Valérie Plante Montreal Mayor interview

An interview with Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante

Our December cover story is a mayoral check-in ahead of the COP15 biodiversity conference, which begins on Dec. 7.

With Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante just over a year into her second mandate, I had the opportunity to speak with her and discuss some looming post-pandemic challenges.

Toula Drimonis: You’re in year two of your second mandate. What do you consider to be your top 3 main issues to tackle? 

Valérie Plante: For sure I would say the ecological transition remains top on my list. We’re doing everything we can to hasten it and taking as many steps as we need to treat it as a priority, and treat climate change as a reality we can no longer afford to ignore. Housing is, of course, a top issue for us, and one that we’re continuing to work on since our first mandate. Finally, homelessness is an issue I take very seriously and has only gotten worse since the pandemic. And if I can add a fourth, I would say that making sure that the city remains welcoming and inclusive to all also remains a top priority for me. 

TD: What has proven to be the most challenging part of your mayoralty so far? The issue that you didn’t see coming — aside from the pandemic, of course. 

Valérie Plante: Well… everything caused by the pandemic. The domino effect it created, where one problem amplified another. COVID caused an explosion of homelessness, and increased problems with public transit. For example, before COVID, we were trying to find solutions for congestion on the Orange Line, and now it’s the opposite; we’re working super hard to get people back on the subway and on the buses. This has had a huge impact on the city’s finances, but also the STM’s finances. Before the pandemic, we had the wind in our sails, we were developing, we went from lineups at Berri-UQAM metro station to the opposite. So, for me, that was such a big change. Even if we knew why these issues were happening, it was still such a paradigm shift and the pandemic exasperated so many issues already present. 

TD: A post-pandemic reality features rising inflation, rising cost of living, property taxes going up. Assessments for property tax are up by 32.4% on the island of Montreal, a steep increase that has many homeowners worried. Are you concerned Montreal residents will blame your administration for issues that may be beyond your control? What do you say to them? 

Valérie Plante: Inflation is hitting people hard and the precarity we’re seeing is forcing more people into more difficult financial situations. The economy is still stagnant, so there’s a lot of insecurity and it’s very tough for citizens. What we want to do is reassure Montrealers that, since the beginning, we’ve always been very sensitive to their financial capacity. Even though we won’t be able to freeze taxes this year like we did during the pandemic, we want to find a balance in between. It’s tough because we know Montrealers will say that they don’t want higher taxes, but at the same time inflation is totally hitting the city as well. 

Whether it’s gas for the trucks to remove the snow or for garbage collection, the cost to construct a pool or a sports centre, the costs for us exploded as well. For us, it’s tough, too. It’s important to raise awareness in terms of the city’s financial capacity, and I’ll do my best to communicate why we have no choice but to raise them. I know it’s not a very sexy subject, but the fact of the matter is Montreal depends pretty much on property taxes [70% of city revenues come from property taxes], versus the government of Quebec that is sending cheques these days. I’m not saying that it’s a bad idea, but if they send cheques to people, I’m hoping that the government will send us a cheque as well. 

We don’t want to raise taxes either. It’s all the same pockets, ultimately. But there’s no way that we will follow the inflation rate, which is currently around 8%. Increases are going to be between 3% and 6%, not more than that, because we know that it’s difficult for people and we don’t want to add an additional burden on people’s wallets. 

December 2022 cover Cult MTL Valérie Plante interview
Valérie Plante on the cover of Cult MTL, Dec. 2022. Photo by Sylvain Légaré.

TD: What is your biggest challenge in dealing with a provincial government that often seems more focused on pleasing the regions? How do you communicate Montreal’s needs for more financial support and the city’s importance to Quebec’s economic prosperity without necessarily burning any bridges? 

Valérie Plante: The government recognizes that Montreal is Quebec’s economic engine. I’ve been saying it and I’ve been repeating it, making sure that it’s clear and that we all share the same message. Pierre Fitzgibbon’s appointment as the minister responsible for Montreal, who also has the economic development portfolio, is, I think, a good sign. For me it’s about having a great relationship with that minister, and we’ve done great things in the past. I’d say, so far, we have allies when it comes to the city’s economic development. 

I think the message that I carry all the time to any minister I meet is that anything related to Montreal’s economic development is also good for its social development and we need to link the two together. When we want to build, we bring investors to Montreal, those new employees, that talent, those new students, well… they need to live somewhere. Social equity is an important priority for me, so when we discuss how a society grows, we need to make sure that it’s handled from both an economic and social perspective and we tackle shortages in human resources. We need to come up with a great strategy, based on numbers, based on facts, and to see how having new people coming to Montreal is a great asset for economic development, but also for social development. 

