I recently sat down with Projet Montréal Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace borough mayor candidate Michael Simkin to discuss his and the party’s plans for one of Montreal’s most dynamic and fascinating boroughs. I discovered one of the most unique candidates in this city’s electoral history (and I’m saying that as a historian…)
Who were you prior to this electoral season?
Well, I suppose the most accurate way to describe myself is space lawyer. To my knowledge I’m the first space lawyer to ever run for local office.
Yeah I have a law degree from McGill, one of the very few graduates from the Institute for Air and Space Law. Before that I was working on becoming an engineer, which brought me to NASA in the late 1990s to work on the X-33 advanced space plane project, a kind of next-generation Space Shuttle.
Let’s see, after being called to the Québec Bar I worked for the Canadian Space Agency’s space sciences group but my project was scrapped (as with much of our nation’s scientific research) by the Tories. I was lucky to be re-assigned to Environment Canada as a Sr. Climate Change Advisor, but have since taken a leave without pay to run for local office.
Are you mad?
Ha ha. No. I recognize that’s not what most people would do, but look at our situation here. This city needs a major change if it wants to get back on its feet.
What drives you?
Two things. First, I’m driven by trying to understand the world around me and further by trying to improve it. This is what got me into engineering, law, municipal politics, heck, even my ‘theatre therapy’ project.
How do you have time for all this?
Easy. I always work with others. I always work in groups; collaboration is the key. It’s easier and produces better long-term results.
What’s your connection with the borough?
I was born and raised here in NDG and I currently live but a few blocks from where I grew up. This is my home, my community and I’m exceptionally proud of it. Growing up we weren’t very well off, but this community always provided. You know, it’s funny. Michael Applebaum’s father used to run a shoe store and he’d sell factory seconds to people who really couldn’t afford to pay the full retail price. He helped us, he was totally selfless. When Michael Applebaum was arrested on suspicions of fraud I remember remarking to myself how far an apple can fall from the tree, no pun intended.
What did you do as a lawyer?
I only worked in law for about 18 months but during that time I was primarily involved in defending consumers as I worked for Option Consomateur. Among others I was involved in the push to change the rules regarding cell phone contracts, so that consumers wouldn’t be locked in to ridiculous three-year contracts. I also participated in a parliamentary committee on access to food and good nutrition.
Is food security a concern for you and the party?
Absolutely. I want to establish a food policy for the borough and the city, this was adopted by the party.
I was involved in establishing the first food co-op at McGill when I was studying there when I realized that the joke about students subsisting on little more than Kraft Dinner was not so much a joke but a reality for thousands of students. People assume that if you’re studying in university that you’ll be smart enough to eat properly but the problem lies in lack of access to good food at a reasonable price. Students don’t generally have immediate access to market-fresh food, let alone the money to pay for it.
Food security and the right to quality food is of vital importance to our city and the well-being of its citizens. I’ve noticed that the French community is way more food-conscious than the Anglophone community and perhaps this is changing, but for the time being, we would be wise to adopt initiatives coming out of the broader Franco-Montreal community.
What kind of initiatives are you talking about?
We have to address socio-cultural aspects concerning food and further educate the public about nutrition. In terms of the right to food, we need to look well beyond food banks and the stigmas that come with them. Community kitchens, as an example, are an engaging way to move forward on this issue.
What are the people of CDN-NDG most concerned about?
Corruption, and as a direct consequence, from what I’ve seen and experienced firsthand, there’s a lot of suspicion about anyone running for office these days. All politicians are suspect and the people think (perhaps, at least initially) that those in the running are simply looking to exploit the same machine that was involved in so much fraud, bid-rigging, collusion etc.
Now, all that said, admittedly it isn’t too difficult to demonstrate Projet Montréal’s integrity – that speaks for itself, no PM members were ever picked up by UPAC or have testified in front of the Charbonneau Commission. We’re clean, and after breaking through people’s initial resistance to speaking with politicians, we make this point clear.
Personally, I believe it’s time to abandon the notion of career municipal politicians. So I won’t seek a third mandate if I’m lucky enough to win the next two elections. Eight years is enough, after that it’s time for fresh blood.
How do you think you’re doing? How’s the party doing?
Recent polling aside, I think the party’s in a very strong position. That so much of our program has been copy-and-pasted into the programs of the other parties is indicative that, at the very least, our opponents recognize we have the ideas that resonate with the electorate. Further, that both Coderre and Coté have been running robocalls against us is also indicative we’re seen as a real threat to them. As for myself personally, I think I’m leading in CDN-NDG and am very happy with the response I’ve been getting.
What do the citizens of Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace need?
A lot. Citizens need police to respect their own operating norms and stop using racial profiling. As you might imagine that causes a lot of headaches in our borough given the large immigrant and visible minority populations. We obviously need better quality roads but we further need many more bike paths so we can encourage alternatives to using your car (which in turn helps the roads last longer).
The citizens have often spoken about the lack of community space and the poor condition of local parks, both of which need to be prioritized. Further, our parks can be too focused on supporting the needs of children and families during the day, but there are other people who’d like to use these spaces too. We need parks with activities geared towards everyone. On top of that, people are asking about green roof initiatives, urban agriculture etc.
It’s a big borough with a large and diverse population, so naturally there’s a litany of needs.
Anything in particular that really strikes a chord with you personally?
Yes. We have way too much subpar housing in my borough and it sickens me. We have people here living in apartments that technically, legally, should not be habitable.
Whether it’s electrical problems, mildew, mould, cockroaches or bedbugs, CDN-NDG has a housing problem that’s been callously ignored for far, far too long. Michael Applebaum, in his role as borough mayor, was completely useless in getting anything done in this respect.
From what I know about 20% of rental housing in our borough is listed as subpar and as borough mayor I would consider this a pressing priority. We have a moral obligation to make sure people have access to quality apartments, regardless of how much is paid in rent.
We need standards and the means to enforce strict regulations. It’s unacceptable that citizens here are forced to live in such awful housing and all for what? So a slumlord can save a few thousand dollars on repairs?
If I recall correctly, 80% of all the rental units available in the entire borough are owned by five people. You see the problem? And you better believe those people have strong connections with the old order.
We have to tackle this housing crisis head-on. Whether it comes in the form of outright expropriations or simply forced repairs that get added to the annual property tax evaluation later on, either way, this is something I consider very important. It is inexcusable that anyone in a city such as ours should be forced to live in such decrepit, infested apartments.
* Michael Simkin playing the piano in Girouard Park photo courtesy of Projet Montreal CDN/NDG