Valerie Plante and Sue Montgomery

Valérie Plante and Sue Montgomery

A year-long Montreal political saga comes to a close in court

We spoke to CDN/NDG mayor Sue Montgomery and her chief of staff Annalisa Harris about the truth behind allegations of a “toxic environment” in the borough office.

Côte-des-Neiges/Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough mayor Sue Montgomery recently won her legal court case against the city of Montreal, forcing the current administration to lift all restrictions against Montgomery’s chief of staff, Annalisa Harris. Montgomery called it a “great day for justice and democracy.” It was the latest, and perhaps the final court decision in a very public legal battle that has been playing out for over a year.

Back in September 2019, the city appointed two investigators to look into allegations of psychological harassment against employees in the CDN/NDG borough. When the investigation determined Harris had psychologically harassed two members of the borough staff, comptroller general, Alain Bond, ordered Harris to no longer communicate with borough employees or take part in meetings where borough officials were present.

The initial conflict was, however, much older than this. Montgomery had requested her own investigation into her borough’s work climate after she and borough manager Stéphane Plante (no relation to Mayor Plante) started butting heads over his condescending behaviour. But instead of investigating these allegations, the city’s Human Resources department started looking into allegations against Harris.

No evidence, no dismissal

Things really started to go south when Montgomery was asked to fire Harris. She refused because she was never allowed to read the confidential report and it was never made public. Not only would it be unjust to fire someone without seeing any evidence of wrongdoing, she claimed, but it would also leave the borough open to legal action.

As a result of her refusal to fire Harris and take responsibility for the toxic climate at her borough, Montgomery was kicked out of Projet Montréal this past January. In February, the city lodged a formal complaint with the Quebec Municipal Commission. Earlier this month, Superior Court Justice Bernard Synnott heard both requests for permanent injunctions and sided with Montgomery. He concluded that, as an elected official, she ultimately had the decision-making power to decide what to do with her own employees, not the comptroller general.

Justice Synnott also failed to understand why Bond had been allowed to see a copy of the report alleging harassment, while Plante and Montgomery had not.

Montgomery argued the measures requested by the comptroller general had made it practically impossible for Harris to do her job as chief of staff. In his Dec. 11 ruling, Justice Synnott agreed. He concluded the city was wrong in blocking Harris from contacting borough officials and found the measures “unreasonable.” He also conceded that some of Montgomery’s actions throughout the year-long conflict were confrontational and served to escalate the situation.

The story was initially so convoluted and so opaque that few knew what to make of it. Full disclosure, I respect(and to a certain extent, know) both Sue Montgomery and Valérie Plante. I consider them both strong-willed, hard-working, principled women and politicians who, I believe, try to do the right thing. I felt conflicted even attempting to detangle this mess. But when the recent judgment came out, I felt that an attempt at some clarity and closure was warranted.

Relief and disappointment

Annalisa Harris Sue Montgomery Valérie Plante
Annalisa Harris

“I’m so relieved,” were the first words out of Harris’s mouth when I spoke to her by phone. “This ruling means I can now do my job properly.”

Despite only being 28 years old, Harris already has 12 years of experience in politics under her belt. She started working at Parliament Hill at the age of 16.

“There’s little protection for staffers at the Hill, there’s no job security and you’re routinely exposed to sexual harassment,” Harris says. “I spent seven years there, and, finally, I have a job with an HR department and not only did they not do their job, but I felt violated. I don’t want to tell anyone not to go to HR, but I regret ever going to them.”

Harris found the lack of support from Mayor Plante’s office disappointing. “She was inspiring to me, it was — and still is — such an accomplishment to see a woman as leader, but I had basic expectations that they would be there to support me, and they weren’t.”

When Harris went to Plante’s chief of staff with concerns about what she refers to as “a very difficult borough manager” (Stéphane Plante), she was advised to lodge an official complaint. “On my fourth day on the job, he told me that I wouldn’t last and that I better listen to him. He told me ‘T’es mieux de m’écouter’ several times.

“He simply didn’t want to collaborate. We lost employees because of his conduct and the climate he contributed to,” she says. Harris did as she was asked and filed a detailed 17-page complaint.

