Denis Coderre and Ensemble Montreal team

Denis Coderre’s platform: Some good ideas, few details, different in French

“Coderre is definitely wrong when he says the last election was a referendum on his personality — it wasn’t, it was four years of bad policy and ineffective government, topped off with showy spectacles neither needed nor wanted.”

Off the bat I’ll say this: For a candidate who’s received a fair bit of free publicity from Montreal’s legacy anglo media, Denis “Le Menace” Coderre could at the very least have had his platform fully and properly translated from French to English. As of this writing, what’s on his English side of the website is a small fraction of the French content, and it seems to have been translated by someone who just ran the French copy through Google Translate. (UPDATE: The Ensemble Montreal platform has now been translated.)

That said, there’s not much text to translate, as Team Coderre only pulled out certain highlights from the campaign platform for anglos to chew on. 

Item one is entitled “Living together: between openness and vigilance,” which has an almost Orwellian self-contradictory quality to it. Because he put it at the top of his party’s platform synopsis, I have to guess Denis thinks Montrealers are having a hard time living together, that perhaps our city swings from being too open to hyper-vigilant and he’s proposing meeting somewhere in the middle (we’ll make a drinking game out of how many times he invokes compromise over actual policy points). What follows next is this text, quoted verbatim: “Update the annual portrait of people experiencing homelessness to establish post-pandemic planning and set up portable cameras as of the first year of the mandate.”

Okie-dokie… so living together is specifically focused on homelessness then? This is the cause of our troubles? I’ll commend Coderre for ranking homelessness as a major problem worthy of being addressed, but I’m not sure a homelessness census is the first thing we need to do (maybe it ranks somewhere in the Top 10 of homelessness related projects). It still needs to be done—frankly it should be done every year—but at present it’s the housing crisis that needs to be addressed, and the related issue of insufficient affordable housing and insufficient shelter space (not to mention the rigid rules found in most shelters that keep too many unhoused people in the streets, nor the lack of transitional housing designed to help get people out of the overnight shelters). The second part of the phrase — setting up portable cameras — has me stumped. Perhaps this is better explained in the French copy of the platform?

Hard no. If anything, the French copy is even more confusing. What portable cameras are supposed to do Team Denis never fully explains. (Monitoring the unhoused is the only thing I can think of — even more Orwellian).

The paragraph introducing the “living together” section of the platform starts off, incredibly, with Coderre invoking the “spirit of openness” illustrated by — get this — Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve and Jeanne Mance, arguing that our city’s colonial ancestors focused on making our city a point of community and coming together. Indigenous people — and historians for that matter — may take issue with Coderre’s lovey-dovey understanding of the past—the monument to de Maisonneuve in Place d’Armes is literally a commemoration of the many battles fought between the colonial French and the Iroquois.

So much for living together.

The opening historical statement moves on to talking about the need to strike a balance between a spirit of openness and one of vigilance, then it talks about making sure Montreal remains a French city that respects diversity, and then concludes by stating that the policy of vigilance has been abandoned by the current municipal administration.

But wait — there’s more!

If you find this word salad to be a smudge unfocused, clicking on the “learn more” button then leads, inexplicably, to a series of policy points about Indigenous reconciliation and what Coderre hopes to do for the elderly. There’s no elaboration on what cohabitational problems Coderre thinks are causing trouble in Montreal, no elaboration on what we need to be more vigilant about, no discussion of what the portable cameras are supposed to do nor how we’re to tackle homelessness. The so-called details of this part of his party’s platform have almost nothing to do with the summary provided in French, and even less to do with the bullet point provided in English.

Moving on…

The second subheading on Coderre’s abridged anglo platform reads as follows: “A city accessible to all and lived in by all.”

First, I’m pretty sure all the people currently living in Montreal currently live in Montreal, but I’m genuinely interested in what he means about “accessibility.”

The description seems to pivot away from accessibility to then state “create a register of residential leases” and “put in place a plan to fight unsanitary housing.” 

Concerning the first point, I’d be surprised if this doesn’t already exist in one capacity or another, though I suspect it’s held by the province. I can imagine why and how this might be useful at the municipal level, but Coderre doesn’t elaborate how and why this is supposed to make Montreal either more accessible or “lived in.” 

