Valérie Plante Denis Coderre Balarama Holness Montreal leger poll leger

The Montreal election: Will we go forwards or backwards?

A mayor from the 1960s, an incumbent moving to the centre and a challenge from the left — observations on the mayoral race.

An editorial analysis of the upcoming Montreal municipal election and mayoral race, taking place on Nov. 7

The new and improved Denis “Le Menace” Coderre shows his old face now and again on the campaign trail. For the most part he’s managed to not be too jarring a presence, but from time to time the Boss Tweed living inside him crawls out and steals the show. Like when he promised to rip up a bike lane, as he once did to a community postal box, or when he pleads for a reasonable, rational compromise to his unwavering, developer-friendly commitment to unilaterally eliminate the city’s building height limitations.

We’re getting a taste of what ‘woke’ Denis looks like this time around and it’s… confusing. On the day Canadians were supposed to take a minute to reflect on our nation’s attempted genocide of the Indigenous, Coderre felt this was a great time and opportunity to tell one and all he’d reinstall the statue of that genocide’s chief architect back in its position of prominence in Place du Canada. He’s backtracked somewhat of late, saying that he wouldn’t put the statue back up on its baldachin (aka a pedestal), but presumably somewhere else in the plaza. He also said there’d be descriptive panels, brought up Louis Riel and then said he’d rename the plaza “Place de la Réconciliation.” 

A reconciliation plaza isn’t a half bad idea, but I don’t think a statue of John A. Macdonald belongs there. There’s a great French saying for this kind of haphazard city planning: n’importe quoi. 

Phyllis Lambert put it best: Denis Coderre is indeed a mayor from the 1960s. It’s not just the ‘bigger is better’ and car-focused policies he doggedly pursues, it’s also the fact that a self-described man of ideas doesn’t seem to realize his foundation in urban planning is over 50 years out of date. His inflexible belief that the city’s building height limitations are impeding growth and sapping the city centre of its vitality hits at the heart of the problem with mayoral aspirants like Coderre: the premise is false and the solution is equally wrong. Coderre 2.0 says he’s now interested in listening to people yet refuses to concede Montrealers may have actually preferred the vision put forward by Mairesse Plante and Projet Montréal in 2017. He uses the word compromise a lot, but similarly doesn’t realize his insistence on eliminating building height restrictions and bike lanes means he’s demanding the public compromise on its desire for the best possible city they could live in. 

Valerie Plante Denis Coderre Montreal election
Valérie Plante and Denis Coderre (The Montreal election: Will we go forwards or backwards?)

You can’t really compromise with decades of evolving urban planning theory and practice, all of which is currently telling us to promote all available alternatives to the automobile and which is further warning against handing the reins of city planning over to real-estate developers. Whatever Montreal is and is to become, Manhattan, Toronto and Hong Kong isn’t it.

Coderre has stated his belief that relaxing building height limitations will help “relaunch” the city centre, almost as though he’s forgotten we’re still in the midst of one of the worst public health crises of all time. It’s worth remembering as well that the city’s economy did just fine under Mairess Plante, and that adding new skyscrapers in a city filled with half-empty office towers isn’t anyone’s idea of sensible planning.

That said, this is a mayoral candidate who thinks it’s perfectly reasonable for a city with an unused baseball stadium to use public money to build another baseball stadium for a team we’d only get to have on a part-time basis.

Two specific items from Coderre’s platform that caught my attention. On the one hand he seems to be all in favour of public consultations, though the platform uses language that makes it seem the current public consultation system isn’t quite working. It should be noted that Montreal’s public consultation system works very well, but that under Coderre’s brief reign as mayor, he didn’t appear to have much use for it. Specifically, he claimed that public consultations relating to the REM exceeded their mandate. With the delays, cost overruns, and destruction of protected green spaces—not to mention the myriad as yet unresolved issues regarding fares, expropriations and whether it was even a good idea to begin with—listening more to public concerns might have done us well. Instead, at the time, Coderre seemed to side with the chief architect and promoter of the system, the CDPQ, as though public consultation was nothing but a bureaucratic hoop to jump through. For someone who routinely claims to want to fight for Montreal and that Montreal should be somewhat more autonomous and independent, Coderre’s final legacy may actually be that he sold his fellow co-citizens out to a pension fund’s harebrained monorail scheme.

Another item in Coderre’s platform starts strong but I find the conclusion a bit worrisome. Coderre’s advocating that the city take over control of public school real estate and its planning from the provincial government. This in and of itself I’d support—planning for where schools ought to be located is far more a municipal concern than a provincial one. Moreover, it would also make more sense for the city to assess its space needs when considering what to do with surplus public buildings, like old schools. I would hope that transferring control of school real estate to the city could further allow the co-location of English and French schools in the same building, something that makes more sense to someone living in Montreal’s increasingly diverse and multi-lingual neighbourhoods than it would to a CAQ voter living in the Beauce. But Coderre’s policy point about who controls public school real estate seems couched in the language of efficiency—his program mentions that both schools and municipalities dedicate space to libraries and sports fields, and that since the city is involved in these activities, it makes sense for the city to run them. Having a municipal librarian run the school library—or having the school library be part of the larger city system—or having the school’s intramural sports activities run through the city, aren’t bad ideas per se, but this kind of thinking could easily lead to new schools built without libraries or sports fields, with the students encouraged to make use of nearby municipal facilities. I think most Montrealers have no problem with making public school infrastructure more useful to the public at large, and integrating the city where and when it makes sense to maximize the utility of a given place or space, but I also think most Montrealers would balk at the idea of fewer sports fields or libraries in general. In this respect, less is definitely not more. 

