Montreal politics in the 2010s saw quite a bit of change, followed by more change. The city had five mayors in ten years.

The decade kicked off with the final two years of Gérald Tremblay’s twelve year reign as Mayor. By November 2012, though, the Quebec corruption scandal had engulfed many of his closest associates, meaning he had to resign before his term was up.

While Tremblay may have avoided any personal repercussions for the crooked business-as-usual approach Montreal and Quebec were famous for, his successor Michael Applebaum wasn’t so lucky. Applebaum was arrested at City Hall just over seven months into his term as Interim Mayor and was subsequently (March 2017) sentenced to a year in prison March for bribery and extortion that happened when he was Borough Mayor of Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.

Enter Laurent Blanchard, temporary replacement mayor for the temporary replacement mayor. He had one job: not get arrested for six months until the election and he pulled it off! Great job M. Blanchard.

2013: Time for Change?

Mélanie Joly (photo Valeria Bismar)

The stage was set for 2013. In one corner, former Liberal Cabinet Minister Denis Coderre leading the cleverly named Équipe Denis Coderre, a group largely comprised of former team Tremblay members (the ones who weren’t arrested). In the other, Projet Montréal, still led by its founder Richard Bergeron.

That was the case until political upstart Mélanie Joly entered the fray with her newly formed Vrai changement pour Montréal party. Joly’s energy and political skill helped her overcome accusations that she was only using this run as a springboard to federal politics and that it was all about her, not her team.

She finished second to Coderre in the mayoral race, only six points down, but her party was fourth in the seat count, way behind Coderre’s team and Projet Montréal and also with less representation than Marcel Côté’s Coalition Montréal. Joly quit municipal politics shortly thereafter and ran federally for the Liberals two years later. She is currently our Minister of Tourism, Official Languages and La Francophonie.

As for Projet, they held the Plateau and Rosemont boroughs and made significant gains elsewhere, most notably taking all but the Borough Mayor’s seat in the Sud Ouest (until Benoit Dorais eventually decided to join his councillors).

Denis “Cut the Mic” Coderre

For the next four years, though, Denis Coderre was running the table. And he had no problem reminding everyone of that fact whenever he felt he needed to or just wanted to:

  • Car sharing service downtown? Use the power the Mayor has as the defacto Bourough Mayor of Ville Marie to block it and admit it’s because of personal support from the taxi industry.
  • Montreal’s turning 375? Time to spend a ton of money on random stuff like granite tree stumps and a national anthem for a borough where support for the administration is strong.
  • A dog (that wasn’t a pit bull) attacks someone? Ban all pit bulls.
  • Someone brings up valid points about the pit bull ban? “Cut the mic!
  • Flooding in the West Island? Pull rescue workers off the job for a photo op.
  • Opposing federal party installs a community mailbox? Personally take a jackhammer to it. (Okay, that one was kinda cool)
  • Formula E organizers want the race to go through city streets even though there’s a perfectly good racetrack to use? Do their bidding, disrupt people’s lives and try to make the event look like a success with free tickets.

That last one, honestly, probably cost him re-election more than anything else. Yes, the Coderre era, brief as it was, ended.

Valérie Plante and a New Direction

On November 5, 2017, Valérie Plante, who was never supposed to have defeated former PQ Cabinet Minister Louise Harel for a council seat, was the underdog in the Projet Montréal leadership race and an extreme longshot to take down Coderre at the beginning of the campaign, became Montreal’s first elected female mayor. Her party also took control of not only City Council but also several bouroughs including CDN/NDG, the city’s largest.

Right out of the gate, Plante and her team undid two of Coderre’s most unpopular decisions: the pit bull ban and the prospect of a second Formula E race running through Montreal’s streets. They also recently overturned in council the Tremblay-era changes to bylaw P-6 which had previously been overturned by the courts in 2016 and 2018.

Plante and her team also voted early on to ban calèche horses, a law that goes into effect tomorrow. So they’re starting the new decade with a promise even Coderre tried to deliver on but failed.

One of Plante’s most controversial moves was the pilot project to bar private cars from using the mountain as a shortcut. They ultimately decided not to make it permanent after respondents to the public consultation process they had set up overwhelmingly rejected it (personally I thought it was a good idea that didn’t go far enough).

