The Political Future of Montreal: Charting Our Best Course
Fifteen months ahead of the November 2021 Montreal municipal elections, La Presse has published a major article speculating about the political future of our city. Already there is a series of private discussions taking place on the part of would-be challengers to the city’s current Projet Montréal government.
When the Montreal Urban Left (MUL) was formed in 2018, the founding members and sympathizers agreed that the group should aspire to play two complementary roles in relation to the Projet Montréal administration at both the central and borough levels: that of a watchdog, working to hold Projet Montréal to its commitments, and that of a lead dog, encouraging Projet Montréal to be a pioneer of progressive policy in Montréal.
Since its inception, the MUL has organized several well attended public meetings and set up a number of working groups on a variety of urban issues. At the same time, in the larger urban activist community, many interpersonal and inter-community exchanges have taken place on issues such as free public transportation, the REM, the RoyalMount development, climate change and the city, urban agriculture, and the proposed development project on the former Blue Bonnets race track, among other citizen concerns. In addition, there have been several major OCPM public consultations on the city and climate change as well as on the Montreal police and systematic racism, which all originated with the use by activists of the citizens’ initiative clause in the Montreal Charter of Rights and Responsibilities, which gives citizens the power to compel public consultations to be held on legitimate issues. This allows major urban issues and policy alternatives to be debated between municipal elections.
In the years since the election of Projet Montréal, at least two major cracks have appeared within the ranks of the administration. First, there was an attempt to oust the elected borough mayor of Villeray–St-Michel–Park Extension, an incident that drew much media attention. Borough mayor Giuliana Fumagalli was excluded from the Projet Montréal caucus on allegations of workplace harassment, and she continues to serve her constituents as an independent surrounded by hostile fellow members of the borough council. The second major political crack occurred in the NDG-Cote des Neiges borough council. Once again, it emerged over attempts to censor and isolate the borough mayor. Both these major episodes revealed the heavy hand of the central power of the Mayor’s office and those around it. There is no evidence that these two situations were discussed inside the party by members. The media have paid considerable attention to these dramas. And at the borough council meetings where some of what was happening were aired, there was much grandstanding by local politicians
When the pandemic hit the city hard, the Plante administration tended to follow the lead of the provincial government with respect to the actions to be taken to flatten the coronavirus curve. Montreal turned into a ghost town. Under these restrictive circumstances, community organizations sprang into action, engaging in mutual aid and laying out solidarity programs. Donations were solicited and received from the City, borough councils, and the federal government. This impressive work included food deliveries, help for the elderly, free distribution of masks, food markets, and telephone trees to check in on vulnerable members of the community and keep people in touch with each other. In some neighbourhoods, this work also had a political dimension in its appeals to social justice for all.
How can we continue to build on this foundation of community solidarity in action? Critical discussions of many of the major urban issues have been eclipsed by the pandemic and some projects remain shrouded in secrecy. We should not forget that the City of Montreal has the biggest bureaucracy of any city in North America. For example, Toronto, a city of 6.7 million people with an annual budget of $13 billion, has a bureaucracy of 35,771. Montreal, a city of 1.75 million with an annual budget of little more than $6 billion, has a bureaucracy of 30,000. While Plante & co. did put forward a plan to conserve a large piece of green space on the West Island, it was an unacceptable compromise for environmentalists on the Technoparc, an important sanctuary for migrating birds. And while the Plante administration announced its intention to consult citizens on the City’s budget, the process is so far is unconvincing. A participatory budget can be an important democratic tool for citizens engaged in a decision-making process, but Projet Montréal’s warmed-over public consultation pales in comparison to many examples of participatory budgeting processes.  The broad-based Climate Change Coalition has found the Plante administration’s undertakings and accomplishments to date timid and inadequate Despite the size of its bureaucracy,, Montreal cannot be said to have made much progress in becoming a more democratic and ecological city. This should give radicals pause as we are called upon to support Projet Montréal at the polls in 15 months.
Of course, elements of the political and economic establishment will most certainly want to see Projet Montréal defeated and will back one of the two existing opposition political parties, both of which are to the right of Projet Montréal; or perhaps there will be an attempt to form a new political party headed up by some media-savvy recycled politician motivated purely by opportunism.
Discussions of how the urban and community left should position themselves in relation to Projet Montréal started even before the last election and have continued ever since. With the next election a little over a year away, it’s time to reach some conclusions. A plan and a program must be put in place with a vision of a democratic city, an ecological city, and a city committed to basic social transformation. Can Projet Montréal be nudged to the left and persuaded to adopt and enact a program of basic social and political change? Can its elected representatives be convinced to work for such a program at the local level? Can the party itself be made more authentically democratic?
As we move closer to getting the pandemic under control, there will be a strong tendency to return to ‘business as usual’. We need to push back hard against this. Citizens are hungry for real change. In the meantime, the season of ‘mushroom political’ parties is upon us. Two new ones have already been given some media coverage. Let us put our efforts into pressing for real change, and nothing less.
 “Another City is Possible – alternatives to the city as a commodity – participatory budgeting” Yves Cabannes and Delgado Cecilia. (Black Rose Books, 2019)