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Montreal’s first female mayor represents new chapter in city’s rich history

Valérie Plante speaks to supporters on election night after being elected mayor of Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Montreal’s first female mayor represents new chapter in city’s rich history

Montreal has once again turned to the left, to bicycle-riding environmentalists and community activists, for its new mayor and governing party. Sunday’s election turnout was an unimpressive 42.46 per cent, but the result was nonetheless spectacular.

Valérie Plante is the first woman mayor of Montreal, and she represents a fairly radical but highly creative force in Quebec politics. Grappling with the city’s aging infrastructure will undoubtedly be one of her key challenges.

Plante defeated Denis Coderre decisively, capturing 243,242 votes to Coderre’s 216,104 votes. Plante’s party, Projet Montréal, also won the majority of the seats on city council — 34 of the 65 available. This will enable the party to implement its platform although, as always, it leaves it vulnerable to arrogance in the exercise of power.

Projet Montréal was originally established by an idealistic urban planner, Richard Bergeron, an outspoken advocate of improved and environmentally friendly public transit.

The party has been the major opposition to more conservative, centrist parties that governed Montreal during a difficult decade, from 2002 to 2013, that included an economic slump and a major police corruption scandal.

Bergeron, in fact, switched sides and joined Coderre’s administration, but lost his seat on council this election — a reminder that politics is cruel and politicians can fall victim both to the allure of fame and power and to a fickle electorate.

Plante makes history

Plante’s groundbreaking election is now part of Montreal’s rich political and economic history.

Before Montreal was a city, the island was occupied by the Iroquois. It then became a European colonial outpost linked to the fur trade. It later evolved to become a port, providing access to the interior of both Upper and Lower Canada and facilitating the development of Canada’s natural resource-based economy. It served as headquarters for the Grand Trunk Railway and was the commercial capital of Canada, rivalling New York for control of trade to the hinterland.

Today, it’s the second-largest metropolis in Canada after Toronto.

It’s also the biggest city on Earth where two of the world’s great languages and cultures, English and French, co-exist — albeit sometimes uneasily. It has a dynamic multicultural personality where many languages are spoken and cultural influences from many parts of the world are encountered daily.

What’s more, Montreal is similar to cities like Chicago and New York in that it’s often had larger-than-life personalities as mayors for many years. Camillien Houde and Jean Drapeau, between them, governed the city for close to 50 years.

Both Plante and Coderre are open to the city’s diversity and linguistic duality, which I have explored in great detail as the author of two books, City of Dreams: Social Theory and the Urban Experience and Toward a Humanist Political Economy (co-authored with Phillip Hansen).

I have also written at length on the critical role infrastructure investment needs to play in our cities. Montreal’s crumbling infrastructure contributed to Coderre’s demise and will likely dominate Plante’s first years in office as well.

Infrastructure investment is crucial

Infrastructure investment and quantitative easing are necessary policies to recover from severe business cycle downturns and to create jobs. In Montreal, it’s integral.

Coderre got elected to the job of mayor four years ago on a platform of restoring the city, rebuilding its infrastructure and cleaning up corruption. In many respects, he succeeded, but he fell victim to some of the frustration felt by people about the commuter chaos that’s emerged while Montreal rebuilds its highways and replaces antiquated infrastructure.

Outgoing Mayor Denis Coderre makes his concession speech after losing the municipal election in Montreal. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

It’s a problem faced by many North American cities as they seek to repair their infrastructure and rebuild and expand public transportation. Along with the pressure of rising land values, inflating house and condo prices and exorbitant rents, these problems are escalating.

As for Plante, one has to go back to the regime of the late Jean Doré and the Montreal Citizens’ Movement, which defeated the legendary conservative nationalist Drapeau in 1986, to find as left wing and progressive a mayor as she aspires to be.

Doré governed for eight years and eventually became more of a reforming technocrat than a left-wing idealist.

Now we’ll see whether political power and the challenge of meeting Montreal’s growing public transportation and infrastructure needs will also transform Plante and her party in what’s sure to be another fascinating phase in Montreal’s history.