The second point makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up — while no one in their right mind wants unsanitary housing (and it’s an easy argument to make that we ought to have inspectors to prevent such from happening), Montreal’s housing problem isn’t so much related to issues of sanitation and hygiene as they are to availability and cost. Moreover, “unsanitary housing” justified the wholesale demolition of vast swathes of the urban fabric back in the middle decades of the last century. Buildings and houses that were in the way of proposed mega projects were deemed unsanitary by Coderre’s hero, former mayor Jean Drapeau, are promptly wiped off the map. Little Burgundy and Chinatown both lost about half their size during these times, while Griffintown and Goose Village were razed completely. Poor anglophone neighbourhoods weren’t alone in being destroyed—the Faubourg à m’lasse, sections of the Centre-Sud and the part of the Latin Quarter once called the “Red Light” were also similarly negatively impacted when their housing stock was deemed irredeemable and torn down. Not only did this displace tens of thousands of people (often without compensation), it further starved the city of residents for decades, a process of population loss that only started turning around in earnest 20 years ago.

The bullets listed under Coderre’s plan to fight unsanitary housing are as follows: 1. Require commercial owners to carry out an independent sanitary inspection for dwellings over 20 years old; 2. Increase fines and create a sanitation tax; 3. Increase the number of inspectors and inspections, while also creating a preventative inspection program in the boroughs.

I’m not sure what preventative inspection means nor how a regular inspection program isn’t already in a sense “preventative,” but I digress. There many be good intentions here but there’s also a lot of room for abuse: it’s not clear what constitutes unsanitary nor what happens if building owners aren’t able to pay the fees. Our city already has to contend with overzealous inspectors fining small businesses for being open five minutes past closing time or daring to have the word pasta written on a menu, so there’s a legitimate concern when a mayoral candidate’s solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist is to hire more inspectors and give them the authority to issue fines based on their own interpretations of what is and is not sanitary.

That aside, here too we find the French program is very different from the English one. Here Coderre actually gets into some details about how he plans on handling the housing crisis, and — credit where it’s due — there are a lot of ideas and specific policy recommendations here. Chief among them is his plan to create 50,000 new housing units within four years. Coderre wants to work with developers to meet this goal, though the fine print indicates only 10,000 social housing units. Coderre’s argument is that the city needs to increase population density, and he argues this is necessary both to stop population loss to the suburbs and to make sure Montreal remains affordable for Montrealers to live in. But Coderre is looking at the housing crisis as purely an issue of housing scarcity without addressing other complicating factors, such as properties that are only used as short-term vacation rentals, foreign owners who maintain local pied-à-terres but don’t actually live here, and the conversion of multi-unit apartment buildings or duplexes/triplexes into single family homes. The issue of annexation — a solution to suburban flight that would extend the city’s planning capabilities into suburban areas where low density housing construction is still taking place — is also not mentioned. Coderre indicates that he wants to prioritize developing underused properties owned by the city and the government of Quebec, but doesn’t specify what properties those might be. When his plan is more specific, such as his recommendation to develop portions of the Longue-Pointe military base, it’s not clear what parts of the base he thinks are prime for redevelopment (almost the entire base consists of warehouses; it’s the army’s primary depot). 

Two items from this section are, in my opinion, worthy of consideration. First, Coderre is proposing a plan to assist in converting disused office towers into residential buildings. This is an objectively good idea: for one, it’s the best solution to the housing crisis that respects the environment—the greenest building is the one that’s already built. Two, it’s also the best way to increase the city’s tax base and provide direct economic stimulus to the businesses of the city centre. This isn’t a total solution however—to really make it work, there would have to be regulations insisting on a mix of unit sizes and cost—but it is a step in the right direction. 

Second, Coderre is proposing that the owners of duplexes or triplexes add one or two more habitable floors to their buildings, either by excavating the basements or adding more floors to the tops of the buildings. Here the idea might be better in theory than in practice, especially when it comes to adding new floors to our historic building stock. I don’t know if this could be done while also maintaining the character of our urban residential streets—new construction would have to be set back a ways from the facade—or if this could be done on a large scale without some serious incentives from the city, both financial and in terms of engineering/architectural assistance. Still, with all due to credit to Team Coderre, these aren’t bad ideas.

