One was a fur trader, one was a gardener, one went to jail, one was exiled, and another became prime minister.
The 42 mayors of Montreal have been a very diverse bunch over the 180 years since the city was incorporated, but for the first time in a century, the chief magistrate of Canada’s second-largest metropolis is English — and Jewish to boot.
Michael Applebaum, a 49-year-old real-estate agent who was mayor of a largely English-speaking borough of the city, became mayor of Montreal in the wake of the resignation of Gerald Tremblay, who had served since 2001.
Tremblay left office three weeks ago, defiantly denying any direct knowledge of an institutionalized system of kickbacks in city construction contracts as alleged by witnesses at an ongoing public judicial inquiry into collusion and corruption in Quebec’s construction industry.
A narrow margin of city councillors chose Applebaum, who had only recently been Tremblay’s second in command at City Hall. His supporters included French- and English-speaking councilors from opposition parties.
Applebaum is technically only the interim mayor, pending next year’s full municipal elections. He has said he won’t run for mayor at that time, which may have been a major factor in his election to the temporary post.
Like his predecessor Tremblay, the new mayor might be described as among the more bland of the types to lead Montreal over the years.
Take Camillien Houde, for example. He had been in and out of politics at both the federal and provincial levels but ended up as Montreal mayor in 1928 and served several intermittent terms, until 1940. At that time, his passionate opposition to wartime conscription — a heated topic in Quebec — got him arrested for sedition and he was thrown into a prison camp without trial until 1944. Upon his release, he was promptly elected mayor of Montreal for another 10 years.
Shortly afterward came Jean Drapeau, a bit of a corruption-fighting Eliott Ness at the outset, but over his 29 years in office, he became known for thinking big. He brought to the city a gleaming subway system, the 1967 Expo World’s Fair and the 1976 Summer Olympic Games. Regarding the latter, he famously declared that the games “can no more have a deficit, than a man can have a baby.” Quebec finally paid off Drapeau’s $1.5 billion Olympic baby in 2006, seven years after Drapeau died.
There’s Wolfred Nelson, who, though brought up thoroughly English, with an American Loyalist mother, became one of the most prominent leaders of the French-Canadian Rebellion against British rule in 1837. He was captured and packed off to Bermuda for a brief exile. He then practiced medicine in Plattsburgh for a few years before returning to Montreal, where he eventually ran for mayor in 1954 and served one term.
The last truly English mayor of Montreal was James John Edmund Guerin, who, despite his last name, was Irish to the core. (His sister Bellelle was a famous activist and the author of a book on John Easton Mills, the Massachusetts-born Montreal mayor who died of typhus in 1847, tending to the sick). Guerin served one term before moving on to federal politics.
Of the 15 anglos who served as mayor, only one served more than a two-year term. A few died in office or left for health reasons; others simply lost support and were not re-elected.
Two of them were tainted by scandal. John C. Abbott had been a federal minister under Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister. He was involved in a railway kickback scandal that drove Macdonald from office. Abbott served a term as Montreal mayor then returned to Ottawa as a senator, succeeding Macdonald as prime minister when he died in 1891.
The only anglo to serve two terms, Henry Starnes, was involved — though never charged — in the same intrigue as Abbott, and the taint is said to have kept him from further elected office.
Michael Applebaum comes to office with a vow to clean up City Hall. The fact that his first language is English is unlikely to be a factor in the pursuit of that goal.
Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.