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.