Montreal's new mayor Valérie Plante at an event in 2015. Photo: Ville de Montréal

Every so often the people of Montreal do something remarkable: the November 5, 2017 will stand among the more important days in its modern history, as this is the date the city’s electors voted in their first “Mairesse”.

A club of exclusively white Christian men has been elected (for a while solely by other white Christian men) to run the city of Montreal in an unbroken chain since 1833. While the difference of gender may seem like only a small step on the path towards greater diversity at Montreal City Hall, in the context of the oddly conservative world of Montreal politics, the election of Valérie Plante is something of a giant leap forward.

Along with the importance of her gender, and possibly of more importance, Plante has quite potentially closed the door on a history of highly paternalistic, if not autocratic, municipal governance and the “machine politicians” who have ruled Montreal like kings for entire generations at a stretch.

Plante is not a career politician; she has degrees in anthropology and museum studies. She did not warm the back benches of a legislature for decades, instead she worked in the non-profit sector, primarily with immigrant women.

She earned her popularity and her new position by connecting and inspiring the electorate; crucially, her campaign by-and-large avoided the populism of the incumbent mayor.

It was clear people were looking for change throughout the region of Greater Montreal. Quebec’s oldest and longest-serving mayor — 80-year-old Ed Janiszewski — had governed Dollard-des-Ormeaux for 33 years straight and lost to a long-serving local councillor. The mayor of Montreal’s largest borough (Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace), career politician Russell Copeman, was defeated by career journalist Sue Montgomery. Three important Montreal suburbs — Longueuil, Westmount and Brossard — also elected women to be mayor; in the case of the first it was a contest between three women to replace the two-term incumbent, also a woman. Moreover, women will hold the majority of seats in Montreal’s city council.

And all this in a province where universal suffrage was only extended to all women in 1944!

Irrespective of gender, Plante’s and Projet Montréal’s victory would still be a surprise: it’s been 57 years since the last time Montrealers didn’t re-elect a first-term mayor. Moreover, she was not endorsed by the city’s establishment media nor the apparent leaders of its business community (several of whom are working behind the scenes to resurrect a major league baseball franchise for the city), and to top it off she was up against a mayor who had orchestrated a billion-dollar birthday party for the city in an election year.

It’s perhaps not entirely surprising that Denis Coderre promptly quit his municipal political career and will not lead the 19 councillors elected from the party that bears his name in opposition.

In an ironic twist, Richard Bergeron, the founder of Projet Montréal who had ‘”crossed the floor” when Coderre offered him a plum position in his administration, lost his city council seat to the Projet Montréal candidate. The party he created will now govern Montreal without him.

Plante is now the only woman leading major North American city, and Projet Montréal now commands the city’s council with a slim majority. From relative obscurity, she has become one of the most important and powerful people in Canada. She also inherits a dynamic and thriving city, one whose comparatively low cost of living, low crime rates, attractive neighbourhoods, walkability and expansive public transit systems more than compensate for endemic congestion and the inconveniences posed by myriad major construction projects.

What is perhaps most significant about Ms. Plante and Projet Montréal’s victory is that, quite unlike their opponents, they campaigned on ideas and weren’t afraid to say, “we can do better.” Conventional political wisdom dictates politicians should avoid making any concrete proposals, as unkept promises may make it difficult to win a second term. For his part, Coderre stuck to this traditional thinking, largely refraining from making any specific promises during the campaign, but also very quick to dismiss nearly all of Plante’s ideas as inherently unrealistic.

It was what was left unsaid that would ultimately come back to bite Mr. Coderre; though he never made any specific promise it was clear enough that the mayor was very interested in convincing Major League Baseball (MLB) to re-establish a team in Montreal. Further still, the mayor refused to deny his interest in using public money to build a new stadium to encourage MLB to either expand or re-locate to Montreal.

All told, the loose estimate is that the total cost for such a project might be in the billion-dollar range (and just in case you’re unaware, the city already has a 100 per cent taxpayer-funded, multi-sport stadium used by an MLB franchise for 27 years).

Plante was insistent and forthright on her major campaign promise: a new métro line connecting some of Montreal’s poorest neighbourhoods with the city centre, and this in addition to (not in lieu of) other major transit development projects which have been hyped for years (though never delivered) by successive municipal and provincial governments. There are currently two other major transit expansion initiatives ostensibly close to being finalized, neither of which have had the input of Montrealers. This is in part what makes her proposal so bold, though by no means as unrealistic or as impossible as her opponent and a host of pundits and journalists have made it seem. It’s a little-known fact that the city of Montreal built the first 26-station iteration of its Metro system in the early 1960s without any money from the provincial or federal governments (adjusted for inflation, it was a bargain too, delivered on time and in the black at just over $1 billion).

Such a major proposal was once thought to have been political career suicide, especially in Montreal. An electorate made cynical by years of wasteful spending, mismanagement and high-profile fraud scandals was not presumed to be terribly interested in big-budget projects, especially those proposed by a political neophyte.

In the end, the idea gained serious traction. Montreal — perhaps more importantly, Montrealers — have changed. There has been a steady return not just to the city, but specifically to the ring of well-designed, highly walkable urban neighbourhoods that allow so much of the city’s population to live within a short distance of where they work, learn and play. Projet Montréal has played a key role in this, particularly by offering concerned citizens a direct method of engaging with their communities and by fostering the development of new urbanism ideas. In sum, it is a party of keen urbanists unafraid to innovate, cognizant that their electoral base includes everyone, even those who are highly critical.

Overcoming Montrealers’ inherent and deeply ingrained cynicism with useful, self-empowering, citizen-driven ideas was a particularly unorthodox campaign strategy, and it paid off fully, completely. Now the real work begins. Ms. Plante has some very big promises to deliver on, but as long as she maintains the collaborative, sustainable, “do-it-ourselves” approach that lies at the very heart of Projet Montréal’s political philosophy, she may achieve what so many men never could: inspiring leadership.

Taylor C. Noakes is a journalist living in Montreal.

Photo: Ville de Montréal

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