That decision to listen to the public most likely played into longtime Plateau Borough Mayor and Projet Montréal heavyweight Luc Ferrandez resigning. Earlier this year, he stepped down saying he thought his party wasn’t willing to go far enough for the environment.

For years, Ferrandez had been successful in the Plateau but harmful to his party in other parts of the city. Now, Plante and Projet’s opponents don’t have the Ferrandez albatros to contend with and his replacement Luc Rabouin handily retained power for the party in the borough.

This doesn’t mean Plante and company didn’t make mistakes in their first two years. They haven’t properly dealt with ongoing problems like systemic racism in the Montreal Police Force (SPVM) and in our institutions, the for-profit authoritarian leanings of our transit system and its ticket enforcer cops or adequately challenged the CAQ Provincial Government’s bigoted Bill 21, something Montrealers, by and large oppose, despite support in the rest of Quebec.

There are also some self-made mistakes like cancelling plans to rename a street in the Sud Ouest after the late Daisy Sweeney or the idea of naming the Griffintown REM train stop after former PQ Premier Bernard Landry. The latter an idea that didn’t need to be floated to begin with and should have been withdrawn after public outcry from the historic Irish community.

Plante was, however, successful, in securing funding for some of her signature campaign promise, the Montreal Metro Pink Line. In particular, the western portion that will travel above ground.

If the Pink Line starts to see the light of day and Plante fixes or starts to fix the problems I just mentioned, she’ll be on her way to another term. She has two years.

So, will the next decade be as bumpy on the Montreal political scene as this past one was? I honestly don’t know, I don’t have 2020 vision.

Featured Image by Jason C. McLean

I sat down recently with Christian Arseneault, Projet Montréal city councillor candidate for the Loyola district of Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace.

Describe yourself, your district and your attachment to the district.

Wow, where to begin? Among others, I was born and raised in the Loyola district, also known as Western NDG. I went to Loyola High School and continue to live in the district, even though I no longer live at home. Western NDG is my home and I’m pretty happy there. It’s a nice place to live. As to my experience, I’m a recent graduate of Honours Poli Sci (McGill) and have previously worked on Kathleen Weil’s campaign during last year’s provincial election.

How would you describe your district to someone who knows nothing of our city, or NDG for that matter?

It’s comfortably close to everything you need while retaining the all that makes Western NDG an ideal place to live, namely that it’s tranquil, relaxing, a good place to raise your family. It’s suburban without being in the suburbs. Furthermore, it, much like the borough and the city as a whole, is very multi-cultural. NDG is about people from all over coming together and living in peace. We have no strife here, no linguistic debates. That’s all so alien to how people actually live here.

Unfortunately, despite all the good people and the good lives they live, we’re also ground zero for corruption.

How’s that?

Michael Applebaum created something of a monster in NDG, as we’re becoming increasingly aware. It’s not just those god-awful condominiums in Saint-Raymond, there are hints and allegations something’s crooked with the new NDG sports centre too. As an example, though it was originally supposed to be designed for international swimming competitions, for some reason the building was completed shorter than what was originally intended and now cannot be used for such purposes.

Little things that snowball into one big mess. This is Applebaum’s legacy to Montreal and there’s nothing I’d like more than to change this; I’m tired of our elected officials cutting corners and profiting off of half-assing it.

Montreal_West_-_AMT_Train_Station
The Montreal West Train Station, half of which is in the Loyola District of Western NDG

If elected, what would you do for your district?

There are two ‘big’ pet-projects I have for my district. First would be to improve the area around the Montreal West train station, which is actually half in NDG. That area is called ‘Westhaven’ but it’s anything but.

In fact, after speaking with the people who live there, it’s becoming apparent to me that this is one of the most casually ignored parts of the city. It’s run-down and poor and could use some attention. It’s unfortunate just how much of a barrier a train line can actually be and so for those on the wrong side it’s as if they didn’t even exist for scores of local politicians who have come and gone throughout the years.

I think we need to fix the major congestion problems around the station as part of a broader initiative to revitalize the area. We should also extend Bixi service out there and further extend the bike path network. It has the potential to be a transit hub, given that two bus lines originate from the station and it’s so close to Loyola campus.

