The legacy of M. Pelletier -

The legacy of M. Pelletier

Remembering Chrétien’s confidant


The debate over Jean Pelletier’s work in the Prime Minister’s Office of Jean Chrétien will continue and that’s fine. To me it is obvious he did spectacularly more good than harm, and I know that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s first chief of staff — you know, the competent one — was a keen student of the Pelletier-Goldenberg PMO. On the day of his passing, I do want to mention the legacy of Pelletier’s 12 years as mayor of Quebec City, from 1977 to 1989 (readers of French can see more here).

Here’s an excerpt from one of the articles I was happiest to write in 2008, about the Quebec City neighbourhood of St. Roch, at the bottom of the cliffs, near the port, the very few acres where Champlain founded a settlement in 1608. By the late 1980s, when I spent three summers in Quebec City, it was one of North America’s most miserable regions of urban blight, a state of affairs Pelletier had inherited but one he was already moving to turn around:

A visit to St. Roch used to be an unutterably depressing experience. In the last decades of the 20th century, two of the most devastating urban-design decisions anywhere in Canada combined to cut the neighbourhood off from the rest of the city and bludgeon the life from it.

First, dozens of lanes of highway came swooping in from the north. Designed to facilitate access to the National Assembly and the office towers around it freshly built to house the bureaucratic armies of the Quiet Revolution, the highway incidentally wiped out the city’s main Jewish and Chinese districts and put St. Roch on the wrong side of brutal expanses of concrete from everything else in Quebec City. It fell to Jacques Gréber, the French landscape architect who made Ottawa’s Sparks Street into one of the most uninspiring pedestrian boulevards under the eye of God, to deliver the coup de grace by coming up with exactly the same bright idea for St. Joseph. Cars were banished from the street, once St. Roch’s main commercial drag.

Then local merchants had what they seemed to think was an even better idea: since customers were fleeing the downtown for sprawling malls in the suburbs, they decided to plop a roof onto several blocks of St. Joseph Street, transforming it into an ersatz downtown mall. It looks so glamorous in a conceptual sketch from 1968 that adorns architecture historian Lucie K. Morisset’s invaluable book about St. Roch, La mémoire du paysage (The Memory of a Landscape). Mustachioed fellows in Cardin suits escort their wives in hot pants past elegant boutiques.

In real life the Mail, or mall, was a disaster. The roof was cheap and claustrophobic. Clients fled, rents plummeted, chain stores couldn’t draw clients and shuttered their doors, to be replaced by lower-rent stores in a 20-year spiral of declining standards. By the late 1980s joblessness, drug abuse and petty crime were endemic in St. Roch. The rosy-cheeked good cheer of residents in the upper town had no equivalent in the hollow-eyed despair that was too frequent down here.

Now, the article I wrote this summer gives Jean-Paul l’Allier, Pelletier’s successor, the credit for St. Roch’s turnaround. And l’Allier is indeed widely admired. But a whole district caught in a death spiral (in the early 1970s a city report suggested it be condemned for human habitation) needs a big intervention to turn it around. And the thing is, the only reason I was even tromping through St. Roch to see its problems was that a big part of the solution was already in place: the Bibliothèque Gabrielle-Roy, a big, welcoming, bustling multimedia haven where in those pre-internet days I could catch up on news, music, art and literature from all over. Jean Pelletier had that library (and others across the city) built, and commissioned the plans for a longer-term turnaround for St. Roch. He put a strong Museum of Civilization in the lower city, and rerouted passenger trains from some cruddy suburban depot back to the gorgeous Gare du Palais station next to the old port.

That’s Pelletier: Boom, boom, boom, library, museum, train station, government in action, big government, effective and unapologetic. L’Allier’s next moves, including an important public garden and the triumphal dismantlement of that godawful mall, made sense only because St. Roch had remembered that it could be a neighbourhood and the rest of the city had been reminded that St. Roch existed. That’s why Quebec City’s paper Le Soleil is mourning M. Pelletier’s loss today.

In Ottawa his presence was felt more often than seen, and often where it was felt it left bruises or worse. Liberals were terrified of him. He was like the bogeyman mothers frighten their children with: be good or M. Pelletier will call… which was weird because in person he was unfailingly cordial. He did his enforcing behind closed doors, and yes, there too he was effective and unapologetic.

I had precisely one long conversation with him. In office he politely declined my few requests for meetings. When he left Chrétien’s PMO I left him alone. He showed up for the Quebec City debate of Liberal leadership candidates in the summer of 2006, gave me a business card (JEAN PELLETIER and a phone number; it was like George Burns’s card in Oh, God!), protested that he had an interest in Paul Martin’s succession but no preferred candidate, and eight months later I called the number and we had lunch in Old Quebec.

