A Grassroots Candidate: Accountability, Construction and Sue Montgomery’s Bid to be Mayor of Côte-des-Neiges/NDG

Anyone living in the Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough will tell you that unless you are construction worker with a cushy government contract, the area is a living hell. Entire blocks of main streets have been closed to construction and companies operate in flagrant violation of municipal noise and safety laws.

Everyone is afraid to phone in a complaint because of concerns of reprisals from people wielding heavy machinery. Businesses are suffering, people are losing sleep and getting noise headaches, and even buying groceries has become an obstacle course of spraying gravel and thoroughfares laden with holes, making it hazardous for the borough’s disabled and elderly and anyone with a baby carriage.

It is concerns over the borough’s construction problems and the offer of the most pragmatic solution that will likely determine the outcome of the upcoming municipal election in NDG/Côte des Neiges.

I had the privilege of speaking to one of the candidates for borough mayor, Sue Montgomery, a former journalist now representing Projet Montreal, a party running on a platform of accessibility for the disabled, cultural diversity, and administrative accountability, among other things. She is up against current Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre’s man, Borough Mayor Russell Copeman, and a newcomer, Zaki Ghavitian, who entered the race last Tuesday.

Montgomery welcomed me into her home in NDG. Though running for office, there is little that is politician-like about her. She met me at the door and cheerfully joked about how the humid weather impacted her curly hair. It did not feel like an interview but rather like a new friend inviting me for tea.

Here’s what we talked about.

SG: Why are you running?

SM: Part of the reason is what’s going on south of the border. I’m horrified by it like many people and I thought if good people don’t step up, the same thing could possibly happen here. Obviously I’m not running for president but it starts at the grassroots and can go up.

I’ve lived here for 20 years and I think it’s an amazing borough but I don’t think it’s at its potential. I think there are a lot of problems and I think there’s some incredible grassroots groups that are active here and I’d like to work with those groups and coordinate things better. We’re the biggest borough, but I’d like us to be the envy of the other boroughs.

What do you feel the current leadership is doing well?

I don’t think Russell is doing a bad job. He has a lot of experience as a politician. I don’t think he’s really into the job. He’s not here full time. He works downtown on the Executive Committee so he’s really only here a couple of days a week and I think this borough needs a full time mayor, which is what I would be. I have no desire to be on the Executive Committee.

What do you feel you can improve?

In terms of our borough, right now, construction is a nightmare. I would like to improve the coordination of it, the organization of it, and the communication about it. I would also like to improve communication with residents, so instead of having a thing where we meet every month at borough council meetings, I would like to hold casual once a month also in a café.

I think the borough council meeting can be a bit intimidating. A lot of people don’t understand politics – I count myself among them earlier in my life – I didn’t take a lot of interest in it. I think a lot of women and young people don’t because they don’t recognize themselves in the people who are running things, i.e. middle aged white guys. I would like to make it more grassroots, more democratic, more consultation, more discussion.

As mayor, I’m not going to have the answers. I’m going to have a lot of questions: Why are things like this? Why is it working like this? Why is not working like this? Which is my journalistic background. I have ideas, but I don’t have the answers. I think the people who have the answers are groups like Head and Hands and the NDG Food Depot, NDG Community Council, the Immigrant Workers’ Center. These are people at the ground level who know this is what we need and how do we get that.

Regarding the construction in NDG, what do you feel is the source of the problems?

A lot of this work is done by subcontractors, so there should be a mechanism to find them if their worksite is not secure for pedestrians and cyclists. We need people to go around and check that they’re properly set up.

To me it feels like there’s no accountability here. I remember being a journalist when the bridge collapsed. Heads would roll in other provinces for something like that and they didn’t here. No one was ever held accountable. I would want to know do they have a list of complaints? Do they have a list of what was done with those complaints? Was it followed up? How was it followed up? If it wasn’t, why not? Who is responsible here?

Do you think a standard protocol should be set up?

Absolutely! It’s all about accountability. You can’t just have a number people call and nothing happens. I’ve talked to people since the storm (the microburst which hit NDG particularly hard) where they’ve called in about trees and were told it would be 3 years, 5 years…

How do you feel the city reacted to that big storm?

From what I hear from residents, they were pretty impressed with the cleanup and I know that a lot of healthy trees came down. But I would like to know how many of those trees were rotten and how many of them had been reported because we were SUPER lucky that no one was injured.

I’ve talked to an arborist who told me that this borough is the most neglected when it comes to tree maintenance and a lot of the trees that came down were rotten. With climate change, we’re going to see a lot more of these storms and so that has to be a priority, maintaining those trees.

Montgomery chatted openly about the challenges she will face as the only female candidate running in the borough. Her focus is on improving access for people who rely on sidewalks, bicycles, and public transportation while making sure that the more problematic elements in CDN/NDG are held to account.

Her unpolitician-like demeanor is appealing to more cynical voters and her approachability makes her a sure contender. Whether she’ll be able to win over those who want to be led by a politician remains to be seen.

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