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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Get to Know Your Jean Drapeau

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Drawing, cartoon | Merci, Jean... | M987.244.62

“What would Jean Drapeau Do?” asks Richard Bergeron in an essay published on Projet Montréal’s website.

It’s an interesting choice of role model for Projet Montréal’s mayoral candidate, as most of us have got, at best, mixed feelings for the man who ruled the city for three decades (1954-57 and 1960-86). Drapeau has a legacy of projects that radically transformed and modernized Montreal, only to feel embarrassingly out of touch a generation later.

Much like today, Montreal in the early 1950s was perceived as corrupt to the core. In 1954, 5000 charges were made against police force members and even Executive Committee members for collusion with mobs who ran the Red-Light district. And young Jean Drapeau was a lawyer with the “morality squad” who worked on the report.

But, over time, Drapeau’s campaign to clean up the city went beyond dodgy police practices. He also “cleaned up” plenty of working class neighbourhoods like the faubourg m’lasse and goose village by razing them to the ground. And then there were his efforts to “clean” the gay bars out of the downtown core in time for the Olympics, and his sudden decision to tear down the “pulluting” Corridart exhibit on Sherbrooke street just days before the ’76 games began.

Drapeau giveth and Drapeau taketh away….

One one hand you’ve got the glory days of the metro and Expo-67. But then there’s the Big Owe and the crumbling Turcot interchange to recon with a generation later. Drapeau tore up the city’s tramway network and demolished 30,000 homes in order to make way for automobile transportation. Then he went and built another 20,000 homes to try and lure Montrealers back from the suburbs.

As Bergeron himself points out in his essay: “Jean Drapeau was anything but a great democrat.”

So why put him on a pedestal?

Perhaps it is true, as Bergeron suggests, that projects like the metro would never have come to fruition if the mayor had not been such a hard-headed authoritarian. In his essay, Bergeron imagines how Drapeau would react to our current political climate: “Stop putting a monkey wrench in my projects with your forty thousand studies every time I try to lift a finger. After all, a metro, a world fair and the Olympic Games were a teensy bit more complicated to plan than the projects you’re talking about these days in Montréal!

The leader of Projet Montréal also concedes that in today’s race Drapeau would have to learn to work with citizens. Well, enlightened ones, at least.

And what would Jean Drapeau do today?

Whatever it may be, Bergeron says it would be timely, ambitious, fast-paced, and it would be done with confidence and love for the city of Montreal.

So is this the kind of exhuberant, benevolent dictator we could benefit from in 2009?

And now our feature presentation

If you want to get a feel for the young Mayor Drapeau in action, check out this 1955 documentary about traffic planning in Montreal. It features interviews with both Mayor Jean Drapeau and his head of Urban Planning detailing their plans for handling increasing automobile traffic on a grid conceived for horse travel and trams (they come in around 4:00).

I like the part where Drapeau says: “Il ne faut pas résoudre les problemes d’aujourd’hui seulement, mais éviter d’en créer d’autres…” (“We don’t only have to solve the problems of today, but avoid creating other ones…”)

Lesson: No matter how pure our intentions, the problems we face in the future may not be the ones we are anticipating today. Flexibility is key.


Image: Aislin, the cartoonist wrote: “When Drapeau finally retired in 1986 I drew this cartoon, comparing his presence in Montreal to that of Mont Royal, as a salute to him.” From the McCord museum archives.

Thanks to Kyle MacDonald for the tip about the film.



  1. When I saw the Aislin cartoon, I immediatly tought of one of Drapeau’s first order when he became mayor. He ordered all of Mont-Royal’s bushes and small trees cut down because according to him they were decadent and encouraged vice (read: they wre great spots for outdoor sex). That ecological disaster led montrealers to nickname the mountain “Mont Chauve” (Bald mountain) in an “homage” (or dommage if you prefer) to Drapeau.

  2. Interesting though a bit simplistic — mayors all over North America were tearing down streetcars and building freeways during that time. What was particular about Drapeau? What was the man and what was the context?

    What might have changed since the 1960s?

    For one thing, Québec has asserted more authority, having since created a number of financial institutions to circumvent the Anglophone banks’ control of the bond markets and disciplining of public powers. The public financing of the métro led to criticisms of Québec being the “Cuba of the north”, I believe.

    Also, that was an era much more conducive to large, state-funded projects. Since then, mitigation measures and environmental concerns, as well as the anti-state tropes of “overspending”, “over-taxation”, etc. that Henry Aubin peppers his articles with in the Gazette have limited the state’s ability to act.

    There are reasons why there are pre-feasibility studies, feasibility studies, environmental hearings, etc etc.

    Everyone wants to borrow from the symbolism of Drapeau as a “doer”. But saying you could do things faster if you were in power is easy when you are condemned to the opposition benches.

  3. Thank you for the great article; the film is a gem! :-D

    It’s funny how people in Montreal long for a mayor who is a visionary, but (regardless of a PhD in urban planning) are quick to dismiss Richard Bergeron as an unrealistic dreamer .

