You’ve seen the placards with smiling, well-coiffed people, beaming down from stop signs and hydro poles across the city — it’s municipal election season. On November 5, Montreal will elect a mayor and a host of other representatives who will effectively run the city for the next four years, and it’ll be either Denis Coderre (Montreal’s mayor since 2013) or Valérie Plante (his opponent).
These kinds of city elections are more typically ignored by the average citizen — they have lower turnouts than provincial or federal elections (just 47 per cent in 2013, behind Toronto’s 60 percent, which was probably inflated by the very public and drawn-out Rob Ford saga).
It’s not clear if people pay less attention because there’s less money to blow on advertising because the candidates are less famous (no Trudeaus, obviously), or just because people dismiss them as boring. But they do have a tangible impact on everyday life.
City governments take responsibility for things like public transit (the metro and buses), roads and bike lanes (including potholes and all that construction, except for major highways), the police and fire services, garbage collection, certain major events, and parks. They can also burn taxpayer money (a problem in the past for Montreal) through corruption, and they have some sway over taxes, too (mostly for property owners, although a landlord’s tax bill might logically affect the amount of rent they might ask for).
The big-ticket items like climate change or refugees aren’t on the table here. But if you want things like more buses to get around town, voting in municipal elections is the way to try to get it.
Montreal city politics are party-based — so although the system can seem confusing (there are 103 positions to fill, including the mayor, city councilors, and borough councilors), if you can figure out which party you prefer, you can comfortably go vote for them. This election, there are two — the incumbent mayor’s side, Equipe Denis Coderre, and opposition Projet Montréal, led by Valérie Plante (certain small parties might pick up a few specific council seats, but these are the big players for mayor).
Let’s start with the challenger: Plante was elected to city council in 2013 after a very ground-level campaign (think knocking on doors, convincing people to vote), in a district east of downtown. That fits with Projet Montreal’s general approach — they come across as a grassroots party, more focused on projects that would make specific differences to citizens and communities, and less focused on making a glitzy, glamorous Montreal (something the 375th celebrations arguably tried to do).
That doesn’t mean they’re solely interested in planting a few trees and filling a few potholes: Plante’s team have some big-ticket proposals in their program. A big one is the construction of a new metro line, the Pink Line, running from Bonaventure metro diagonally across the Plateau and Rosemont, through to Montréal-Nord. Coderre laughed this off as an expensive idea that won’t happen — it’s true that building a new metro now would be vastly more expensive than 50 years ago when the original was made, but the planned light-rail line connecting the South Shore, downtown, and West Island (which would be open before the Pink Line) is solid proof that the city (and suburbs) aren’t beyond major new transit projects.
Other key planks of Plante’s platform are making construction sites less of a burden (for example: taking steps to make sure construction sites aren’t left inactive for days on end) as well as compensation for businesses affected by long-winded roadwork, more cycling infrastructure (like their “express” system of bike lanes), more green spaces or public spaces like pedestrian streets. On a more ideological level, Projet Montréal also aims to plan more affordable housing, and better oversight over the police, who has been plagued by ongoing scandals including police spying on journalists, and issues of racial profiling.
On the flip side is Denis Coderre — he was elected mayor in 2013, his first move into municipal politics, and had the fairly daunting task of cleaning things up after double corruption scandals with two previous mayors. His platform, which is a bit more jargon-y than Plante’s, is pretty much “keeping up the hard work”. Coderre is for similar things to Plante in many senses — affordable housing, more green spaces, and bike lanes, but the platform is less precise about what exactly he’d do, save for a few projects like AccesLogis, which would create 5,000 new low/mid-income housing units. His platform also makes no mention of changing anything in the police force, perhaps implying that he thinks there is no problem with Montreal’s police right now (spoiler: there is).
It’s a tough race to predict — common wisdom is that Coderre has a slight advantage just by virtue of already being mayor, so his name is recognized. But he hardly ran away with the election last time — he earned 32 percent of the vote, and there were four viable candidates for mayor, instead of two. Coderre has a record to run on — infrastructure like roads in Montreal have generally improved under him, for example — but his moves have also drawn plenty of anger. Coderre did spend $40 million on lights for the Jacques-Cartier bridge, and the 375th anniversary celebrations, from a downtown rodeo to expensive granite stumps, were spurred by Coderre. He’s also disliked for devising the city’s pit bull ban, a move that wasn’t even executed smoothly: an early version of the ban was help up in court and needed changing; a consequence of what seemed to be a very impulsive law made to look like a tough guy after a dog attack killed one east-end woman.
Meanwhile, Plante has less name recognition, but could benefit from an “anyone but Coderre” vote; plus she has proven herself to be hugely likeable (without seeming soft), and has scored endorsements from plenty of people from Olympians, to one other mayoral candidate who quit the race. Coderre’s argument is that she has less experience — but both of them entered city politics at the same time. Coderre was previously in a federal Liberal government, but given the different functions of city government, it’s not like those experiences are entirely transferable, although it probably makes Coderre better at campaigning (Plante arguably has a different but valid set of experiences in community-level organizations).
To vote, you need to have received a voter’s card in the mail (unfortunately it’s too late to register); election day is Monday, November 5, but early voting can be done October 27 and October 29 through November 1.
Words by TIM FORESTER