My second plan would be to stimulate a ‘revitalization’ of a stretch of Somerled between Grand and Walkley and try to drive the creation of a ‘Somerled Village’ modeled on the popular Monkland Village but more affordable, less corporate. I think local political leaders need to help steer development and this area could use some extra attention. We definitely need new poles of attraction for local businesses.

What will NDG be like after four years of Projet Montréal governance, assuming your party were to sweep CDN-NDG?

It will be a safer borough to live in, especially for pedestrians and cyclists. We’d definitely pursue some road and intersection redesigns, not to mention installing protected bike paths.

See, what people really need to understand is that improving our streets isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s not a bike path in lieu of cars, it’s not reserved bus lanes in lieu of cars. Increasing access to bike lanes and improving public transit makes those alternatives work better and this in turn gets people to leave their cars at home.

Fewer cars on the streets mean less congestion, and guess what, as a motorist who loves driving around our city, this is good for everyone. Unless we’ve forgotten, driving is a real pain if all you’re doing is slowly crawling along the street.

I also want NDG to pioneer openness and transparency in its affairs, which shouldn’t be too hard given that Michale Applebaum was one of the least transparent, most paranoid borough mayors we ever had the misfortune of having run our affairs. We want televised council meetings and want all pertinent city information put online, well in advance of scheduled deadlines and/or meetings – it’s vitally important the people have access to all the information we’d use on a day to day basis.

That prior administrations would have the gall to tell the people they wouldn’t understand what it means and thus can’t see it is very disturbing. I can guarantee you this is certainly not how Projet Montréal would operate. Ultimately, I want to throw all the lights on, and make it impossible for anyone or anything to escape that light – we must conduct our business out in the open and be held accountable for the decisions we make.

What would you like to see removed from the map, be it figuratively or actually?

I’d bury all the highways deep underground. It’s part of PM’s mandate to continue covering the Décarie and Ville-Marie expressways, but honestly, why stop there? We should do like Boston and stick all the highways underground covering all the exposed parts.

They’re so ugly, shitty, awful in every way. I really can’t wrap my head around the decision that was made in the 1950s to cut big long trenches through prime real estate, dividing up the city into odd pieces.

Why didn’t they think what this might do to the look and feel of city life? It’s awful. I’d love to no longer have to see any of them ever again.

I sat down recently with long-time Montreal city councillor Marvin Rotrand to discuss Snowdon, Cote des Neiges, public transit and a lifetime of experience in Montreal municipal politics. He is the first candidate from the Marcel Coté coalition to agree to an interview with Forget the Box.

Describe your district and career in local politics for me

Well, once again I’m running to represent the fine people of Snowdon as a city councillor, something I’ve been doing more or less constantly since I first became a local representative back in 1982. Back then I came in with the (Jean) Doré camp, the Montreal Citizens Movement, and we were looking to bring new ideas to city hall, which had grown stale and corrupt under Jean Drapeau.

I’ve enjoyed the job ever since and the people seem to like me as their councillor too. In 1988 I had a falling out with the MCM and sat as an independent, and then was briefly involved in the ‘democratic coalition’ back in the 1990s, but that fizzled after a few years. I’m also the Vice Chair of the STM.

As to Snowdon and Cote des Neiges, a few bits of important data all Montrealers should know about. We’re one of the most multi-lingual, cosmopolitan communities in all of Canada, perhaps North America, highly integrated – there are no ghettoes here.

This is a special place, largely where people get their first experience with Canada, Québec and Montreal, so it’s important that we shine as an example. There are at least 125 different ethnic groups and over 100 different languages spoken here, and you’ll find every corner of the globe represented here.

We have had a significant Jewish presence since the end of the Second World War, but whereas that Jewish population, my parent’s generation, were Eastern and Central European Holocaust survivors, today’s Jewish community in Snowdon and CDN is predominantly from the Orthodox Lubavitch sect.

We still have a sizeable West Indian community, but they’re older and less evident now. The demographic trend has seen the former generations of Jews and West Indian blacks move out to the West island. In their place came a massive influx of Filipinos, who in turn are now moving West as they rise up the socio-economic ladder. And in their place have come new waves of immigrants, be they Bangladeshi, Pakistani, West African – you name it.

Queen Mary near Snowdon Metro
Queen Mary near Snowdon Metro

What do you hope to accomplish for the residents of your district?

