Jean Drapeau did not expect to become mayor of Montreal in 1954. His previous ventures into politics had been at the provincial level and unsuccessful. When he was done in 1980 he left the city with a metro system, the landmarks and stadiums of Expo ’67, the Place des Arts, and the 1976 Olympics. His legacy is enormous and brings with it an Olympic Stadium that was finally paid for in 2006 and road infrastructure which all levels of government, federal, provincial and municipal, are now scrambling to maintain.
In 1954, two things motivated the criminal lawyer and protégé of the nationalist intellectual, Lionel Groulx: political and moral corruption and an almost imperial sense of showmanship. It was the first that brought him to power but Montreal gave him a canvas large enough for both.
In February 1949, underpaid and facing severe health risks, the asbestos miners of towns east of Montreal went on strike. Their action was declared illegal by Premier Maurice Duplessis and when the strikers turned on strikers and the police guarding company property on May 4th, he sent in 400 policemen armed with clubs, machine guns and tear gas. One hundred and eighty strikers were dragged from the homes, beaten before their families, and taken to the police cells of Montreal and Sherbrooke.
For fear of retaliation, lawyers were hard to find locally and so the unions turned to Drapeau. He was promptly denied access to his clients. Writing to the attorney-general produced little effect; the attorney-general was Duplessis. By the end of the case though, many of the workers’ demands were met and Drapeau had persuaded the judge to drop most of the charges.
While defending the strikers, Drapeau was also legal adviser to the French-daily, Le Devoir, in its investigation into the Montreal underworld. A second home to New York’s mafia, high levels of prostitution and illegal gambling ensured that Montreal continued to earn its epithet as a ‘little Babylon’. During the war so prevalent was venereal disease that the military threatened to declare the city off-limits to troops unless the whorehouses were closed down. They were, but only to re-open with the peace. It was not long before the press and Catholic Church were pursuing officials under the Bribery and Corruption Act.
Already familiar with the material, Drapeau was persuaded to call for a public inquiry. Throughout 1952 and 1953, Drapeau and his colleague, Pax Plante, worked under police protection and share centre-stage in the Caron Inquiry. There they brought forth a host of establishment figures accused of hypocrisy and immorality, like the provincial politician Frank Hanley who defended illegal gambling, or the doctor’s wife who owned a string of brothels.
The inquiry barely touched the incumbent mayor, Camillien Houde. Still, he resigned on 18 September 1954, days before the release of Judge Caron’s report and only weeks before the mayoral election. Duplessis’ Montreal stronghold was in disarray and in the face of both the political establishment and the criminal underworld, a only recently persuaded Jean Drapeau was elected mayor. He won three-quarters of the vote and had to ask journalists for directions to the Council Chamber.
Consulted for this post
McKenna, Brian and Susan Purcell. Drapeau. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Co, 1980