorial board Monday.

A former Liberal MP, Denis Coderre, seeking re-election as mayor, has played up Plante’s fuzzy answer, proclaiming himself a federalist.

But as a 17-year-old, Coderre worked on the Yes side during the 1980 referendum, though he told an interviewer he “wasn’t a separatist,” and did so because he revered former Parti Québécois premier René Lévesque.

Coderre counts on support from both sides of the issue. His current slate includes former PQ, Bloc Québécois and Liberal politicians. His team includes the grandson of former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau, Hadrien Parizeau, a sovereignist.

Since the 1970s, Montreal mayors have tread carefully when it comes to national unity. Taking sides would make coalition building difficult at city hall. It could cost a mayor votes in a city divided on the issue — and influence in Quebec City, where decisions are made on whether or not to fund infrastructure upgrades and métro extensions.

Here’s a look at the balancing act performed by the four mayors Montrealers have elected between 1960 and Coderre’s ascension to power in 2013.

At the Olympic Stadium in 1986, Mayor Jean Drapeau looked back 10 years to opening of the Games. When the photographer asked him to pose at the Big O, Drapeau quipped: “So, you want to get me to stand at the scene of the crime.” GORDON BECK / Montreal Gazette

Jean Drapeau (1954-57, 1960-86)

A master politician, Drapeau established the principle that Montreal must remain an island of neutrality on Quebec’s place in Canada.

Montreal’s longest-serving mayor, he ruled the city during the rise of the sovereignty movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Drapeau did not want to antagonize either side, realizing he would have to work with whoever controlled the National Assembly, be they separatist or federalist.

Liberal governments financed Drapeau’s 1976 Olympics, the PQ later came through with cash for the leaning tower to hold up the Olympic Stadium roof.

A passionate nationalist in his younger days, he softened after coming to power. Chameleon-like, he was a nationalist to some, a federalist to others. Montrealers never did find out how he voted in the 1980 referendum.

Mayor Jean Doré with Michael Fainstat, chairman of Montreal’s executive committee from 1986 to 1990. Gordon Beck / Montreal Gazette

Jean Doré (1986-94)

A student activist in the 1960s, Doré was Lévesque’s press attaché during the early 1970s.

Doré’s reform-minded Montreal Citizens Movement brought together people of all political stripes when it swept to power in 1986, and several anglophones rose to prominence in his administration.

He steered clear of the sovereignty question and constitutional debates. However, several city councillors in Doré’s party, including the vice-chairman of his executive committee, raised eyebrows when they took the unusual step of publicly supporting the Bloc’s Gilles Duceppe in a 1990 byelection.

In 2014, Doré was among a group of 12 separatists who signed a letter welcoming the arrival of Pierre Karl Péladeau to the PQ leadership race.

After Doré died, Duceppe, his friend, said of him: “Jean Doré was a sovereignist, but he knew how to work with the English-speaking community. The first chairman of his executive committee was Michael Fainstat, after all.”

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre and former mayor Pierre Bourque show some of the produce grown in community gardens. They were in the Centre-Sud district on Aug. 29, 2015, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Montreal’s first community garden. Pierre Obendrauf / Montreal Gazette

Pierre Bourque (1994-2001)

A committed sovereignist as a young man, Bourque was, in the 1960s, a member of the Rassemblement pour l’Independence Nationale, a precursor of the PQ. And in the 1970s, he became president of a PQ riding association. He told one interviewer he remained a PQ member until the early 1980s.

He tried to avoid taking positions on national unity and said he was misquoted in a 1994 book as saying: “I could not but vote Yes in a referendum on independence. For the sake of solidarity with the Québécois people.”

During the divisive 1995 referendum, Bourque remained neutral: ”Why? Because I am here to bring Montrealers together, not to divide them,” he said at the time. “Montreal has enough weaknesses, we must all be united to defend Montreal.”

Then-mayor Gérald Tremblay answers questions during a council meeting at Montreal city hall in 2012, with Michael Applebaum seated next to him. Pierre Obendrauf / Montreal Gazette

Gérald Tremblay (2001-2012)

A Liberal MNA from 1989 to 1996, Tremblay was an ardent federalist who campaigned on the No side in the 1995 referendum.

After the referendum, it emerged that in the event of a Yes vote, then-premier Parizeau planned to publish a letter signed by 180 prominent Quebecers — including Tremblay — in every Quebec newspaper. The letter would have asked all Quebecers to recognize the democratic decision that had been taken, appealing for respect, solidarity and responsibility in the name of the economy and job creation.

Tremblay resigned in 2012 as city hall was engulfed in corruption allegations.

He was replaced by another federalist, Michael Applebaum, who resigned seven months later after he was arrested by Quebec’s anti-corruption unit. Applebaum was later sentenced to 12 months in jail after being convicted of conspiracy, fraud and breach of trust.

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