Grand Parc de l'Ouest Montreal election
Lake of Two Mountains, Grand Parc de l’Ouest (The Montreal election: Will we go forwards or backwards?)

As to the Mairess, I don’t have too many criticisms other than that at the time of this writing (Oct. 5), and with about a month to go before we head to the polls, Projet Montréal still hasn’t released its campaign platform. (The day after this article went to print, Projet Montréal released their platform.) Even upstart party Mouvement Montréal has issued a public platform, so this is a bit disappointing. Much of the campaign so far has been Denis Coderre kvetching about problems both real and imagined, which makes Plante and Projet’s lack of a platform — even a brief resume of a platform — something of a missed opportunity. Plante and her team could have easily come up with a list of concrete ideas that expand on the successes they already have under their belt, and have started the campaign off by telling people precisely how they intend to continue moving forward rather than simply making that statement without any details. Keep in mind, this is the woman and party who got elected largely because they drew a pink line on a map (knowing full well the province of Quebec literally will not permit the city to embark on any metro construction project without their express written approval); not coming out of the gate with a list of new ideas has given Coderre an early advantage to criticize and present his own ideas. Even if they are retrograde, he’s brought something to the table and Projet could have easily outperformed him here. 

What might be Plante and Projet’s greatest accomplishment is the Grand Parc de l’Ouest, which, while still in its planning stages, is nonetheless a major step forward in containing sprawl and prioritizing nature not merely for its aesthetic, but also its functional values. Repeating this, as the party intends to do, in the East End is something Projet should be promoting — especially given how we’ve all come to realize how exceptionally valuable green space is during a pandemic. Where Projet needs to be a bit more explicit is explaining the benefit of green spaces (and why Montreal should be creating as much new green space as possible) in economic and environmental terms. Where Denis Coderre promises that every street in Montreal is to be tree-lined, Projet needs to crunch the numbers to tell people how much CO2 an acre of protected forest will suck out of the atmosphere. Projet’s voter base would appreciate that level of detail, and it will only further demonstrate the generation gap between the two primary candidates.

Plante’s ‘patronage’ appointment of Louise Harel to the position of municipal language tsar is a peculiar choice given that the city doesn’t have an executive in charge of fighting the climate crisis, and that right now the single greatest existential threat to the French language in Montreal is the heat-stroke related deaths of francophones, not the occasional unilingual anglophone haberdasher’s exclamation of “Bonjour-Hi” at a gaggle of American tourists looking for authentic Montreal threads at the Eaton Centre’s Old Navy. I’m not sure the language hawk vote is so essential that it requires appointing Harel to a paid job at City Hall, but I guess all the free advertising some legacy Montreal anglo media has handed Denis Coderre over the years has perhaps made him seem to be the ‘anglo candidate’ and thus Projet had to set itself up in opposition. 

I digress.

Balarama Holness Montreal election
Balarama Holness of Mouvement Montréal (The Montreal election: Will we go forwards or backwards?)

Of all the campaign promises made without first considering the relevant research (nor adequately measuring the public’s pulse), both Coderre and Plante have essentially adopted the same position when it comes to the police — namely to outdo one another in throwing money at the problem until it eventually goes away. Coderre, never one to shy away from using blatant scare tactics on the campaign trail, has actually said that Plante and Projet don’t care about safety and security. Plante has in fact decided to shovel an additional $5.5-million at police and has apparently dropped an earlier pledge to consider disarming some police. Meanwhile, experts like Concordia’s outspoken Ted Rutland (and nearly everyone else who studies the police and effective solutions to gang and gun violence) are routinely ignored by politicians who just can’t seem to wrap their heads around solutions that don’t result in more people with guns walking the streets.

It’s the problem with incumbents — they often feel like they’re owed the job. This is what ended Coderre’s term as mayor, and it could easily end Plante’s as well. On the whole, while I think Plante has done an adequately good job as mayor (and that Projet Montréal, as a party, has done well for the citizens of Montreal), there have been times in which the party seems to be moving towards the centre, as though they’ve forgotten that being the leftwing, progressive, social democratic party was what got them elected in the first place. If I could say one thing directly to Valérie Plante it is this: You didn’t win in 2017 because people stopped liking Denis Coderre, it’s because you and the party offered something refreshingly new. 

It’s frustrating that it now seems like Plante is fighting Coderre on his home turf. Four years ago they weren’t even playing the same game and Montrealers loved her for it.

I’ll close by saying this: neither of the main candidates have inspired me much, though there is a party I’d prefer to see in power because they’ve been doing consistently well for a long time, and Montreal needs evolving political parties much more than candidate-driven ones.

That said, there is a challenge to Plante and Coderre coming from the left — Mouvement Montréal, fronted by Balarama Holness — that has put out a platform, has some very interesting and compelling ideas, is perhaps the most diverse slate of candidates currently running for office, has recently merged with another minor party and has so far been all but ignored by local media. It should come as no surprise that this is a party both led by and with a slate full of people of colour, as these are the Montrealers and Québécois who are unfortunately still not really considered full participants in our society. Look at their platform, look at their candidates, and then consider how and why their policies and priorities might differ substantially from either those of Projet Montréal or Denis Coderre. The Montreal of tomorrow, in some respects, will not look like the Montreal of years and decades past.

And whoever you choose to vote for, vote for the person you choose. Don’t be bullied into this nonsense of strategic voting. The mayoral candidates and their parties have a responsibility to meet your needs, and if they fall short and don’t earn your vote, that’s on them, not you. ■

For more on the Montreal municipal election on Nov. 6–7, please visit the Elections Montreal website. This article originally appeared in the October issue of Cult MTL. 

Read more articles by Taylor C. Noakes here.