You should have seen the deference the wait staff showed him, and it made sense because City Hall was a block away and because Pelletier obviously loved to eat well. We discussed the emerging weaknesses in Stéphane Dion’s leadership. I listened, missing most of the references, while he tried to bring me up on Quebec City politics, which he followed from a distance but with evident fascination. He said the assorted lawsuits he had brought to protest his dismissal from Via Rail were ransacking his personal finances, even his, and he knew he had lived a life more fortunate than most. He mentioned that the Monday after the secret Regal Constellation meeting and the Liberal convention of 2000, Jean Chrétien showed up at Senior Staff breathing fire and carrying a list, on paper, with many familiar names, of Paul Martin associates he wanted dismissed before lunch. Pelletier told the boss to wait until Wednesday and, if he still felt the same way, Pelletier would sack Paul Martin’s entire life-support system. Chrétien slept on it twice, came in on Wednesday and said nothing, which is why the people who ended the career of a three-majority prime minister two summers later were able to do much of that work on the taxpayer dime. Life can be funny.

Every Liberal in Ottawa called him Monsieur Pelletier, whether he was in the room or not. Obviously partisanship is part of that, but the capital is full of powerful people in every party who are casually badmouthed behind their backs by their own partisans from dawn to last call. Not Jean Pelletier. I don’t know any other way to command that kind of respect than to earn it.

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The legacy of M. Pelletier

  1. Nice article. Whether you agree with his politics or not you have to respect his service to Canada, especially Quebec city.

    • What service to Canada do we have to respect exactly? Overseeing the largest money laundering operation in Canadian politics. He’s a real hero alright.

      And Paul’s championing of Big Government is rather funny when it was Government that was responsible for creating the dodgy neighbourhood in the first place, one they are still trying to fix 40 years later.

  2. One of our greatest statesmen, and perhaps the greatest political figure in 1990’s Ottawa. Rest in peace.

  3. Wells does seem to be awfully forgiving of Liberal political screw-ups.

    Judge Gomery implicated Pelletier in Adscam.

    On the biggest Liberal screw-up in my lifetime – the Coalition with the Separatists to govern “Canada and Quebec” to use the putative Coalition government’s lingo, Mr. Wells is particularly forgiving.

    The bad Conservatives are planning, according to Mr. Wells, to remind the Canadian public on what the press said was 2008’s biggest political story: the Liberal Coalition with the NDP and the Separatists.

    The Liberal screw-ups sure are putting media enablers to the loyaly test.

    Mr. Wells, why don’t you give constructive criticism to the Liberals and tell them to repudiate the Coalition because it’s both bad for Canada and the Liberal Party?

    • The Liberal screw-ups sure are putting media enablers to the loyaly test.

      How so?

  4. Since people seem to have short memories, a gentle reminder. Adscam was political corruption of the highest and arrogant order.

    Public funds were secreted out of government coffers which action was authorized by high-placed government officials with Liberal partisan ties and loyalties and then found their way into Liberal Party of Canada coffers.

    Taxpayer’s money was stolen by the Liberals who controlled the goverment in order to further their partisan electoral activities. It does not get any worse than that except for governing with the Separatists.

    I used to be one who feared and admired the Liberal Party of Canada. Now I mostly pity this once-vaunted political party.

    • Jarrid such a loyal partisan warrior. Put the hammer down for a moment.

      • It’s not so much partisan as ignorant. I bet Jarrid first heard of Pelletier’s existence three years ago, at most;.

    • You should read some books if you think “Adscam” was “corruption of the highest order.” People have died from corruption and you do them a disservice. The sponsorship involved undisputed corruption alright, but of the highest order? Please.

      • I think Harper’s QC Cabinet Ministers probably hand out pork to the equivalent of Adscam (or “of the highest order”) on a daily basis.

  5. A short warning: People should feel free to say what they want about Pelletier’s work and legacy here, although a polite tone is encouraged. Insults hurled at one another won’t be tolerated, at all, on this particular thread. Keep it civil.

  6. May he rest in peace. Amazing how some (CPC supporters) only remember what they think is bad about people and not the good.

    Sad that we have so many angry and negative people out there.

    He was a human being who has a large legacy of good deeds and deserves to be recognized for them.

    Mr. Wells, well done.

  7. Any government of any stripe could use more like him. RIP M. Pelletier.

  8. No denying that Pelletier was a mover, a shaker, and a man capable of getting the job done. He’s one of the most universally successful Canadians I can think of offhand; in his many projects his failures are so few as to stand out like the CN Tower.

    Now, was the job one that should have been done? That’s where the disagreement’s going to lie. But if the House of Commons today had a few Jean Pelletiers on both sides of the aisle, things might run a little more smoothly.

  9. Monsieur Pelletier was old school politician and an effective one. The more i see of politics today the more i can forgive him his political sins. RIP Monsieur Pelletier.