I want to continue what we’ve been working on for years, namely trying to make Cote des Neiges on the whole a pleasant, attractive and welcoming place to live. Our green spaces are top-notch; new chalets have been built in the parks and we’ve installed new equipment throughout (benches, water-games, trash cans, lighting, etc.).

We’ve placed a focus on park development because access to green space is crucial for our residents, especially recent arrivals. Every year our parks become home to many festivals, and the availability of large, well-maintained green spaces can do quite a bit to raise the average standard of living for all CDN residents.

In our borough, we have many socio-demographic extremes, good green spaces can help put people on a more equal footing – we all share these spaces after all.

We also have new housing initiatives in mind. For one, the ‘Triangle’ (Author’s Note: a poorly planned hodge-podge of light industrial space, mid-size apartment buildings and parking lots bounded by Décarie, De la Savanne and Jean-Talon) is set to get some 3500 new housing units, of which 15% will be used for social housing. There’s also the possibility of eventually transforming the former Blue Bonnets raceway into a large ‘urban village’ for 25 000 people to reduce sprawl.

We need more Montrealers who actually live in the city limits of Montreal, paying taxes to City Hall. The more the merrier, and this all means more money for important social programs, everything from public transit to parks and community centres.

Developing new housing solutions for families is particularly important, as families are economic agents in their own right – owning property, paying taxes, starting small businesses, and working for the betterment of communities. We can’t afford to lose any more families to off-island suburbs.

Why are we expanding the Métro in such a piecemeal fashion?

I wouldn’t characterize it that way, but I’ll tell you this – the Métro is financed by the province, 100%. The STM operates the Métro, the AMT plans Métro expansions. The AMT is a provincial body and the province makes the call as to when and if the Métro gets expanded. This is how it’s always been, for better or for worse.

It’s obvious we’d all like a Métro that goes everywhere, runs all day long, never breaks down and costs nothing to use, but we need to be far more realistic and look at the bigger transit picture. The point is simply this – we need to give as many Montrealers as possible a cheap and efficient means of getting around the city without requiring the use of their cars. That’s it. We need something affordable and doable. Métro extensions take forever to plan and execute, but as I said, that’s a provincial problem we unfortunately have to deal with.

In the meantime, we need solutions. I think the widespread implementation of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) routes and reserved lanes is probably the best way forward right now. It’s comparatively cheap given that we’re not really inventing anything new or digging subterranean tunnels, we’re just re-designing roadways and developing new routes and possibly re-purposing high-capacity buses for those routes. Much cheaper than $300 million per kilometre I can assure you.

And best of all, because the BRT system would fall within the city borders, we can plan and execute this project ourselves. We’re looking to implement some 370 km of reserved bus lanes, add 150 more articulated buses to the 200 we already have and bring the total number of buses up to 2000 from the current 1600.

What do you think of the Blue Line extension project?

It’s out of our hands, I hope the government actually accomplishes this project and the population density of St-Leonard and Anjou demand it, though I wouldn’t suggest a terminus anywhere near the Galleries d’Anjou shopping mall. Shopping malls shouldn’t double as public transit connections, especially not in the suburbs.

This is why I can’t comprehend Projet Montréal’s interest in light rail over the Champlain Bridge to the Dix-30 shopping centre in Brossard. We want people to buy locally, not make it easier for them to get to a Best Buy or Walmart. It’s companies like those that are killing our major commercial arteries here in the city.

Welcome to a series of profiles on candidates running in the 2013 Montreal municipal election. We begin with Sujata Dey, Projet Montreal‘s candidate in Darlington.

I found myself in front of a community centre/library in a converted office block on a muggy summer Sunday afternoon. High up on Cote-des-Neiges Road, the mountain still forms the backdrop looking towards the city, with the road crawling out from the gap between Mount Royal and Westmount like a river pouring forth from a waterfall.

Cote-des-Neiges Road is a never-ending torrent of humanity, the eponymous borough well represented by its main thoroughfare. The borough, Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace, is the most populous of Montreal’s many boroughs and is arguably one of the most cosmopolitan and integrated neighbourhoods in all of Canada.

The Cote-des-Neiges component is itself more heavily and densely populated and has served, nearly consistently since the end of the Second World War, as the ‘first neighbourhood’ for many generations of immigrants. This is as true today as it was more than sixty years ago.

