Skip to main content

Montreal’s 2017 mayoral race was a classic contest of hope versus experience.

Then incumbent mayor Denis Coderre, a veteran of Liberal backrooms who bled politics, faced off against Valérie Plante, a cheery eco-warrior who promised to make Montreal green again.

Mr. Coderre, a former high-profile federal cabinet minister under prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, played up his résumé and connections in business and higher levels of government. A bevy of the city’s best-known power brokers lined up behind up him to warn against handing the keys to city hall to the inexperienced Ms. Plante.

In the end, voters chose hope over experience. Ms. Plante won 51 per cent of the popular vote and her Projet Montréal party won a majority of city council seats with a signature promise to build a new 30-kilometre extension to the underground Métro system dubbed the “Pink Line.”

Four years later, the tables have been turned as Montrealers gear up for, if not exactly the rematch of the century, then another epic duel between Ms. Plante and Mr. Coderre. Except that this time, having undergone a stunning physical and philosophical transformation, Mr. Coderre is running as a hope-and-change candidate while Ms. Plante seeks to defend her record.

There is not a lot to defend. Pink Line has been exposed for the fantasy it always was and it is no longer on anyone’s agenda, at least not for this century. The public transit file has been usurped by the provincial government and the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the giant pension fund manager that is proposing to construct a 32-kilometre light-rail transit line through east-end Montreal once it finishes the LRT project it is now building to the west.

Instead, Ms. Plante and her party are talking up the Réseau express vélo, or REV, the 184-kilometre network of year-round bike lanes her administration has been building in phases. Depending on your perspective, the REV is either an inspiring model for other North American cities to emulate or just another illustration of Projet Montréal’s ideological war on the car that is making Montreal’s already congested roads even more dangerous and difficult to navigate.

Ms. Plante recently won an endorsement from the city’s firefighters’ union, which may not exactly work in her favour. She is seen as being too cozy with organized labour, which went to war against the Coderre administration’s attempt to reform costly municipal pension plans.

Mr. Coderre has tried not to appear too dismissive of his rival, though he has exhibited flickers of his former arrogant self during a couple of recent debates. His haughtiness cost him plenty of votes last time around, as did the perception that he was in throes of clique of powerful investors who had been lobbying for the return of a professional baseball franchise to the city.

Now, however, Mr. Coderre, who promised municipal funding for a new baseball stadium in 2017, is singing a different tune. “People don’t want to hear about baseball right now. They don’t want to think about whether they want a stadium or not,” he said on Monday.

Mr. Coderre has also tried to undo impressions that he supports an anything-goes approach to urban planning. In a manifesto published in the spring, the former mayor came out in favour of abolishing a 1992 bylaw that restricts building heights to protect views of Mount Royal. He recently renounced the idea, but not soon enough to avoid being labelled as “a man of the Sixties” by architecture doyenne Phyllis Lambert, a scion of the wealthy Bronfman clan who long fought against the late mayor Jean Drapeau’s razing of heritage buildings to make way for skyscrapers. Speaking of the past, Mr. Coderre favours re-erecting a downtown statue of John A. Macdonald that was yanked down by anti-racism protesters last year.

That is not the only wedge issue he has raised. Mr. Coderre has also seized on a recent spike in gun violence to play the law-and-order card. At their April policy convention, members of Projet Montréal supported a proposal to disarm some police officers, though Ms. Plante has not formally backed the idea. “They can say what they want, they are for defunding and disarming the police,” Mr. Coderre retorted in La Presse.

A third candidate in the Nov. 7 mayoral race, former Montreal Alouettes player and lawyer, Balarama Holness, wants to seek city-state status for Montreal, giving it the same taxation powers as the provincial and federal governments. The idea is even more fantastical than Ms. Plante’s 2017 Pink Line proposal. But the son of a Jamaican-born father and francophone Québécoise mother appears to have built a following among younger voters. His candidacy could hurt Ms. Plante more than Mr. Coderre, who draws most of his support from older voters.

All the candidates, meanwhile, vow to plant lots and lots of trees.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct