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Peter Black

Local Journalism Initiative reporter

The notion of “never say never” certainly was never on the mind of Régis Labeaume when he announced his exit last week as mayor of Quebec City come November, after a 14-year run. Rarely has a politician been so emphatic about putting an indelible X on their political career.

Still, there is a history of big political comebacks by Quebec politicians that would tend to suggest there’s a crack in the door for most elected officials who leave the halls of power.

Robert Bourassa famously returned to office in 1985 after he and the Liberals were ousted by the Parti Québécois in 1976. Pierre Trudeau returned from retirement to lead the Liberals back to power in February 1980 after his election loss to Tory Joe Clark the previous year.

Both, though, were still relatively young men, at least by Joe Biden standards, when they resurrected themselves politically; Bourassa was in his 50s and Trudeau had just turned 60.

Labeaume recently celebrated his 65th birthday and had a scary brush with prostate cancer a few years ago. The furthest he would commit to future plans is to say he wants to finally get some sleep. He said he is done forever with politics in every shape and form.

If Labeaume was in fact interested in making the leap to another level, federal or provincial, he would want to take counsel from a richly mixed record for former mayors. In Quebec City, for example, the three previous longest-serving mayors all had careers at other levels of government either before or after their city hall stint.

Jean-Paul l’Allier (1989-2005) had been a minister in Bourassa’s first Liberal government. Jean Pelletier (1977-89) ran unsuccessfully for a federal Liberal seat after he left city hall but ended up as a top advisor to his friend, then-prime minister Jean Chrétien.

Gilles Lamontagne (1965-77) was elected as a federal Liberal and served in several posts in the Trudeau government, notably, for the Second World War bomber pilot and prisoner of war, minister of defence.

The ultimate mayoral shape-shifter, though, is Montreal’s political chameleon Camillien Houde, among whose remarkable deeds was having served at all three levels of government, indeed, serving at two levels at once.

Houde was simultaneously mayor of Montreal and the Conservative Party MNA for a constituency in the impoverished area where he grew up. He became leader of the Conservatives in 1931, while still mayor, but lost the election and his seat.

He won the federal seat of Papineau – yes, Justin Trudeau’s current riding – in 1949, running as an independent. He did this about halfway through his longest continuous stretch as mayor, from 1944-54, after which he retired from city hall and was succeeded by Jean Drapeau, his only Montreal mayoral rival in terms of flamboyance, ambition and longevity.

(“Dual mandates” were far from uncommon at the time. Some 300 Quebec mayors also served in the provincial legislature until the practice was banned in 1980. Simon-Napoléon Parent was mayor of Quebec City and premier of Quebec at the same time in the early 1900s.)

Among the countless tales of Houde’s long years at centre stage in politics was how he had shared a laugh with the visiting King George VI in 1939, when, noting the cheering throng at city hall, quipped: “You know, your majesty, some of this is for you.”

Scarcely a year later, Houde, who sympathized with the fascists of Italy as kindred Catholic spirits, found himself arrested for his opposition to conscription and interned in a prison camp for four years. Four months after his release in 1944, he was elected mayor again in a landslide.

Although few are in the same league as Houde and Drapeau, Quebec has had many larger-than-life, colourful and controversial mayors over the years – Saguenay’s Jean Tremblay comes to mind.

Quebec is also home to one of the country’s longest-serving mayors, Jean Mongrain, who has been hizzoner in the Mauricie village of Trois-Rives since 1981. No word yet on whether the 89-year-old plans to re-up for an 11th term.

Though Labeaume’s stint at Quebec City seems like a blink of the eye in comparison to Mongrain’s, beyond his mighty works as mayor, he can at least claim some satisfaction – or bemusement – from outlasting no less than five mayors of Montreal.

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