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Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre is shown in his office on Jan. 9, 2014. Mr. Coderre is a vocal opponent of the proposed values charter. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)
Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre is shown in his office on Jan. 9, 2014. Mr. Coderre is a vocal opponent of the proposed values charter. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

Montreal mayor to fight values charter in fresh debate Add to ...

Mayor Denis Coderre will tell the province to butt out of Montreal’s dealings with religious minorities on city staff as he prepares to address public hearings on Quebec’s Charter of Values, which launch on Tuesday.

The mayor will go before a parliamentary committee to defend Montreal’s independence at what promises to be a rancorous new round of the debate on Bill 60, which would ban ostentatious religious symbols in the provincial public service.

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“I’m against this charter. The bottom line is, it’s not up to the Quebec government to decide how we’re going to hire civil servants in our city,” Mr. Coderre said in an interview. “I’m going to send the message that Montreal defines itself by its diversity. Applying this law on ostentatious symbols for civil servants is an incitement to institutionalizing job discrimination.”

Although the mayor has been vocal in his criticism of the charter, he spelled out his specific points of disagreement. He said the city has an unspecified number of staffers who wear religious symbols and has received no public complaints about them. Besides, the State in Quebec is already neutral, he added. “If a doctor wears a kippa, what I want is for him to treat me. If it’s an intrinsic part of his identity, he’s not promoting his religion. He’s delivering a service.”

Mr. Coderre also took a shot at Parti Québécois Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville, who argued the charter was necessary due to a “crisis.”

“You don’t start a press conference saying there’s a crisis. There is no crisis,” Mr. Coderre said. “The reality is that we could have and should have avoided this debate.”

Mr. Coderre begins the year, and his new mandate, vowing to take a more activist role as mayor of a city struggling to climb out of a debilitating morass of corruption. Mr. Coderre still has to convince skeptical Montrealers. While campaigning, he became better known for his old-style pol persona and glib pronouncements (“What you see is what you get”) than for his substance.

Since being elected with 32 per cent of the vote in anemic voter turnout, the former Liberal MP has forged an approachable and blunt-spoken persona, using a substantial Twitter following to weigh in on everything from the Team Canada roster at the Olympics to house fires in Montreal to aggressive policing toward a homeless man (“unacceptable”).

On jobs that require more than a smart phone and 140 characters, Mr. Coderre’s ambitions involve restoring Montreal’s standing and putting it back in the league of respectable cities again. He’s intent on increasing Montreal’s clout both provincially and on the national scene.

“Montreal is the metropolis of Quebec. Montreal is the second biggest city in Canada. Montreal has to assert itself … and show leadership,” he said. “We have to stop whipping ourselves. Montreal will become a player again.”

He’s already creating a nascent alliance with the popular mayor of Quebec City, Régis Labeaume, in what’s being described as a new power couple to take on the province, as well as their respective cities’ swelling pension plan deficits. In Quebec’s year-end satirical TV revue, a program watched by more than four million people called Bye Bye, Mr. Labeaume and Mr. Coderre are portrayed as comic-book heros Astérix and Obélix, ready to do battle against powerful blue-collar unions and their pension benefits.

Mr. Coderre, who spent 16 years in Ottawa as a Liberal MP and cabinet minister, also wants to work closely with Canadian mayors on national issues like Canada Post’s announcement it would cease home delivery. He is withering toward Canada Post chief executive Deepak Chopra, who said community mailboxes will help seniors keep active.

“To have the president of Canada Post, who earns $600,000 a year, say ‘it will be good for seniors to exercise.’ Hello?” Mr. Coderre said. “This decision … was improvised, and it touches all Canadians. We’re starting the crusade.” On a practical level, he said placing community mailboxes on dense urban streets in Montreal would create a “Wall of China.”

In style, Mr. Coderre has already distinguished himself from his predecessor, the reserved, Harvard-educated Gérald Tremblay, who avoided the media and was forced to resign in 2012 after disclosures of illegal party financing. Danielle Pilette, a professor of urban affairs at the Université du Québec à Montreal, says Mr. Coderre is also surrounding himself with a strong admininistrative and political team, and showing himself a capable manager of a notoriously unruly city.

“For 10 years, under Mr. Tremblay, the city was dysfunctional,” Prof. Pilette said Friday. “There were scandals. The price of services was too high. Mr. Coderre is already showing that he’s keeping an eye on things, listening and delivering services. The city is becoming manageable again.”

Follow on Twitter: @iperitz

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