On a final note relating to this section, it seems that Coderre has reversed course and is now pledging no new construction to exceed the height of Mount Royal. I’m surprised to see this, especially because, just a few months ago, Coderre was arguing this was the only way to increase density. Whether he’s had a change of heart, or whether he’s finally realized Montrealers aren’t on board, remains to be seen. I am concerned that there will be some caveat, like it doesn’t apply to new office towers or that existing buildings can add new floors.

You may not agree with the specifics (or even the underlying philosophy) of Coderre’s plan to address the housing crisis, but there is a plan there, filled with ideas. Why his party didn’t take the time to fully translate this into English is beyond me.

On matters of arts and culture, in English Coderre states that Montreal is “an artistic city and a cultural metropolis” (no argument there), but only lists the following policy point: “Obtain intermittent status for Montreal’s artists and artisans to ensure job security during in-between periods.” I’m not sure what he means by intermittent status (perhaps he means casual employment?) or what “in-between periods” means, but I’ll chalk this up to a staff member assuming Google’s worked out all the kinks with its translation software. Much like the section on addressing the housing crisis, this opening is also better elaborated in French. 

A few more good ideas can be found here, such as increasing taxation on billboards to help fund the city’s cultural programs, and increasing the city’s cultural spending. Again, this is hard to argue with, and it would seem that Coderre appreciates the importance of culture and the arts in the local economy (or at least as a driver of property values in the city’s most urban neighbourhoods). Coderre also mentions optimizing certain quasi-public spaces, such as churches and schools, for cultural purposes though this point is thin on the necessary details. One interesting idea is optimizing the use of cultural infrastructure to the point where their doors are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The idea of being able to go to the Museum of Fine Arts at 4:30 in the morning is interesting though I’m not sure how useful this is. Libraries that never close are also interesting, but these could also easily become de facto homeless shelters. 

The cultural portfolio is where Coderre probably had the most fun coming up with ideas, though a lot of the ideas essentially boil down to ‘do more of the thing that already works,’ such as having a Nuit Blanche in the summer, setting up satellite locations for the major festivals (Jazz Fest on Wellington Street in Verdun seemed to do well), projecting more art on the walls of buildings, increasing the public piano program and handing out more Accès Montréal cards. All of this is fine, but we’re not exactly breaking new ground. 

On the architectural heritage front, Coderre makes several sensible suggestions, including updating a catalogue of architecturally significant properties, preserving the city’s religious buildings and finding new and appropriate use for excess or unused hospital buildings (here’s looking at you McGill). Coderre also indicates he wants to better preserve the remnants of Expo 67 as well as the city’s industrial architectural heritage, like Silo No. 5 and the Five Roses building. He also wants to restore the Saint-Sulpice Library. This, again, is all fine and good, but there’s a notable paucity of details (e.g. what to do with Silo No. 5 or the few remaining abandoned or semi-used Expo buildings, what the Saint-Sulpice Library would become and who would fund it, what beyond cataloging architecturally significant old buildings Coderre hopes to accomplish, etc.)

On the transit front, Coderre again, inexplicably, chooses just two ideas from an otherwise well-developed plan. Under the subheading of (and again, this is exactly how it’s written on his website) “Mobility. More. Better. For everyone. Everywhere.” Coderre lists just two things: 1. Create quality control measures to ensure punctuality, comfort, security and cleanliness standards for public transit, and 2. “Set up a monitoring committee with a timetable, which will be adopted by all stakeholders to accelerate public transport projects on the table, such as the extension of the blue line.”

It’s hard to argue with minimum standards for cleanliness, punctuality, comfort and security, and if I had to guess, something approximating this already exists. It should be noted that it was under Coderre’s watch that the STM’s budget was cut back in 2014, which then created problems in some of these areas. The second point is also interesting, as Coderre proposes that the various stakeholders of the city’s transit projects would all fall in line with the city’s transit project monitoring committee. 

