For those of you who live in Montreal and don’t know, there is a municipal election this Sunday. This is our chance to exercise our democratic duty as citizens of this city.
What’s that you say? You have better things to do than vote? Or, perhaps you just don’t care about the issues or you’ve never really seen the people you voted for in the past make a concrete difference in your life?
Fair enough. Politics is so often a dirty game, and the people vying for public office can often feel so fake or just annoying.
It reminds me of a joke my high school economics teacher used to tell about politicians: “How can you tell if they are lying?” This was followed by a rare silence for a grade 9 classroom. “Their lips move,” he responded. Thinking back, I can see that teacher making the same crack with his buddies at the Legion and them roaring with laughter. But the joke does summarize a common sense of fatalism that so many people have about politics today.
Canada has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the western world for all levels of government. Most Montrealers don’t get out and vote: 43 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2013 election, of which 32 per cent voted for the victorious mayoral candidate, Denis Coderre—meaning that roughly 1 in 7 voters elected the mayor of the city.
A clear choice
In many elections, there are few clear differences between the candidates. They all seem to offer some variation of the same easily-attainable promises. Apathy and cynicism are to be expected. In the 2017 Montreal election, however, we are fortunate to have two frontrunners with two very different styles and visions, making the voters’ choice a little easier.
In his four years as Montreal’s mayor, Denis Coderre, has become notorious across Canada. From his belligerent stance against the Energy East pipeline, which won him many enemies in the Alberta oil patch, to his taking a jackhammer to a concrete slab in protest of Canada Post’s diminished mail delivery services, Coderre is a showman with a flair for the dramatic.
Coderre is facing stiff competition from a surprise opponent who stands a good chance of becoming the first woman to win the mayoralty: Valérie Plante.
An anthropologist by training and a longtime community organizer, Plante is relatively new to politics. Having defeated political heavyweight and one-time mayoral hopeful Louise Harel to win a council seat in the previous election, Plante has since risen to the leadership of Projet Montréal.
Projet has been active in municipal politics since the mid-2000s when a group of professionals, urbanists, activists, and other citizens banded together to attempt to inject social democracy and environmental sustainability into the city’s governance. Since then, the party seems to have achieved a balance of political savvy, solid credentials, and genuine grassroots action. And according to recent polls, they now seem poised to take City Hall.
This was not always the case. In the summer, Coderre held a significant lead over Plante, who few people knew. But after a series of unpopular projects from the Coderre administration (Formula E, anyone?) and an attitude widely perceived as arrogant, coupled with Plante’s solid and interesting campaign, Coderre’s popularity diminished considerably. Less than two weeks before the election, one poll found a 38 per cent approval rating for both candidates. And then, a few days before the election, Montrealers learned that the same construction companies that profited from the corruption scandals of the previous administration were still receiving municipal contracts, albeit under different names and with different directors.
The general feeling regarding Coderre’s mandate seems to range from grudging semi-satisfaction to downright indignation. The incumbent mayor brags that he’s put Montreal back on the map, but even the thick skin of a lifelong politician like Coderre must be irked by the fact that half of Montrealers think he’s arrogant and pretentious. The incumbent mayor defends his abrasive attitude, which he characterizes as determination.
Montrealers are probably happy that their city is no longer a crime-ridden cesspool of corruption. There seems to be a renewed confidence in the metropolis. For one, Montreal’s unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in more than a decade. Compared with 2013, when the electorate’s biggest concern was corruption, the current election’s issues of poorly managed construction sites and the widespread perception of Coderre’s arrogance seem like small beans.
And yet the polls show that Plante might win. Perhaps people do not relish what a second Coderre mandate might mean for the city.
Coderre’s powerful allies in the city, like the editorial board of La Presse, assert that Montreal needed an electroshock to cure itself of years of corruption. In light of that unfortunate context, La Presse would have us believe that Coderre and his team need to be given the chance to finish the business they started.
La Presse’s endorsement of Coderre smacks of mutual back-scratching between the privileged and the powerful. It gives us a hint of the type of city Coderre’s administration wants. So, to balance things out a bit, I think it is appropriate that a small, powerless (though nevertheless privileged in many ways) voice like mine articulates an endorsement for Valérie Plante.
A mayor for the bigwigs or the little guys?
Sunday’s election matters because a city hall run by Plante will be very different from one directed by Coderre. If Coderre wins a second mandate, he will continue to try and attract big international money to Montreal that may or may not trickle down to the rest of us. But the game he wants to play, as he unashamedly asserted in the French-language debate, is with les grands — the big players and corporate bigwigs.
But that game is quickly becoming obsolete. In a world with levels of economic inequality not seen since the Gilded Age, we need a politician who listens to regular working people and citizens, unlike Coderre who is obsessed with les grands. In a world where we tend to take care of the fat cats, we cannot forget the value of small businesses and the proverbial little guy.
Valérie Plante believes in that kind of “social equity” — not as a glassy-eyed idealist, but as someone who understands the value of the work of everyday people. And amid an environmental climate crisis that threatens the cherished norms of consumerism and capitalist modernity, we need to seriously transition away from fossil fuels and build new infrastructure that will reduce our carbon dependence (such as a new subway line) and not increase car traffic. And with 35 to 42 per cent of jobs slated to vanish in the coming decades due to automatization, we need new types of politicians with a vision of how to work and live in the midst of the mess we’ve created for ourselves. We need people in public office who have a solid vision and credible policy regarding how municipal government can play a strong and active role in orchestrating an equitable and sustainable energy transition. Decorative lights on the Jacques Cartier bridge just doesn’t pass muster.
Coderre is playing an old game of politics that privileges image over substance. He is a master of public relations, making empty gestures that at best do not address the real issues and at worst mask big problems. To take just one example (there are many better known ones), Coderre changed Montreal’s flag to include a white pine to honor and reconcile with First Nations, yet one of his borough mayors once made very racist comments about the establishment of an Inuit hospital in Villeray. Such instances demonstrate how behind the shine, there is a disconnect with real people and their struggles.
So, what is the point of this election, if not to elect a leader for the city who actually listens to and respects citizens? Remember, Coderre wants to be #1 — he was very clear about that in the English-language debate when he jokingly referred to “that movie and they were cheering: I’m #2. No, I’m not, I’m #1!” It seems his candidacy is really more about Coderre being mayor than about us, the voters. If so, why would Montrealers vote for him when they have a much better choice whose name is Valérie Plante?