  10. Everybody who gets up in the morning and earns a living for him/herself and surrounding friends and family is doing a service to Canada.

    Guys like Pelletier, who use their jobs to enrich themselves criminally at the expense of the rest of us (adscam), have not done a service to Canada.

    • “There is no evidence or indication that Mr. Pelletier was in any way involved
      in Mr. Corriveau’s kickback scheme, or that he knew about it, although it
      would have been more prudent for him to investigate the general suspicions
      that he says he communicated to the Prime Minister when, according to his
      testimony, he had a “hunch”that there was something not quite right about
      Mr. Corriveau. However, the absence of any evidence of direct involvement
      in Mr. Corriveau’s wrongdoing entitles both Mr. Pelletier and Mr. Chrétien
      to be exonerated from blame for Mr. Corriveau’s misconduct.
      But they are to be blamed for omissions.”

      Gomery commission report, Vol. 1, page 428.

      • And if I remember correctly, Justice Teitlebaum later overturned the Gomery report’s findings on Pelletier, exonerating him further. He also won a suit against the government for dismissing him without cause from CN, didn’t he?

        • Facts. Mere facts. Facts don’t matter much. Only political labels matter.

          Shame. My only resolution not in tatters was the one I made not to respond to chuckie inanities. Oh, well.

          • My bad.

          • “Shame. My only resolution not in tatters was the one I made not to respond to chuckie inanities.”

            I tend to fall off the wagon when I have nothing better to get engrossed in. And let’s face it, there’s been nothing in the news of late that is remotely novel or non-irritating. It’s all the same old dreary nonsense.

            I just hope the War Crimes Tribunals start soon. Cheney in the dock would be just to ticket to lift a lot of people out of their funk.

        • John K. – not according to today’s Globe and Mail:

          “Subsequently, the Federal Court of Appeals upheld Mr. Pelletier’s second termination at VIA in January, 2008 on the grounds that the government appoints the chair of the board of a crown corporation at pleasure and therefore has no obligation to canvass the board, which would, by definition, include the chair, before dismissing its own appointee.”

          Fact-checking Sisyphus. Mere fact-checking. When Liberal malfeasance is in issue the Liberal partisans look the other way or engage in after-the-fact white-washing.

          • His dismissal from VIA by the Martin government had nothing to do with “Liberal malfeasance,” it had to do with his calling Miriam Bédard a complete nutcake, wheras in fact it was quickly revealed that she was a complete fruitcake.

          • So I got Teitlebaum right and Via wrong.

            If I was batting .500 for the Yankees I’d be a multi-millionaire…

          • JM – here’s what Pelletier said about Ms. Bedard:

            “Mr. Pelletier,(…), denounced Ms. Bedard’s claims about being forced to leave the company, commented that she was “feeling the tension of being a single mother who has financial responsibilities” and described her action as a call for “pity” from “a poor single woman.” ”

            Can we all agree that this wasn’t the man’s finest moment?

          • Read, Jarrid, read. The steadfast PMPM had the right to dismiss. That’s what the decision said. And that’s all it said.

          • Sisyphus:

            Jan 9th, 2008, From The Cape Breton Post:

            “OTTAWA (CP) — The Federal Court of Appeals has upheld the former Liberal government’s second attempt to fire Via Rail chairman Jean Pelletier.
            The decision overturned a lower-court ruling last March which sided with Pelletier after he was fired in December 2005.”

            Pelletier lost his case, so what’s your point? I was just fact-checking John K.’s post and corrected it. He accepted the correction rather gallantly. You sir, on the other hand, are engaging in nitpicking.

          • Sisyphus:

            Jan 9th, 2008, From The Cape Breton Post:

            “OTTAWA (CP) — The Federal Court of Appeals has upheld the former Liberal government’s second attempt to fire Via Rail chairman Jean Pelletier.
            The decision overturned a lower-court ruling last March which sided with Pelletier after he was fired in December 2005.”

            Pelletier lost his case, so what’s your point? I was just fact-checking John K.’s post and corrected it. He accepted the correction rather gallantly. You sir, on the other hand, are engaging in nitpicking.

          • First of all, I resent you calling me a Liberal. You don’t know me well enough to insult me.

            Secondly, the case was about the authority of the PM to dismiss a PM’s appointment.

            Thirdly, the poor Cape Bretoners get blamed for everything.

            Lastly, we’re going to get hit with another storm tomorrow. It’s the Liberal’s fault.

      • PW quotes the Gomery report that says that Pelletier is to be blamed for his omissions.

        In other words, Gomery didn’t buy the “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” defence, also known as the turning a blind eye defence.

        Given Pelletier’s position and reputed political acumen, Gomery was right in pointing out Pelletier’s failure, anything else would have been an impossible to beleive white-wash.

        He was at the very least guitly of turning a blind eye while Liberals robbed the federal treasury. (Gavel rapped vigorously.)

