MONTREAL — Before his death in 1999, former Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau repeatedly said he would respond to a report critical of cost overruns at the 1976 Olympics.
But Drapeau, who was 83 when he died, never did end up writing his reaction to the Malouf commission report, which said he ”must assume the greater part of the blame” for the runaway costs.
But clues into how the late mayor might have responded may have been found in a copy of the four-volume document that belonged to Drapeau.
It was among the photo albums, letters and Drapeau speeches acquired by Christopher Lyons, the chief librarian of rare books at McGill University.
He says he was led to the collection by accident last September at a Montreal antiquarian book fair, where he first spotted a red photo album with pictures of the Olympic Stadium being built.
The dealer told him he had other items at his store from Drapeau’s library, which had been sold by the family.
“That’s where I saw a bunch of the other stuff I ended up acquiring, including things like the Malouf report with Drapeau’s annotations in it,” Lyons said in a recent interview.
He said it was the report’s first volume, with a summary of the commission’s findings that was the most heavily annotated.
“Multiple lines in the margins look almost like they were done angrily,” Lyons said. “This looks like someone who is really reacting — maybe even arguing wih the text.”
Lyons said Drapeau, who was mayor between 1954 and 1957, and 1960 and 1986, underlined in either pen or or pencil the first part of the Malouf report which put the majority of the blame on him.
But the part where the city administration was blamed, Drapeau underlined that in red.
“I find that fascinating because I think it’s the only part that’s ever in red in the whole thing,” Lyons added.
The librarian said the red highlighting suggests it was Drapeau’s way of indicating the massive Olympic cost overruns were not all his fault.
The 908-page report pointed a finger at the City of Montreal’s administration at the time. It focused on Gerard Niding, the then-Montreal executive committee chairman.
The report said Niding’s manner of awarding Olympic contracts definitely placed him in a conflict-of-interest situation.
Lyons said Drapeau also highlighted the various Olympic cost estimates which showed them gradually climbing to $1.6 billion. In 1970, the estimate was $120 million and Drapeau once even promised the Olympics could no more have a deficit than a man could have a baby.
“He circles all the figures, except for that last number … it’s almost like he’s saying, ‘We’ll downplay that’.”
But Lyons also pointed out there were no written comments in the margins or anywhere in Drapeau’s annotated copy of the report.
Sam Boskey, a member of the opposition party during Drapeau’s last term as mayor, says questions about the Olympic debt continued to be raised quite regularly.
At one point, members of the Montreal Citizens Movement gave Drapeau a cake during one of the anniversaries of the Malouf report.
“We presented him during question period in council with a birthday cake in the shape of a typewriter, suggesting that maybe he was missing the typewriter on which to write his response,” Boskey said.
The former city councillor said Drapeau ordered the guards to take the cake out and it was placed in the councillors’ lounge.
“Within a half an hour someone had destroyed it,” said Boskey, who sat in opposition from 1982 to 1986.
He said Drapeau never really felt he was accountable to city council.
“He was of the style that felt the administration was elected to rule and there would be elections now and then,” Boskey said. “But between elections he didn’t want to be disturbed.”
Arnold Bennett, a member of the Montreal Citizens Movement during the 1970s, in the period leading up to the Olympics, says it was hard to nail Drapeau down.
“Basically, it was either dodge it or refuse to answer …you know, kind of like (Donald) Trump — except that much sneakier.”
Bennett said Drapeau was “absolutely a dictator… who was very authoritarian (and) who wanted to impose his way of thinking — without opposition.”