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Patronage, Corruption, Underworld: the movie

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Well, it can’t be ignored.

Montreal City Hall sketchiness has reached such astronomical proportions that The Economist ran a piece about it on June 25th, under the headline “Municipal corruption in Canada.”

For any readers who have manged keep their heads buried in the sand during the recent cries of scandale! in the local press, the Economist report candidly sums up the most blatant instances of favouritism (the SHDM and Water Meter deal). I don’t doubt that for each “tip of the iceberg” that made the international press, there are more cases and more implications of this kind of abuse at home.

If this is all starting to sound like the plot of a weird mafio-political drama, well, it is. Quebec’s favourite movie director, Denys Arcand, made that film way back in 1973:

“Patronage = Corruption = Pègre” (“Patronage = Corruption = Underworld”): the tag line for Arcand’s 1973 film about Montreal Mafiosos, unscrupulous politicians, and expropriating home-owners to build a highway.

Here’s an extract from the description of Denys Arcand’s film Réjeanne Padovani, found on the Films Quebec blog:

Histoire :
En l’honneur de l’inauguration d’une autoroute, une réception fastueuse a lieu chez un gros entrepreneur montréalais. Durant la soirée, son épouse le fait chanter.

Résumé :

À la veille de l’inauguration d’une autoroute dont ils ont orchestré la construction, quelques politiciens sans scrupule se réunissent dans la demeure d’un parrain de la mafia, Vincent Padovani, pour célébrer l’événement. …  Ailleurs dans la ville, de jeunes militants préparent une manifestation pour protester contre les expropriations massives ayant découlé de la construction de l’autoroute.

Sound familiar?

Now back to reality, 2009…

Naturally, what tarnishes the mayor’s party is a golden opportunity for the opposition (and in an election year!). Louise Harel, leader of Vision Montreal, called for a Provincial inquiry – on top of the 5 police investigations already underway at city hall. More interestingly, a commentor on the Economist’s online edition points out that the article may actually have been authored by a political consultant for Projet Montréal.

But if Arcand’s film was in any way inspired by reality, this kind of cronyism has been around for at least a couple of generations. You gotta wonder whether the opposition parties will be any better at resisting the offers of the allegedly-mob-affiliated contractors whose reign over the city predates the current administration. Can we vote our way out of this problem?

The only remotely comforting thing is that, in spite of this political climate, Montreal seems to have raised – and adopted – a whole lot of people who none-the-less care about the city very much. But how can citizens be empowered when the system is broken?


  1. The best way to disinfect is to let the sunshine in!

    It is amazing to me how secretive our government is. After asking, I still don’t have an electronic map of our bike lanes (not a PDF; I want something I can add to another map).

    Our transit information was given to Google, but local developers can’t access it. Need I remind people about Bixi?

    We should copy Vancouver:

  2. Yes, that film was in the wake of a series of major expropriations – Joe Fiorito wrote about the disappeared working-class, largely immigrant community razed for the Décarie expressway, and many about the expropriations of working-class communities to build autoroute Ville-Marie.

    Padovani, not Podovani. Podovani might exist as a name, but Padovani (people from Padova (Padoue in French, Padua in English).

    Interesting that the Economist has picked up on this..

  3. Montreal’s long had this reputation. My family lived outside of Toronto, but my father did business during the week in Montreal in the 70s. If he had not been so disgusted by the corruption he saw (and law 101), I would have grown up in Montreal, not outside of Brampton. Thanks alot, Mafia.

  4. Encore la démagogie anti-automobile de Maria.

    La décarie n’as pas détruits de beaux quartiers immigrants comme tu le prétends… elle a détruit des champs d’agriculteurs.

    Preuve est que le théatre Snowdon qui existait avant l’autoroute Décarie, sur l’abord de la rue en terre qu’était Décarie, existe encore.

  5. Samir, tu vis sur quelle planete? Oui il y avait des champs d’agriculteurs la-bas … mais a l’epoque! Dans les annees 50 l’artere Decarie etait l’endroit social principale des quartiers comme Snowdon. Les jeunes faisaient l’aller retour chaque soir entre l’Orange Julip, Tasty Food, Snowdon Deli, et la grande carre devant le Theatre. Ah mes ces jeunes parlaient anglais (parce qu’ils n’etaient pas catholiques) donc on s’en fut d’eux….

    Il y avait une rangee de maisons au sud de Queen Mary qui etait detruit pour faire la trace de Decarie vers Sherbrooke.

  6. It is completely understandable that politicians will have ‘relationships’ with various ‘movers and shakers’ – these are the people who “get things done.” These relationships become problematic when they become too friendly and crowd out competition of any sort.

    Montreal’s public sector unions also yield a disproportionate amount of power. These unions do not seem to appreciate that they serve the public – the labour-vs-management union model does not apply here.

    In addition to “letting the sunshine in” (which is always a good thing), another useful step might be to limit terms of office. Relationships develop over time. Given enough time, these relationships develop into patronage – and this happens to all political parties. In some places, there are longer terms of office, but one cannot run for re-election to the same position. This simple change completely shifts the focus onto the long-term: since one cannot be re-elected, the important thing is to leave a legacy which will be remembered.

  7. Homes were certainly expropriated and destroyed to build the Southern part of the Decarie expressway in the ’60s. I posted about this a little while back – along with photos showing the residential development in the area that existed since the 30s, later razed in the 1960s.

    I believe there was an Italian neihbourhood around Saint-Jacques and Upper Lachine road (sill is for that matter), but not sure what the demographic was like in the other areas.

  8. I have to agree with Daniel,
    “let the sunshine in!”
    Right now everything is done in secret at City hall and in my borough, the Plateau. The executive committee, the body that makes all the decisions, is closed and secretive. Opening it up would be the first thing to do. I understand the skepticism around the question ‘can we vote our way out of this,’ yes, power corrupts… etc., we see how Tremblay has succeeded in co-opting the old RCM, and the old RCM’s remaining councilors are no better now than the rest.
    There has been a movement though, started as a reaction to all this and the inaction of the Tremblay administration to move on environmental issues and other important advances that other cities have made that put Montreal to shame, (public transit is an excellent example). That movement turned into Projet Montreal, the municipal party that is very strong on the Plateau. Projet understands the problem/power of corruption and addresses them in its platform by proposing important measures to open up decision making and bidding processes to the light. For example its number one priority on this front is to open the executive committee meetings to the public.
    Voting, and getting involved in opposition parties and citizen movements, can go a long way in improving the situation for sure, but we desperately need to get over our cynicism and work together if we are going to get anywhere. Check it out at, where ‘the sun shines in’ :)

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