  11. Interesting, thanks. And as an aside, I didn’t realize that there had been a Jewish or Chinese neighbourhood in Quebec City.

    • Give it up Jarrid, perfection”s not for this world. We need to collectively grow up and take a more realistic look at our politicians. Since we have to be governed by someone let’s acknowledge that ALL politicians will do some harm. If the good they do exceeds the harm by a reasonable degree then we are well served.

  12. Thank you for this article Paul. M. Pelletier was indeed an impressive man. I had the chance to meet him in person a few times and I’ll admit I was intimidated (even though, as you correctly point out, he was always a very cordial, polite person).

    People who have nothing to say about Pelletier except the (wildly overblown) sponsorship scandal are missing the forest through the trees. The Chrétien govt may not exactly have been inspiring, but it was competent. After years of deficit spending and constitutional adventures by Mulroney (and yes, Trudeau, before him) you can argue that the country needed a time out and good management. M. Pelletier was one of the key people responsible for providing that.

  13. Rest in peace, monsieur Pelletier, and condolences to the family.

    Paul, is it my imagination, or has Quebec City been blessed with more than a few popular, helpful and reasonably clean mayors over the last few decades? If my impression is correct, what makes them so lucky?

    As far as the VIA nonsense goes, my guess is that the expression was indeed one of genuine pity for someone who kind of went off the rails, but it was the opportunity PMPM was looking for to vindictively fire the Chretien loyalist.

  14. Jean Pelletier was a fulcrum agent in my book, but he is also a legend.

    I wish Ian Brodie was stil with my main man PM Harper…

    Great blog post Wells, great blog post…..

  15. It is tragic the way this man had to leave this earth, I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone, but the fact remains he was personally involved with one of the most sordid chapters in Canadian political history. Forgive me if I don’t feel the need to praise the man who made a fine living ripping off Canadian taxpayers and turning a blind eye to money laundering, just because he has now passed.

    I wish his family and friends well, and hope he did not have to endure too much suffering, but he has NOT been absolved of what he did.

    • I think it’s a sign of how squeaky clean Canadian politics is that the sponsorship scandal can be described as “one of the most sordid chapters in Canadian political history”…apparently without irony.

      I mean seriously…does no one here read about some of the stuff that goes on in other countries? And people are going to moan forever about a small number of sleazebags stealing a few million bucks.

      Do you have any idea how routinely overbilling and even entirely fraudulent billing goes on in industries like PR or law firms or various other forms of consulting? I guarantee you that RIGHT NOW the exact same thing is going on with any number of govt contracts at all three levels of government.

      In the big picture that was a nothing scandal. It’s only because Paul Martin was so eager to distinguish himself from Jean Chrétien and unleashed the Gomery Commission that it became such a big deal. As the years go by, people will look back at that scandal and say really ‘what the hell was the big deal’? In fact I predict that when Jean Chrétien dies the scandal will start to assume its proper place in history: a footnote.

      I also think its in poor taste and small of people to dwell on it the day that Jean Pelleteier died, given all the positive things he did for this country.

    • If you have no ACTUAL evidence that he personally profited then every word of criticism you wrote is mere hearsay and utterly inconsequential, not to mention in poor taste at this time.

      • that was directed at the meanie. I don’t think like these rply thingies any more. Was it better before? Alzheimers alert.

  16. Living the first 25 years of my life in Quebec City I could recall how powerful Pelletier was, for most good than bad I should say. Media was particularly prudent to critize him and his suit, except for Andre Arthur. Overall he was a great mayor.

    However, he drew in the drain all the respect I could have for him being a silent witness of the adscam. He was one of these many people in Ottawa in the 90s who professed that all means were legitimate to mate independatists.

    Christian Martel
    Oxford, UK

  17. Okay, enough. You give the Liberals far too much credit for corruption – when celebrating John A’s birthday – should we remember that his government was the most corrupt in Canadian history. Drunk and corrupt but given credit for his vision for Canada.

    Double-standars anyone?

  18. “government in action, big government, effective and unapologetic.” Unfortunately, big government being what it is, there’s a lot more examples of effective and unapologetic “devastating urban-design decisions” then there are of effective and unapologetic recoveries from such. Just sayin’

  19. I never liked Cretien leadership, except in retrospect — I’m surprised how much I miss him. But it takes real nerve to declare ad-scam an exceptional scandal when Mulroney is still lying and dodging about taking wads of cash in brown paper envelopes. A flawed man as compared to a crook …

  20. “I have nothing but contempt for him. And, you know, in the Robert dictionary, there’s a word for a contemptible man—bastard. And, in my book, Paul Martin will always be a bastard.”

    – Jean Pelletier on Paul Martin

  21. Nice article. I completely agree. The service done by him is exemplary. People may like criticizing him for his style of working, but the work that he has done is for all to see.