TD: Montreal is hosting the upcoming COP15 conference on biodiversity. [The 15th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity, a UN Summit ratified by 196 countries, is taking place in Montreal from Dec. 7–19.] It’s a huge international event that will necessitate massive security detail and bring protesters to the city but will also inject millions into the local economy. What are your expectations and concerns about such a big event? What do you hope Montreal will gain from hosting it? 

Valérie Plante: I would say the first challenge would be for people to understand what the COP is. It’s a big, international event where there will be negotiations between countries about our objectives regarding biodiversity. What do we want to protect? A number that I often repeat because I find it very scary, but it’s a fact, is that in 50 years, we have lost 70% of our wildlife on this planet. Seventy percent is gone. This is very scary, and we need to act. As prime ministers and presidents and heads of state will meet, for me it’s also an opportunity to position Montreal as a leader in protecting biodiversity and putting concrete actions forward, like we recently did with protecting the bees and the butterflies. [Montreal recently unveiled an ambitious pollinator plan, ahead of the UN Summit.

I also want to create a green legacy and I want Montrealers to gain something from the summit itself, like a “green gift.” As far as security goes, there will be a perimeter around the Palais des congrès but it will be focused on that specific area. [Of note: Place d’Armes metro station will be completely closed from Dec. 1–20.

People will still be able to circulate around that area. It’s a Canadian event, essentially Canada is hosting the summit, so the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), the SPVM and the City of Montreal are all involved here. But the SPVM will be very present outside the event site. Montreal is a city that’s used to protests, so I hope everything unfolds peacefully, I think it’s important to respect everyone’s opinions. The summit will also be great for Montreal because close to 15,000 representatives will be coming to the city, and that means that restaurants and hotels will be full. We want our businesses to benefit, too.

TD: From a very young age, you were involved in green initiatives. Even your high school yearbook states that you wanted to be president of Greenpeace. How important to you is meeting environmental targets? I intended to ask if the ecological transition is still on top of your list of priorities, but you answered this question by including it in your top 3 priorities. 

Valérie Plante: Yes, but if I can just add to that, I also believe it’s one of the main reasons why we got re-elected with such big numbers as well. [Plante had a decisive win last year when she earned 52% of the vote compared with 38% won by her challenger, former mayor Denis Coderre. In fact, Plante increased her share of the vote the second time around, indicating clear support for many of her party’s policies and priorities.

We’ve been very strong and bold and clear with Montrealers about our goals to do as much as we can to protect the environment. 

TD: As a woman in politics, there are many challenges. Do you believe there are double standards for women, and that they often need to work harder to be respected? Do we still have a long way to go? 

VP: It’s always a tricky question to answer. I would like to be able to say that there’s no double standard that exists, but at the same time it’s hard to point to specific examples. It’s no longer about, “Go back to the kitchen, woman!” It’s much more subtle, but I do believe there are still stereotypes to tackle and there are still ways that both men and women behave towards women politicians or female leaders. I think we all, as a society, need to reflect on that. 

I think there’s been a lot of work for women to be more strategic and network better, and I do believe that the tools are being put in place and I see the way we’re moving forward, but even though I wish I could say that it’s exactly alike for a man and a woman to run for the mayoralty, it wouldn’t be true. We’re in a very progressive city and society in terms of sharing responsibilities, that’s a great thing, but there are still things that need to be changed for sure. It’s a tricky question but I still believe it to be relevant, that’s why I keep answering it. 

TD: Without asking too many cliché questions about female politicians, I still need to ask this one. We keep trying to encourage more women to run for politics, but regardless of how gender equality has advanced and how many more men are stepping up, studies continue to show that women continue to carry the overwhelming burden of childcare. You yourself are a mom of two teen boys, and many female politicians are mothers themselves. How important is it for women aspiring to a political career to have a supportive partner? 

Valérie Plante: I think it’s a fair question to ask. It means having a partner who understands and is also willing to make the sacrifices that a lot of women have made in the past. I generalize here, of course, but I think in the past there have been far more women who would sacrifice some aspect of their life to support their man’s ambitions, so there needs to be more role models. We talk about more models of women leading, and more representation of women, regardless of the colour of their skin or their background, so other girls and women can identify with them. But I think it’s also true for men. We need more models of men being supportive, being the trooper, being the caregiver, supporting a leader woman, so men can see that as a positive and acceptable role as well.  

TD: What do you say to many Quebec anglophones and allophones, who because of recent declarations or legislation like Bill 21 and Bill 96 by the current provincial government may feel unheard and marginalized right now? Quebec’s diversity is primarily found in Montreal. How do you reconcile working successfully with the government while listening to diverse communities and their needs? 

