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Tuesday January 25, 2011

Montreal politician helped to unseat Jean Drapeau

Special to The Globe and Mail

Michael Fainstat was a late-blooming Montreal politician who was among the first to put a dent in mayor Jean Drapeau's suit of shining armour. A retired engineer, Fainstat almost single-handedly undermined Drapeau's autocratic rule following the 1976 Olympics and went on to become second-in- command in the Jean Doré administration that eventually replaced Drapeau's.

As chairman of Montreal's executive committee, Fainstat ran the city's day-to-day operations for six years with a calm, even-handed, but always insistent manner. He was 87 when he died of Parkinson's disease on Dec. 29.

Drapeau was at the height of his power as Montreal's boss in 1974 when a clutch of socially motivated activists began the Montreal Citizens' Movement to chip away at the mayor's way of doing things. They included the late journalist, Nick Auf der Maur and a then-fledgling separatist power broker, Louise Harel, now Montreal's opposition leader.

Fainstat was a last-minute recruit. In becoming so, he gave the grassroots movement its credibility. When he first ran for a seat on city council in 1974 no one believed any of them could get elected.

Not only did he win, but he kept his seat on council for 17 years. Drapeau resigned and Doré replaced him as mayor in 1984.

"[Fainstat] laid the groundwork. If it wasn't for his support, and for his extraordinary knowledge of urban affairs, and the files that he had collected in his basement during his years as opposition leader, I would have never run for mayor," Doré said.

Michael (Mickey) Fainstat was born in Montreal on Aug. 29, 1923, the second of three in a Polish- Lithuanian immigrant family. His life-long socialism was shaped during the Depression when the family was constantly on the move because they didn't have money to pay the rent.

Fainstat put himself through McGill University, obtaining his degree in 1944. He served in the armed forces during the Second World War, but never saw action.

He ran his own engineering company, Combustion and Power Equipment Ltd., for 25 years, retiring at 50.

"He always had a passion for politics," said his daughter Valerie. "He had an extraordinary ability to understand how events were unfolding, then analyze what would transpire, not just at the local level, but at the provincial and federal levels as well."

After winning 15 seats on council in 1974, the MCM lost all but two in the following election, and the party regrouped. Between 1978 and 1982 Fainstat became virtually a one-man opposition. In an era before computers, he gathered information on the lack of public housing and social services, cross referenced and catalogued data he gathered on cost overruns and kept meticulous files on dubious Olympic expenditures.

"When Drapeau was mayor, city hall was a closed shop, it was a one man show," said former MCM city councilor Sam Boskey. "People knew very little about what was going on, and were living with the results of a poor social administration. For the four years Michael spent in opposition by himself, he became a symbol. He gave voice to the grievances of a community that had no voice. He single-handedly changed the focus and raised the question of ethics in government."

Once the MCM was elected and Fainstat became Montreal's CEO, the coalition that had been forged between "Péquistes, communists, socialists, hippies, Tories, liberals and heritage activists" began to unravel. "They had worked together to get rid of Drapeau, and once he was gone, they started working against each other," Boskey said. Weary of the infighting, Fainstat resigned as executive committee chairman in 1990. He didn't seek re-election in 1991.

"There are those who say he didn't do very much as executive committee chairman. But his legacy is there," said former municipal councillor Arnold Bennett. "If you look back at the last 20 years, the Doré-Fainstat administration, basically stands up as a relatively clean period in Montreal's civic history."

Fainstat leaves Ruth Marcuse, his wife of 66 years, four daughters, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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