Montreal gets an anglophone mayor—first in 100 years

MONTREAL – For the first time in 100 years, Montreal has an anglophone mayor following a string of improbable events that rocked the administration of a scandal-weary city.

Michael Applebaum won a vote at city council, 31-29, to become the city’s first non-francophone mayor since just before the First World War.

He will be an interim mayor and will serve for only a year, with a promise not to run in the next municipal election of November 2013.

Anglophones in Quebec rarely hold such prominent political roles.

In the municipality of Montreal itself, only 13 per cent of people claim English as their mother tongue; the language is regularly spoken, however, by many of the 47 per cent of people who are not original French-speakers.

The notion of an Anglo mayor would have seemed stunningly unlikely just a few weeks ago, while the city was involved in one of its periodic linguistic debates during a provincial election campaign where language tensions figured prominently.

The political rarity was made possible by a string of spectacular developments. As late as last week, Applebaum appeared to have a slim chance of success — but he went about building support, and was helped along by a unique set of circumstances.

In his speech before the vote, Applebaum cast himself as a historic candidate but not for linguistic reasons. He has brushed aside questions about language, and didn’t utter a word of English in his speech Friday.

Applebaum said his victory would be historic because he wanted to create a multi-partisan coalition, bringing together former foes to clean up the scandal-plagued city.

“You have a chance to make history today,” he told council colleagues, “as the city council that moved beyond the sterile (partisan) bickering.”

The flurry of developments began last week with the resignation of Gerald Tremblay, the former mayor whose administration was tarnished in a corruption scandal.

Because the mayor resigned less than a year before an election, provincial law said his successor had to be picked by city council on an interim basis.

Applebaum was an obvious contender, given that he was the No. 2 politician in the city after the mayor. But a newspaper report carried suggestions from an anonymous colleague saying Applebaum’s French wasn’t good enough to be mayor.

At a subsequent meeting, members of the Union Montreal caucus sidelined Applebaum and picked Richard Deschamps as their candidate.

Then events shifted quickly.

Applebaum quit the caucus, citing policy differences. He said he was taking a stand in favour of two things: smaller tax hikes, and more transparency.

He insisted on tax hikes one percentage point lower than the planned 3.3 per cent. And he revealed the existence of a document that showed city officials were aware years ago that Montreal’s closed construction industry created cost overruns.

Applebaum then went about building alliances.

He courted the two opposition parties, who agreed not to run their own candidates. He promised them positions in a coalition administration. And he assured them that he would not run against them in the next election.

Finally, he peeled away a handful of caucus members from his old party, the ruling Union Montreal.

Before today’s vote, the candidates took questions from citizens.

The men were pressed on their own integrity and plans for the city. One woman demanded a freeze on tax hikes, given the public anger over the waste of money in corruption schemes.

Applebaum reiterated his promise to moderate planned tax hikes. He also repeatedly referred to his plan to involve opposition parties in a coalition.