We didn’t hear all that much about Montreal municipal politics in 2020. Plenty was happening on the local front, but with COVID-19 raging for most of the year, our focus remained on the response.
Yes, our city administration did play a part in that response, but it was mostly limited to initiatives to cope with what was happening. The big picture stuff like what money is coming to bail individuals out and whether or not we are on lockdown and what that means were the perview of our Federal and Provincial governments respectively.
Throw the political madness south of the border into the mix and our local politics just got buried, for the most part. It looked like that would change in 2021, but almost right out of the gate we got a curfew across Quebec and a failed (but still ongoing) coup attempt in the US.
This year, though, is an election year in Montreal, so the local political scene will undoubted come to the forefront, whether world events want it to or not. I spoke with Niall Clapham-Ricardo about the upcoming election in the latest FTB Fridays and one thing that became clear was that this was Valérie Plante’s election to lose.
Who is the Opposition?
While Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante and her party Projet Montréal suffered some setbacks in 2020 and did some things that really annoyed even some die-hard supporters, their opposition is divided. She is running opposed by many, but at the same time running pretty much unapposed.
The primary and Official Opposition in City Hall is Ensemble Montréal, formerly known as Équipe Denis Coderre pour Montréal. Lionel Perez is their interim leader.
And by interim, I mean he’s not running for Mayor of Montreal against Plante. At this point, no one is.
There are rumours that Denis Coderre might try for another kick at the can in 2021, something the former mayor hasn’t ruled out and even hinted at. If he does go for it, he will undoubtedly be able to retake the reigns of the party created for him.
This could explain why Ensemble has waited this long to pick his replacement. If Coderre decides not to run, though, they might find themselves scrambling to find a new standard bearer to challenge Plante.
If the former mayor is in, though, the fact that he chose to stay on the sidelines for four years will undoubtedly be a factor, as will stuff that he did as mayor before losing. The 2017 election was as much a repudiation of Coderre’s pit bull ban, his handling of the Formula E race and his general demeanor as mayor as it was a vote for Plante.
Meanwhile in Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Borough Mayor Sue Montgomery is starting her own party. Originally elected under the Projet banner, Plante kicked Montgomery out of the party’s caucus for refusing to fire her Chief-of-Staff earlier last year.
Montgomery recently won a court case against the city and my colleague Samantha spoke with her last week about the decision and the political situation in the borough. It’s important to note that while they’re not against branching out, Montgomery’s new party will currently only be running candidates within the borough (same with the upstart CDN-NDG party which has no affiliation with Montgomery’s organization).
CDN-NDG is the city’s most populous borough, and while losing ground there will almost certainly affect Projet’s control of City Council, there is still no direct challenge to Plante’s leadership coming from the borough. That is unless you count Ensemble Interim Leader Perez, who I don’t.
As for other potential challengers to Plante, some have floated David Heurtel’s name as a potential candidate, but it looks like the former Quebec Immigration Minister is waiting to see if Coderre is in or out before going for Ensemble leadership.
Meanwhile, former Montreal Allouettes player and former Projet candidate for Borough Mayor of Montréal-Nord Balarama Holness is considering a run for the city’s top job, but hasn’t said with which party.
Even former Projet councillor Guillaume Lavoie, who lost a leadership bid to Plante in 2017, is considering running. Some speculate he is looking to take the reigns of Mélanie Joly’s former party Vrai changement Montréal.\
Currently, there is only one declared candiate to unseat Plante as Mayor of Montreal: Félix-Antoine Joli-Coeur, who has previously counselled former Mayor Gérald Tremblay and former Quebec Premier Pauline Marois. This will undoubtedly change, but whether or not they sign up with enough time for the voting public to get to know them remains to be seen.
So, this election is shaping up to be all about Plante. With that in mind, let’s look at how that could play out electorally:
Haters Gonna Hate, Loyalists Gonna be Loyal
Even before the latest election season began, there were people predisposed to hate everything Valérie Plante and Projet Montréal might do. These are people who, for the most part, didn’t vote for them the last time, and certainly won’t vote for them this time.
