Montreal mayoral debate Valérie Plante Balarama Holness Denis Coderre

Nobody won last night’s Montreal mayoral debate

Holness fared best, Coderre was a bully, Plante was on the ropes, and the #1 best idea to emerge from the campaign wasn’t even mentioned.

I rarely have a good thing to say about televised political debates because, quite frankly, nothing says ‘I have no discernible leadership qualities’ like a bunch of egomaniacs talking over each other. Thursday night’s sole English-language debate between the Montreal mayoral candidates didn’t quite fall off the cliff into American Presidential debate territory, but it got close enough to be irritating. I get that the bar to public office is so low it could be underground, but Montrealers should demand more of their potential leaders. 

The point of these debates isn’t to win — no one is keeping score — but rather to lay out a coherent and concise vision for the future of the city, and to do so with a modicum of politesse and dignity. If the average Janes and Joes of our city can communicate effectively and exercise the bare minimum of manners in their day to day lives, why are politicians given a pass to act like boorish buffoons?

I reserve some of the blame for the format and the hosts of the debate, Debra Arbec and Mutsumi Takahashi. They seemed ill at ease working together and it struck me that they perhaps didn’t have much time to prepare. I was surprised by the number of lame softball questions, the forced laughter and the peculiar introductions to some of the topics. One especially incoherent example was Takahashi’s take on competing promises regarding the number of social and/or affordable housing units (all the parties are talking big numbers, tens of thousands of new units within relatively short timespans). She listed off the five-figure new housing proposals and then asked what the candidates would do for just one family in need (I believe the question was directed at Mayor Plante). This is like a Congressional representative asking Zuckerberg, “Yeah yeah, never mind about the algorithms, how do I delete my profile?” We hire mayors to address the big issues in our city, not to pick up the trash. 

Balarama Holness on Bill 21 in the Montreal mayoral debate

The ‘person on the street’ questions from ‘average Montrealers’ peppered throughout the debate gave a strong small town, cable access TV vibe, and wound up occupying a fair bit of time without moving the ball forward. Contrast this with Patrice Roy’s approach on Radio Canada, where he interviewed people on the street on a range of subjects and then compiled these into short videos that set the tone for each debate theme. Roy, unlike his anglophone counterparts, maintained strict control of the debate and fact-checked the candidates in real time. Comparing establishment francophone media’s approach to the mayoral debate with how legacy anglo media approaches it, you’d almost think these were two different cities — the former a metropolis of two million people, the latter some sleepy small town with a disproportionate population of retirees. If the medium is the message, I think I’d much rather live in the sleek, modern, serious francophone version of Montreal.

That said, credit where it’s due: ‘Zee Henglish’ invited Balarama Holness and I’m glad they did. Because he didn’t meet some arbitrary threshold of legitimacy to participate in the French debate (or some of the other debates that weren’t televised), this was our only chance to see Holness debate his opponents, and even though I don’t think he did particularly well, he did somewhat better than both Coderre and Plante (neither of whom seemed to be in particularly good form — here too they contrast sharply with their previous French language performances). It’s worth considering that Holness/Mouvement is holding a steady chunk of the vote, that he’s well established in local politics and (most importantly), his party is representative of pretty much everyone in our city who doesn’t fit neatly into either French or English camps (and this is a growing yet often ignored segment of the population). I should also remind you that when Mélanie Joly ran in 2013, she was absolutely invited to participate in the debates, even though she had comparatively little political experience and her entire campaign was about selling her own brand. It’s weird to me that Holness is considered the ‘anglo’ candidate, since he’s fluently bilingual and his mother is francophone Québécois. 

Denis Coderre v Valérie Plante in the Montreal mayoral debate

More credit where it’s due: Holness opposes Bill 96 and Bill 21 — proposed laws that are violations of fundamental charter rights and which are nothing less than a transparent attempt by Premier Frank ‘Papa Doc’ Lego to assert a narrow-minded and retrograde cultural supremacy, itself predicated on the demonstrably false premise the French language or French society is threatened or in decline in Quebec. This simply isn’t the case: there have never been more francophones living in Montreal, Quebec or Canada than there are today. When politicians say that the French language is in decline, they’re only referring to the demographic weight of the French language (which has declined by a few statistically insignificant percentage points over the past 50 years), and not the total number of speakers (which has been steadily increasing in step with the rest of the population since before Canada was a country). Both Plante and Coderre were weasels when the issue was brought up, both saying they support the law as proposed but that they also support all Montrealers, which I feel is an impossibly contradictory position. 

Holness has also proposed a referendum on making Montreal a bilingual city, something that produced an excessive backlash from language hawks. Evidently, what the ethnonationalists fear is finding out just how many Montrealers actually wouldn’t have a problem with such a designation, and there’s doubtless a lot of support for the idea amongst the city’s ‘allophones’, who have mastered both official languages for generations and yet are routinely treated as foreigners in their own home. 