This latter item deserves some scrutiny, because projects like the Blue Line and the REM fall far outside the city’s area of jurisdiction: the Blue Line extension, if it is ever built, depends on the provincial government. The REM is for all intents and purposes a private transit project funded through a combination of federal and provincial taxes and the funds held by the CDPQ. If the former is delayed it is entirely because extending the Blue Line to Anjou is more of a perennial campaign promise than any kind of concrete transit project. If the latter is delayed, well, it’s largely because the REM is an over-engineered ‘solution’ to a problem that never existed in the first place — bear in mind that the train that was supposed to run smoothly on already existing tracks now requires a complete reconstruction of the railway. Either way, a municipal monitoring committee isn’t likely to get very far telling the CDPQ or the government of Quebec when it expects transit projects to be completed. This is the part of the story that Coderre’s not telling you: the city of Montreal is essentially held hostage when it comes to transit planning. Irrespective of our needs or increasing rates of use, transit is planned here either to line someone’s pockets or deliver votes to one of the provincial political parties, and this has been the case since the province wrestled transit planning away from the city over 40 years ago.

That said, in the French version of Coderre’s plan, he states his desire for Montreal to be given the ability and autonomy to plan and finance its own transit. Coderre couches this in an attack on Projet Montréal, which as you may recall essentially won the 2017 election by drawing a pink line on a map and stating it would build a new metro line, a promise that the experienced members of the party as well as Mairesse Plante must have known they could never deliver. 

In case it isn’t completely clear who’s calling all the shots on the transit portfolio in Montreal, Plante recently stated her Pink Line is on the back burner until the REM de l’Est is completed, even though the REM de l’Est was only announced in December of 2020. It would be nice to know what, if any, work was done on the Pink Line for the last three years. Further still, consider that Coderre — the man who campaigned for the REM while in office — was subsequently rewarded by CDPQ when he was named to the board of CDPQ-subsidiary Eurostar. Whoever becomes mayor this year will have to do whatever the CDPQ tells them to complete the REM, regardless of Montrealers’ actual transit needs. 

The idea that Coderre, a man who facilitated the privatization of transit development in Montreal, would want Montreal to be more autonomous in transit planning is laughable. Unfortunately for Projet Montréal, they don’t have much of a leg to stand on, given both their own acquiescence to the supremacy of the CDPQ in transit planning matters as much as their own dishonesty vis-a-vis the likelihood of independently constructing the Pink Line.

Much of the rest of Coderre’s transit plan is the continuation of other already successful projects. You can take his plans for the bike network and encouraging bike use with a pound of salt, as he is still proposing the elimination of at least part of the Bellechase REV. He also brings up the issue of safety time and again, as though the problem is with cyclists either not respecting the rules of the road or not using secure bike paths; car drivers, as expected, are blameless. Of note, Coderre says he wants to convert the bike path network into a safe network that’s accessible to all. I honestly have no idea what this even means but fear he’s arguing in favour of making bike lanes and sidewalks the same thing.

Coderre’s sloppy translation work is featured once more in the subheading “a durable and green city” (the word they should have used is sustainable). This is an interesting section because the English version actually has more details than the French one. In English, Team Coderre lists “No more streets without trees in Montreal” and “Continue working on the recognition of Mount Royal as a Unesco World Heritage Site.” In the French program, only the item relating to tree-lined streets is mentioned.

Again, no argument against planting trees and making sure every city street benefits from its own arboreal canopy, but it’s hard to imagine how Coderre’s going to plant trees up and down the block while also keeping all available street parking—remember, back in the 1960s and 1970s, many of Montreal’s streets lost their trees to make more parking spots. The French section of the program provides no additional details.

As to having Mount Royal recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site, this is all fine and good but it won’t make any difference as to the city’s long-term environmental health or sustainability. Mount Royal is already a well-regulated and largely protected space (one in which the protection extends far beyond the limits of the park). This is a huge missed opportunity for Coderre, given Projet Montréal has positioned themselves as the environmental party. It’s peculiar, too, since Team Coderre went into some detail in other sections but provides next to nothing in this one. And while he freely recycles ideas from one sections to put into others elsewhere in his platform (in both languages), he doesn’t do so here.

