A Valérie Plante campaign sign from the 2017 Montreal municipal election on Rue Sainte-Catherine E at night.
A Valérie Plante campaign sign from the 2017 Montreal municipal election. Credit: Indrid Cold / Flickr

Less than two months after the federal election, on Sunday November 7, municipalities throughout Quebec voted for mayors and councils, electing a record number of young people and women. Five of the ten largest Quebec cities are now led by women.

Those Quebec municipal results – especially in the province’s largest city, Montreal – have more than local or provincial significance. They should reverberate nationally.

In Montreal, voters returned Mayor Valérie Plante with an increased majority. She received 52 per cent of the vote compared to former mayor Denis Coderre’s 38 per cent.

It was personal vindication for Plante. A year ago, many were writing her off. There was much groaning in the business community that the progressive, environmentalist mayor did not understand what they call the economy. Yes, the environment is important, many of the city’s more affluent and comfortable admitted, however reluctantly. But Plante, they complained, is simply too green by half, far too much of a tree-hugger.

Montreal car commuters were especially querulous. They complained about road construction in the downtown core, about stringent restrictions on parking, and, overall, about what they considered to be Plante’s excessive emphasis on making the city bicycle- and pedestrian- friendly.

Totemic of this discontent was the intense backlash Plante incurred when, in 2018, she closed the two roads that transect Mount Royal Park, the green heart of the city, to through traffic. The howls of protest from drivers, even many who had voted for the mayor, were so loud, Plante was forced to back down. She re-opened what had been designed (more than a century ago) as a leafy refuge from the city’s noise and pollution to impatient car-commuters and speedy joy-riders.

That sort of controversy had a corrosive effect on the mayor’s popularity. Opinion polls throughout 2020 and as recently as this past summer showed Coderre, a one-time federal Liberal MP and cabinet minister, comfortably in the lead.

The former mayor is an old-school, back-slapping politician. He reminds many of the city’s longest-serving mayor, Jean Drapeau, who brought the world’s fair, Expo 67, and the 1976 Olympics to Montreal.

Coderre named his municipal political party after himself, Team Coderre. He ran a campaign based on what he called “competence” and an end to the notional scapegoating of the business community and motorists.

Just as Jean Drapeau had returned to power after one-term-followed-by-defeat to serve for more than two decades, Coderre thought he was destined to make a triumphant comeback. So did his many cheerleaders in the local media.

It was not to be. The voters not only returned Plante with an increased majority, they gave the movement of which she is leader, Projet Montréal, a stronger majority on city council and on the 19 Montreal borough councils.

Victory for a progressive urban movement

Indeed, what is most important about the November election result is that it is a victory not for one leader, but for a progressive, grass-roots, urban movement.

A group of urban activists, based largely in the central Plateau Mont-Royal district, got Projet Montréal started more than a decade and a half ago, in 2004. Their focus was – and remains to this day – on building a sustainable city.

Projet Montréal activists wanted to reduce urban sprawl, limit car traffic, make the city’s streets safer for walkers and cyclists, increase and improve public transit, increase and improve green space and make housing affordable for the urban poor and working class.

The movement grew slowly.

In the election of 2005 Projet Montréal’s leader Richard Bergeron won a Plateau Mont-Royal seat on city council, and a bit more than eight per cent of the vote for mayor. (Quebec rules allow a candidate to run simultaneously for mayor and for council. When a mayoral candidate wins, their colistier, a sort of understudy candidate, takes the council seat, assuming they win that one too.)

By the next election, in 2009, the Projet Montréal movement had gained considerable strength. It came in a respectable third, winning 14 seats on city and borough councils.

In the 2013, Projet Montréal had become the second-place party in Montreal, the official opposition.

Shortly after that vote, Bergeron ceded the leadership to a little-known community activist and city councillor, Valérie Plante.

The party had become the natural and logical alternative to Denis Coderre’s administration. But when Projet Montréal and Plante won a surprise victory in the election of 2017, many viewed it as something of an accident.

Voters were vexed with Coderre’s overly-grandiose style exemplified by the former mayor’s foolhardy attempt to lure an electric car racing event to the city. And so, they turned to the only viable alternative available to them. That did not mean the voters really supported Projet Montréal’s green, neighbourhood-focused agenda.

Following the 2017 election, the business community, the media, and politicians from the senior federal and provincial levels of government tended to treat Plante and Projet Montreal politely but with a bit of reserve. They were pretty sure they would not be in power for very long.

Now, with a second and decisive victory, Plante and Projet Montréal are a genuine force to be reckoned with. When they speak, the power-brokers in Ottawa, Quebec City and the office towers of downtown Montreal will have to pay attention.

In her victory speech, Plante talked first about the challenge of managing the city during the pandemic, which “changed everything,” and for which there was no roadmap. She underscored what became Projet Montréal’s priority: the need to protect the most vulnerable during this catastrophic period through food and housing aid.

Plante then looked to the future, situating the city of Montreal – with a population of over 1.7 million, in an urban area of four and a half million – as part of the “avant-garde of the [global] economy of the future.”

It will be, she said, “a green city, with a dynamic downtown, vibrant neighbourhood life, diverse means of transport,” and an equally diverse population, attracting talent “from all over the world.”

Creative people are drawn to Montreal because it is livable and walkable, the re-elected mayor told her supporters. And those newcomers are attracted by the city’s green policies, including a vital urban agriculture sector and its spirit of innovation.

Projet Montréal and Plante insistently emphasize their humane, inclusive and environmental vision as much as their specific policies. But they do have many of the latter, most notably a plan to build 40,000 affordable housing units.

Politics in our time can be excruciatingly transactional, especially at the local level. Municipal leaders often focus intently on satisfying the narrow interests of powerful groups, particularly developers. The municipal administrations of Ottawa and Toronto are textbooks examples of that approach.

If Valérie Plante and Projet Montréal can succeed in pursuing a different sort of governance strategy, one based on the long-term well-being of the entire city, they could serve as an inspiration and model for the rest of us.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...