None of the candidates, in my opinion, presented their specific visions for the future of the city particularly well. When Coderre wasn’t carefully reciting vague buzzword-heavy talking points, he was melodramatic to the point of absurdity, speaking of Montreal being in some kind of state of disaster like he was touring Beirut. It’s an insult to the intelligence of the electorate, and if he keeps it up he’ll be reading another concession speech on Nov. 7, wondering aloud (again) how he could possibly have lost. Throughout the debate, Coderre routinely blamed Projet Montréal and Mayor Plante for a wide variety of troubles, almost all of which can be traced back to the pandemic and the often underreported economic disaster it caused. This is the kind of shtick that might work with suburban anglos who see the city through the lens of local media and rarely actually venture into the city, but I think Coderre has put too much stock in this voting block. People who actually live in the city seem to think Montreal’s actually not doing all that bad given the severity of the crisis.

Montreal mayoral debate

A few closing thoughts:

  1. Montreal is a soft-soiled island that has to deal with about five solid months of winter each year. These factors combine to rapidly deteriorate the quality of our roads. Moreover, all the utilities are buried under the roads, as are the sewers. So unless you want to live in a city where none of those vital utilities are ever maintained, or prefer potholes to paved streets, get over the roadwork issue. It speaks to how little some Montrealers get out of town — most major cities in our part of North America have the same problem. No mayor is ever going to fix this, and seeing orange cones is a sign work is being done. Seriously, stop complaining.
  2. Note to Denis Coderre: Projet Montréal is not responsible for the winter or the weather.
  3. This should be obvious: Valérie Plante did not build the Pink Line. It’s not even likely to be built. But she’s also not responsible for the delays in building the Blue Line, and Denis Coderre isn’t going to magically build an extension to the Orange Line either. This is all because of the exact same reason: Montreal is not allowed to build new metro lines or stations without Quebec’s express permission, and right now Quebec wants Montreal to have the for-profit REM and nothing else. Any mayoral candidate who says they’ll build a new metro line is full of it. Peculiarly, despite Holness’s advocacy of greater autonomy for Montreal, I didn’t hear him talk about Quebec’s interference in our transit issues.
  4. Note to Valérie Plante: Denis Coderre is just going to say random, provocative, inflammatory things that will always paint you in a negative light. Why engage? This was your one shot to tell the anglos what your plan is, and you spent most of the debate on the ropes trying to disprove Coderre’s idiotic and asinine comments. Why?
  5. Note to Balarama Holness: There are about a quarter million people living within relatively close proximity to the Grand Parc de l’Ouest, and further still, it’s already accessible by buses and commuter trains, and will also be accessible via the REM. So you can’t reasonably say the park is inaccessible. Moreover, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth — this is probably Montreal’s single best municipal environmental accomplishment of all time, and will probably slam the door shut on suburban sprawl in the West Island. This is nothing to be dismissive of — recognize an accomplishment when you see one.
  6. Fact check to Coderre: Property developers are not the economic engine of Montreal. Not even close. A city’s economic vitality is in no way shape or form measured by how many skyscrapers or subdivisions it’s building.
  7. Note to Balarama Holness: you’re not going to win, but you might pitch your support behind a candidate and possibly secure a choice position in the new administration, should you play your cards right. So why were you directing your most pointed attacks against Plante and Projet? I understand there was a falling out, and perhaps there’s even some bad blood, but you have a better chance getting things done with a voter base of similar political orientation than those with whom you have little common ground. Coderre’s not looking for a deputy or a buddy, he’s looking for someone to take the heat when shit goes south. Remember what happened to Richard Bergeron? Coderre sent him out to give away tickets to the electric car race. You don’t want to end up there.

Finally, I don’t think it was mentioned even once in the debate, despite an all-woman hosting and moderation team, but the best idea to come out of the campaign so far is probably Plante & Projet’s baby box. It’s simple, it’s effective, it’s relatively inexpensive, it’s guaranteed to have a positive effect on improving maternal and neonatal health outcomes, and is without question the single most ‘feminist’ idea to probably ever be mentioned in the context of a Montreal election. 

Years of aggressively phallocentric governance in the Americas has resulted in societies that basically operate at a neanderthal level when it comes to maternal and neonatal health. Even in a fairly progressive place like Quebec, we still tend to look at childbirth as a glorious miracle where nothing bad ever happens, ignoring everything that challenges our Hallmark and Hollywood perspective on the subject. The fact is that there are plenty of new moms who face all kinds of complications and who lack even basic resources. Too often, our society blames the victim rather than offer the bare minimum in assistance. The baby box is a bold step in a new and better direction, and it’s almost reason enough to hand Valérie Plante the keys to city hall for another four years. It’s an excellent idea with a proven track record, but best of all it’s simple and it’s something the city can very easily put into action. I want Projet to come up with more deceptively simple, reasonably inexpensive, progressive ideas that will have an outsized positive effect on our society. I’m also wondering when Coderre and Holness will throw their support behind the idea as well: the wellbeing of new moms shouldn’t be a partisan issue. ■

For more on the Montreal municipal election on Nov. 6–7 (with advance voting on Oct. 30–31), please visit the Elections Montreal website.

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes here.