“The process was horrible and so time-consuming,” she says. “I regret ever filing it because it was turned against me. I gave them 13 witnesses to speak to and they did not bother speaking with any of them.”

“My reputation matters”

Harris says Projet Montréal was very sympathetic to her privately, but they felt their hands were tied by the comptroller’s report. And, while she did eventually win in court, in the court of public opinion she was labeled a harasser. Harris also resents that allegations of a toxic work environment in the CDN/NDG borough are attributed to her.

“Some of these allegations in the borough go back to 2009,” she says. “I was still in high-school at the time. That climate has nothing to do with me.”

But Harris worries about what these allegations have done to her name. “I’m only 28 years old,” she says. “I’m not about to retire anytime soon. My reputation matters.”

The recent ruling has freed her to do her job, which includes still working with borough director Plante, borough Mayor Montgomery and Mayor Plante.

Harris doesn’t hide her gratitude for Montgomery. “She stood by me and believed me, and I’m grateful for that.”

Did she “smile enough”?

Montgomery doesn’t regret her decision to stand by Harris, despite the fallout. “I’ve worked with all levels of government and every caucus has tension and political dissidence, but what transpired with her was completely sexist and demeaning,” says Montgomery. “I’m disappointed that Valérie Plante didn’t support me, the way I supported Annalisa.”

“Annalisa was being asked ‘if she smiled enough’ or advised to ‘smile more.’” It was all about how a senior bureaucrat was made to feel. They reviewed every single email Annalisa sent to Stéphane Plante and found nothing.”

Looking back on the year, Montgomery says she neither expected, nor wanted any of this. She believes the allegations against Harris were a backlash at the process to remove Stéphane Plante.

“If I could turn back the clock, I would have liked for Valérie to read the report,” she says. “Ultimately, how could I be expected to fire someone when I hadn’t been presented with any proof?”

The borough’s unhealthy work climate

When I reached out for a comment, the city of Montreal acknowledged having taken note of the recent judgment and emphasized that said judgement also confirmed the existence of an unhealthy work climate in the CDN/NDG borough.

“We will analyze the judgment in order to evaluate the options allowing us to improve the situation in a sustainable way,” reads a statement from Mayor Plante’s office. “All employees of the city of Montreal must be treated with respect, civility, and dignity. Our priority remains maintaining a functional borough which gives the citizens of CDN/NDG the quality services they have come to expect.”

While Montgomery’s combative, occasionally confrontational style was criticized recently by a favourable-to-her opinion piece written by former NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, someone would have to know absolutely nothing about Montgomery and her outspoken personality to be surprised that she chose not to back down. At the same time, Plante has also had to contend with recent criticism (and a couple of defections from her own party) because of what has been increasingly described as “authoritarian” behaviour. In hindsight, perhaps there was no other way this entire saga could have played out.

The power remains with elected officials, not bureaucrats

Montgomery considers Harris invaluable for her administration. “She’s strategic, she’s smart, she’s really good at what she does, I consult her often,” she says. She’s grateful for the recent judgement because Harris was handcuffed by those measures. “The ruling was clear,” she says. “Elected officials have the power, not bureaucrats.”

Montgomery doesn’t expect the city to appeal. Shelooks forward to the final year of her mandate and focusing on issues that concern NDG residents. She says she intends to run again for the borough mayoralty.

A woman in politics

Regarding Mayor Plante, and despite the tension between them this past year, Montgomery says she feels no bitterness. “I harbour no anger towards her,” she says. “Being a woman in politics is hard, it’s hard managing a city, especially a city during COVID, and Projet has done a lot of things right. But I am disappointed in how I was treated. It would be nice to get an apology, but I wish her well. I’m happy this is over… it’s a good Christmas present.”

As for Harris, the experience has left her ruminating about how far women have really come in the chain of command.

“It’s great that the feminist movement has made gains so that a woman can be chief of staff, or mayor, or CEO, but these gains fall short when there is still an oldboy’s club keeping women down once they attain managerial roles and positions of power.” ■

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