The “modern and exemplary city” section is largely about improving the citizens’ interface with the city bureaucracy. Coderre says he wants to improve the public consultation service and its procedures, though he had little interest in public consultation during his time in office. On the English side of the program, the public consultation aspect is the only issue to be elaborated (somewhat) and if I had to guess, this is a consequence of some rather vocal Angryphones living in NDG who threw a shit-fit over a bike lane a few years ago. The idea that the city should either be in charge or have a greater degree of control over public school properties — either for their adaptive reuse, for planning where new schools are built, or for encouraging greater public access to their facilities — are good ideas that may be difficult to implement, especially given that the real estate portfolio is pretty much all the power the English school boards have left and, even if we exclude that reality, this too is an area in which Coderre is basically saying he wants more power from the province, and the province has absolutely no incentive whatsoever to grant that power to Coderre or any municipal government.

In the French program, Coderre has a whole section about creating “exciting and safe living environments” which in English only summarizes a few points and lists the subheading as “An animal friendly city.” Curiously, Coderre wants a moratorium on raising chickens in the urban environment, even though urban farming is well-established to be good for the environment as much as it is good for food security (and quite frankly if I want to raise chickens in my backyard that’s my own goddamned business). Coderre is backtracking on his previous anti-pitbull legislation and seems to have a few dog-friendly ideas, such as more dog drinking fountains and more dog parks in the suburbs (I’d argue this is more of an urban need than suburban one but that’s another issue). On the English side of things, Coderre lists three bullet points, all of which focus on dogs. On the French side, he spends a lot of time talking about pedestrian safety, clearing sidewalks, better snow removal and instituting new cleanliness policies, such as more public ashtrays and more garbage bins with closed lids, as well as increased funding to pay for people to go out and keep the streets and parks clean, too. It’s all fine crowd-pleasing stuff but nothing revolutionary. Problematically, Coderre is essentially proposing that Montreal seek the bare minimum in matters of public cleanliness, pedestrian safety and effective snow removal, which either means he feels the current administration dropped the ball or there was never any kind of minimum standard to begin with. 

One interesting note from the French program is that Coderre wants to replace or eliminate the often exceedingly noisy sirens used by tow-trucks in advance of street cleaning operations. Here again is an example of something that superficially sounds like a good idea but in practice may be impossible to follow through on — those sirens are very noisy for a reason: they need to alert people who may sleeping, watching TV, listening to a podcast with their headphones on (etc) to get their cars out of the way toute-suite.

The final section of Coderre’s abridged anglos-only platform is entitled “A breath of fresh air for downtown and Montreal’s East End” but only discusses two ideas: increasing the river shuttle service and turning the East End into some kind pf green tech Silicon Valley. The first idea is fine: why not have more ferries if it means fewer cars entering the city? Assuming that the service can be run where it either breaks even or turns a modest profit, I’m all for it (the other advantage being that it introduces some new non-tourist traffic to the Old Port and Old Montreal, which, over the long term, could have the effect of stimulating new kinds of businesses, allowing for a greater variety of commerce in the area). The second part is a lot of good-sounding sustainable talking points without any kind of detail to back them up. What “ecological businesses” Coderre is referring to is never made clear to les anglais. The East End has one massive problem that may also be a future benefit—namely a massive plot of land that once supported a number of oil refineries and petrochemical operations, many of which have shut down, leaving land that needs to be cleaned before it can be used again. It’s unclear whether Coderre wants to use this land or whether he wants new ‘green start-ups” to be located in the old Molson brewery or other industrial sites of the area. 

In French, Coderre goes into much more detail about what he intends to do to “relaunch” downtown post-pandemic. He mentions converting disused office towers into residential buildings again, but also says he wants to make downtown more friendly to families by building more parks and schools. Where exactly Coderre thinks he’ll find room to build more parkland isn’t clarified, nor is where (or how) he intends to build new schools given that public education lies outside the mayor’s area of jurisdiction. It’s worth noting that Coderre has proposed covering part of the Decarie Expressway and covering another section of the Ville-Marie Expressway, and making new parks out of these areas, though with the cost of the former clocking in at an estimated $700-million (and only including the section from Queen Mary to Cote-Ste-Catherine), it’s hard to imagine how such a project could be accomplished without allocating some of the space for the construction of new buildings, like condo towers.