They’re the type who will find any story that could be spun to show the current administration in a negative light and do just that. You had better believe they will be voting on election day and will likely coalesce behind the candidate and party that has the best chance of beating Plante and Projet, regardless of who that is.
On the other hand, Projet has its loyalists. People who have supported the party since Richard Bergeron was leader and continue to do so. For them, the party can do no wrong.
These two groups will presumably cancel each other out at the polls. So the decision then falls to two other groups:
Group 1: The Projet Machine
This is the smaller of the two groups, but potentially the most influential in the outcome. Voter turnout in municipal elections isn’t traditionally the greatest, so a dedicated group of people getting out the vote can be, and frequently is, the difference.
The Projet Machine is impressive, or at least it was when I last witnessed it in action on Election Day in 2017. Full disclosure, I not only supported and voted for Projet since it was formed, but also volunteered on the phone for the party for the past few elections.
I saw a well-organized, smart and motivated group of people. There were seasoned political professionals as well as people just giving all the time they could to help out.
The one thing they all had in common was dedication. Not to the Projet brand specifically, but to the progressive approach to city management it represented. To a new way of doing things.
While Plante and her party have lived up to many of their promises, they have also taken some decisions that could alienate a good chunk of their militant base. So the question becomes: How much of that base will stick with them?
While I see myself as part of this group, I can’t speak for it as a whole. What I can do is go over some of the things Plante and Projet have done that weaken my resolve to support them.
You won’t find blocking cars from taking a shortcut across the mountain, more bike paths, cancelling the Formula E contract or any of the measures like expanded terrasses and decreased traffic passed to encourage neighborhood tourism during a pandemic on this list. I strongly supported those initiatives and still do. This is what we voted for.
Here is where, IMHO, they screwed up:
- Sending Riot Cops to a Homeless Encampment: While homelessness is a complex issue, going full authoritarian is never a good move. Instead of coming down personally to the tent city the homeless had built as a safe alternative to shelters in a time of COVID and demanding the Legault Government provide an adequate alternative, Mayor Plante sent in the riot cops.
- Not Standing Up Forcefully Against Bill 21: This should have been a no-brainer. Montrealers oppose Bill 21 (aka the Religious Symbol Ban) by a wide margin. The current Quebec Government, which only won two seats on the Island of Montreal, wants to impose it to appease their rural base. While Plante said she is personally against it, she decided not to oppose and potentially block its implementation here.
- Waiting Too Long to Appoint an Anti-Racism Commissioner: Ultimately this one turned out to be something Plante should be applauded for. Naming Bochra Manaï as the city’s first Anti-Racism Commissioner last week was a good move, and one that drew the ire of Premier Legault because Manaï had strongly opposed Bill 21 (apparently Legault had hoped someone from the SPVM would be appointed instead – really). The question remains, though: Why did Plante wait this long?
- Changing Names: Now this one is a bit personal for me and may not resonate with other former Projet die-hards. Shutting down calls to rename Lionel-Groulx Metro after Oscar Peterson is one thing (and one that is arguably not the city’s call). Changing plans to rename a street after Daisy Sweeney is another (and one that is very much the city’s call). Randomly suggesting that the Griffintown REM stop be named after Bernard Landry and then doubling down on it speaks to a pattern: we don’t mess with history unless it pleases the majority.
Honestly, I’ll probably still vote for Plante again, because the alternative is probably worse. But it would take either a major shift in the administration responding to Quebec City (not on COVID, they don’t really have a choice) or other progressive priorities or the scary prospect of a Coderre victory to get me to volunteer again. Not sure, though, if they can bring the rest of the base back.
Group 2: The General Public
This is the group that doesn’t pay close attention to municipal politics for the most part of each four-year cycle. Their vote will be decided, most likely, in the weeks leading up to the election.
While a solid persuasion campaign, followed by a get-out-the-vote campaign is crucial, people first need to believe that they are voting in their best interest.
Plante is the name that they know. If they are reasonably satisfied with how things are going under her leadership, they will vote for her.
That is unless another name, say Coderre, comes down the pipe and convinces them otherwise. If the challenger is Coderre, then his legacy as Mayor comes into play as well.
Regardless of who it is, this is Plante’s election to lose, or win.