    Montreal is indeed at a crossroads; Bergeron is holding the map of a sustainable future. I wonder if Montrealers are smart enough to know a good thing when they see it?

  4. There was some pretty funny stories about potential Drapeau projects too. One of them had him buying the Eiffel Tower and putting it on top of Mount Royal. And it isn’t hard to imagine somebody whispering, “but Jean why don’t we build our own original tower and hold the Olympics under it?” I think Bergeron would make a better mayor than Drapeau over all in terms of the long term effects. But there will always be one lingering question about it all, something that at least looks ironic today – What if there had been no corruption and the contractors just attacked the Olympic games with pride and the whole thing did not cost one cent any more than a man can have a baby?

  5. One one hand you’ve got the glory days of the metro and Expo-67.

    The Metro and Expo were not Drapeau’s ideas. He just took credit for them.

  6. Marc, Expo and the metro may not have been Drapeau’s personal ideas but he and his team got the job done. It takes a lot more work to plan and fund things of that scale than to dream ’em up.

    Feeding ideas to the people in power is the whole point of a political opposition party or of a public consultation. Whether or not he gets elected, Bergeron has already been effective at raising the bar on transit and sustainable development issues. But I don’t have much patience for bickering about where credit is due.

  7. 5:20 — Drapeau: “Il en est de la circulation dans une grande ville comme de la circulation du sang dans un corps humain”

    Ça résume l’époque assez bien, n’est-ce pas?

    Aussi, remarquez à 13:00 environ le “proposed bridge” du “Boul. Persillier”… c’est l’autoroute 15! Un petit projet même pas digne de mention. :-)

    J’ai vu les 2 parties de ce film à la Cinérobothèque. (J’ignore pourquoi seule la partie 1 est disponible en-ligne).

    Le reportage mentionne le transport en commun du bout des lèvres une seule fois en 30 minutes… mais on questionne (sérieusement!) un expert à la fin de la partie 2 sur la possibilité d’utiliser l’hélicoptère pour soulager la congestion.

    En passant, je sais pas qui faisait les maquettes pour la ville à cette époque, mais il était fier du Mont-Royal… on dirait l’Everest! :-)

    — X

  8. Fagstein’s article and the accompanying comments add to this discussion:

    My conclusion:
    The best way to make things happen in our fair city that I agree with would be with a Drapeau-esque make-it-happen mayor who brings about all of Richard Bergeron’s ideas.

    Hey Richie, I love your ideas, but I saw you on Tout le Monde en Parle last Sunday….and, well, your vision just doesn’t come across with conviction on TV. Make no mistake, we may love your ideas, but we’re not afraid to admit you look like a crazed left-field professor incapable of making a decision, next to your locked-in-stone rivals.

    If you can’t effectively communicate your ideas to the public with conviction, you’re not going to get the votes, and we’ll be stuck with Tremblay status-quo-ism or Harel visionary-less scare-the-pants-off-everybody-with-your-creepy-politico-vibe-ism. Both of which are the established “isms” in this city and offer no real exciting vision of the future.

    Okay, here’s the obligatory youth-movement political reference poster:

  9. Here’s link to a picture of a statue of Drapeau, in the unhappy little park across the street from city hall.

    From here i go north across the street to the little park beside city hall and watch the sunset. Go down the stairs and you can see the old walls that were part of the fortifications of Montreal in the old, old days.

    All this is part of my downtown-mtl urban adventure bike ride.

    A bike ride to the Olympic Stadium is a bit more involved, but is a uniquely montreal adventure to ride around that gigantic monstrosity of the Olympic Stadium.

  10. Allanah has a good point about the actual doing of things. No idea who first seriously thought we could have Major League Baseball here, but there is a legendary story (and my memory is sketchy here) about how Drapeau and Russ Taylor ( local sportscaster/writer ) flew around the city in a helicopter and decided that Jarry Park was the perfect place to build a ball park real quick. Anyway, we did get the team and “Jarry Park” will always be remembered very fondly by anyone who ever went to a game there. Sadly, the Expos ending up in the big Owe probably had as much to do with them leaving town as anything else. A little irony, peut- etre?

  11. Alanah, I remember how horribly repressive the Drapeau administration was – taking advantage of the October crisis to destroy FRAP, an earlier progressive party and viciously attacking protest movements and destroying working-class neighbourhoods, so although I’m as much of a public transport trainspotter as Bergeron is, I have my reserves about him. Yes, Projet Montréal is getting my vote, but he doesn’t strike me as the greatest democrat or team player (whatever the team).

    Fortunately there are very good people indeed on the team, and whatever happens, it will be an important push for public transport and the much-needed trams on clogged arteries. Trams will get people out of their cars, even posh people who won’t take a bus. They will remember the sleek modern tram in Bordeaux or Amsterdam and not see it as slumming and leave the frigging car at home.

    Kyle, Bergeron is certainly not charismatic, but in the current mess perhaps people will look beyond charisma.

  12. Was he the one responsible for Montreal’s interesting and unique subway architecture? As a Torontonian concerned about architecture and design in Canada, I have to say that that person deserves a lot of respect.

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