Valérie Plante: It’s a very good question. For me, it’s always about wanting Montreal to move forward. I aim to have good relationships with all my colleagues at other government levels, but the bottom line is this: I will always defend Montrealers’ voices. When certain instances happened during the provincial campaign, the last thing a mayor wants to do is participate in a campaign at another government level, but sometimes a mayor’s gotta do what a mayor’s gotta do, right? We want to make sure that no one feels left out. Though I respect the CAQ’s position on racism and systemic discrimination, for us in Montreal we decided to move forward. 

[For more context: While Premier Legault and the CAQ continue to deny that systemic racism exists, Plante officially recognized its existence back in 2020, following a report by Montreal’s public consultation office. It’s been a slow process for the city as well, with a consultation only happening after activist and mayoral candidate Balarama Holness delivered a petition demanding the public consultation at City Hall in 2018. Once the report was out, however, the acknowledgment was quick to come and Plante referred to it as a “collective awakening that systemic racism does exist,” recognizing that the “report tells us in black and white that there’s systemic racism, which includes the SPVM.” 

In 2019, Montreal City Council also unanimously passed a declaration against Bill 21, Quebec’s secularism legislation. At the time, Plante stated: “The message I want to send my population is that we are there. I want to bring their voice out saying, ‘You have the right to have the same opportunities whoever you are, whatever you wear. It is our duty to speak up.” 

During the recent provincial campaign, Plante was also quick to react to comments made by then Immigration Minister Jean Boulet, who stated that “80% of immigrants go to Montreal, don’t work, don’t speak French and don’t adhere to Québécois values.” The Mayor immediately tweeted: “Mr. Boulet needs to withdraw his comments, which go against all our efforts to integrate newcomers. Montreal is a land of welcome for immigrants, who contribute to the economic, social and cultural vitality and to the dynamism of French.”

Throughout the course of her mayoralty, Plante has repeatedly criticized or cautioned against Premier Legault’s efforts to reduce immigration, referring to immigration as an asset and pointing to historic labour shortages. While she recently refused to condemn Legaut’s comments about more immigration being “suicidal” for Quebec, she has called for a calm and factual debate on numbers and continues to push for Quebec to give Montreal access to new sources of revenue to tackle some of the challenges new arrivals can bring, with regards to additional housing and teaching needs.  

Valérie Plante: The entire city council was behind this position [the city’s declaration on Bill 21] and I was proud to bring it forward because it’s important for me as mayor to bring forward the voices of those who aren’t heard as often, who are part of our society and who contribute and are so important. Montreal was built on these diverse paths. It’s why Montreal is so special. I navigate through all this, but I believe my role, which I take very seriously, is to bring whatever data, experiences and conversations I can to the forefront and to my colleagues at other levels of government to raise awareness and sensitivity to maybe different realities in Montreal. 

TD: What do you want your legacy to be? 30, 50 years from now, what do you want people to remember most about the Plante era? 

Valérie Plante: I want to be remembered for being the first woman elected mayor in Montreal, but that’s already done, so I guess I’d like my legacy to be about making sure that Montreal is greener when I leave office than when I entered it. That we deployed all the energy we could to ensure the protection of our parks, our waterfront and our shores, protecting all the island’s biodiversity and making the city greener. Not only for residents’ quality of life but also for protecting the territory for generations to come. That would be the thing I’m really hoping to leave as a legacy, and this is how our decisions are made, and we continue to work on that. 

Rapid-fire fun with Valérie Plante

Being a fan of the Proust Questionnaire, I ended the interview with a few lighter questions that have nothing to do with politics and would perhaps give us a glimpse into the lesser-known personality traits of our mayor. 

What is your favourite quality in a human being?  

I really appreciate humility. 

What is the worst job that you’ve ever had? 

I worked for a few months in a gas station, it was awful. (Laughter…) and I even had a car then. (More laughter…) 

What are you most proud of? 

Being the first woman mayor of Montreal is something I’m very proud of. And being a mom… I know it’s a cliché, but I love it. 

How do you deal with stress? 

I swim in the mornings. 

What Montreal sound or smell do you love? 

I love the smell of the mountain during winter when I go skiing in the morning. It’s very close to silence. And with the snow, it creates this cushion. It’s like a bubble. 

What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you? 

To learn how to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. 

What would you miss most about Montreal if you moved elsewhere? 

The parks and all the people who love going to parks. I love both. I love this little microsociety in parks. 

What do you think people get wrong about you the most?

That I hate cars. That I wake up in the middle of the night hating drivers. That’s just not true. I don’t do that. I do understand that in some parts of the city asking people not to use their cars isn’t even an option, because there’s no option. Sometimes, when you have the kids and there’s a hockey game, you need to do what you need to do as a parent. But for me, it’s about sharing the roads better. It’s most certainly not about hating cars.

This article was originally published in the December 2022 issue of Cult MTL.

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