Another Coderre proposal is to redevelop the Cité-du-Havre as a new residential neighbourhood, with between 10 and 20,000 new housing units. This is currently an active component of the Port of Montreal, and while the port has been gradually moving most of its operations east for the better part of the last half century, to the bets of my knowledge there’s no plan at present to suspend port activities in the Cité-du-Havre (which is still an active industrial area). It’s not a bad proposal — this is one of the last areas in the city where large-scale new development is possible — but it’s not altogether clear whether the port activities that take place here can be easily relocated elsewhere. 

As to the redevelopment of the East End, while it’s commendable that Coderre wants to put serious money and effort into redeveloping this area, notably by focusing on replacing the old polluting industries of the area with the clean and the green, and that he further wishes to increase the area’s population by 100,000 citizens, there’s no clear idea of how this is to happen, what businesses he hopes will be located there, nor how the area is to be cleaned up. 

If I’m generous, I give Ensemble Coderre a C+ for effort. There are a number of crown-pleasing items that are hard to argue with, but a lot of it basically boils down to ensuring the city functions normally and meets a minimum basic standard. There are a few interesting ideas, but nothing really groundbreaking, and a lot of it is essentially, ‘Let’s continue doing things that we know will work.’ Surprisingly, there aren’t many big celebratory projects for a man who seems to be jockeying for the position of Jean Drapeau 2.0, but perhaps this is a calculated decision designed to emphasize good governance and pragmatic improvements over legacy projects. I didn’t notice baseball mentioned at all in the whole program, not even for the anglos. I don’t think he’s completely lost interest, but I do think he knows better than to campaign on it. Or perhaps the CDPQ will be running that project, too. The cherry-picked and dumbed-down summary made available in English contrasts sharply with the somewhat better detailed program that’s available in French (though there are sections of the French program that are full of flowery prose without any concrete ideas, just as there are sections in French that are as lacking in details as the entirety of the English program, which at present consists of an explanation of Montreal’s role as Quebec’s metropolis and the summary and nothing else). In the areas where Coderre does seem to have some big ideas — such as transforming the East End into a “green Silicon Valley” or covering over the expressways or redeveloping the entirety of the Cité-du-Havre into a big new neighbourhood — the details are essentially non-existent. While I can imagine Coderre was cautioned against over-pitching his big ideas, this seems to have been interpreted as ‘the less said the better,’ which likely won’t help his case.

It’s not a bad platform, it’s just not great, over-detailed in all the areas that don’t really require it while providing nearly nothing substantive in the areas where details are needed most. There are also components that seem contradictory to other sections of the platform, and policy points as well as ideas that seem to be very much in opposition to the actual example Coderre set during his first go-around. The one area where I agree most with Coderre — greater autonomy for Montreal — is probably the one issue he would be best suited to accomplish (he has the personality for that type of confrontation, and most Montrealers, even if they don’t like Coderre, would still prefer the mayor of Montreal be chief executive for the city, the island and much of the metropolitan region, too). Moreover, there’s a highly exploitable political, societal and cultural gap between the priorities of François Legault and Montreal’s realities, one that seems to grow every year. But short of promising to deliver votes in exchange for greater autonomy as part of a massive quid pro quo from the CAQuistador, it’s not clear how Coderre will secure greater operational autonomy for the city. It’s not that I wouldn’t be interested to hear what he has to say, it’s that the way he’s conducted himself so far seems to indicate a misplaced confidence that mayoralty is what he deserves. Coderre is definitely wrong when he says the last election was a referendum on his personality — it wasn’t, it was four years of bad policy and ineffective government, topped off with showy spectacles neither needed nor wanted, and the appearance of a coherent and focused alternative. He’d be wise not to underestimate his opponent—nor overestimate the significance of his personality in municipal affairs  — again. ■

For more on the Montreal municipal election on Nov. 6–7, please visit the Elections Montreal website.

Read more articles by Taylor C. Noakes here.