I was there to cover the nomination of Ms. Sujata Dey, a businesswoman with deep roots in the community, as Projet Montreal city councillor candidate for the Darlington district of the aforementioned borough. Darlington, the northernmost part of Cote-des-Neiges, is also one of the poorest and most ignored parts of the city. Suffice it to say, Ms. Dey wants to change all that.

The room was packed with some seventy people who, historically, have been all but ignored by the city’s former political machines. Sure, some of the people here may be paid lip service in the immediate run-up to the election: a photo-op, a promise to encourage diversity or something along those lines. It doesn’t tend to go much farther than that.

Cote des Neiges street in the Darlington district
Cote des Neiges street in the Darlington district

Regardless, the room was full, the people attentive. I’ve been to a lot of nomination meetings; few have had this kind of turnout.

I would have assumed these people would be the most disinterested, not for lack of understanding or being able to devote the necessary time, but simply because they’ve been ignored for so long. It goes to show the conventional thinking – much like conventional politics in general – isn’t worth much.

The people gathered care. They were willing to sacrifice a precious day off to do their civic duty and implicate themselves in the process by which we might actually turn things around in our city.

Ms. Dey made a fully bilingual presentation; two languages are required to cover all bases, so to speak, with children translating into other languages in whispers for their grandparents. She mentioned she wants an ethics code, greater operational transparency, a system of checks and balances – some people’s eyes lit up, incredulous.

Why doesn’t this exist already? Why does it always seem that Montreal is missing the bare minimum requirements for a sustainable democracy?

Ms. Dey pushed on into new territory with a point made by several Projet Montreal candidates: she wants an audit. Audit the borough, audit the city, audit the departments, audit everything to see precisely where and how we’re wasting so much of our tax revenue.

The idea of an audit is wise, though it would be a hard sell. That said, it could result in a cheaper government to run.

Again, it makes me wonder why we’re not already doing it on a yearly basis. Cries of corruption in municipal politics and local construction firms date back to before the war. Despite its historical precedence, I would argue strongly that we not consider inherent corruption as an element of our culture.

Ms. Dey continued, pointing out the lack of vital community space for such a diverse, growing population. As an example, she mentioned that the Filipino Chess Club was thrown out of their former informal home – a Tim Horton’s.

In communities such as these, the demand for community space far outweighs what’s available, another victim of ‘traditional’ thinking which stipulates, ignorantly, that recent arrivals don’t have time for trivial social gatherings. The reality is quite different.

Recent arrivals not only need a lot of community space, but they actually make good use of it. Every room in this office block turned community centre was occupied; once we were done we were hurried out so the room could be converted for a reception.

The lack of available space is itself not too far removed from another point underlined by the candidate: most people who live in Darlington don’t know who their representatives are, simply because they haven’t bothered to introduce themselves to the locals. It’s hard to mobilize for a higher quality of life when you have not only never met your municipal representative, but further still, that the individual in question spends half the year golfing in Florida, or is otherwise ‘too busy’ to meet with his or her constituents.

This is on purpose. Our governments have been of the ‘laissez-faire’ variety that tends to shun civic engagement of any kind, largely because that gets in the way of private real estate interests, which, as we’re now becoming aware, seem to have dominated Montreal City Hall for about two decades.

The people of Darlington are committed citizens, engaged and neighbourly. They have no interest in private real estate deals. They need jobs, they need a housing plan, they need community-focused politicians to take on the slum lords who’ve rendered so much of the area’s so-called ‘affordable housing’ roach infested, leaky, mouldy and more.

What a sick city we live in. I would’ve expected nonsense like this back before the war, but today? In 2013? Ça n’a pas d’allure!

Ms. Dey was the only candidate Projet Montreal nominated for the district but the party took a vote anyways. It left an impression.

Whereas other groups would do this by acclamation, Projet Montreal actually went to the trouble of recording the vote. In that sense, Ms. Dey was elected to represent the party, a small yet nonetheless telling detail. The fact that there was a vote actually attaches the candidate to the people she aims to represent.

I’m sure some would deride this as mere pageantry, but I see it otherwise. At the very least it’s thorough; it doesn’t cut corners.

We should expect nothing less from our elected representatives; we go to the polls November 3rd.