Q&A / Canada
Montréal’s first woman mayor is using the city’s economic upswing to drive socially minded change. But only months into the job she’s found herself in storms of protest – and deep snow.
Valérie Plante’s campaign slogan ahead of her election to Montréal city hall in November 2017 was provocatively simple: “L’homme de la situation.” Roughly translated, Plante says playfully, she wanted to pitch herself as the “right man for the job” in her campaign to become the first woman to serve as mayor in Montréal’s 375-year history.
“It got me a lot of criticism,” she says of the slogan, speaking in her grand, wood-panelled office in Montréal’s opulent city hall building. “But I knew I had to be very loud about it. I think that really resonated with a lot of people.”
Since winning, Plante has filled her schedule with initiatives that were the cornerstones of her aspirational campaign. As leader of the centre-left environmentalist collective Projet Montréal, she styled herself as a political outsider, an anthropologist by training with experience in the arts and the non-profit sectors. Her campaign promised greener and more affordable public transport, a new subway line, reform of education provision and wider access to affordable housing. Much of that would be achieved, she claimed, thanks to Montréal’s recent, and ongoing, economic revival, spurred in large part by the city’s growing technology, film-production and computer-games sectors.
“I inherited a city that is definitely in a new mode,” Plante says. “That’s been happening for at least 10 years so Montréal is doing very, very well at the moment. I feel privileged to be in this position right now.”
But if campaigns are won on grand aspirations, governing is judged on the facts. As political honeymoons go, Plante’s has been relatively short. Her decision to raise some city taxes by about 3 per cent in her first budget drew criticism that she had broken a key election pledge. Meanwhile, five major snowstorms since the election meant snow-clogged pavements became a particularly potent political issue for her fledgling administration.
She sat down with monocle to talk about the challenges in running a historic city that’s been plagued by corruption and inefficiency, and how she’s learning from her critics.
MONOCLE: What are your priorities during your first term?
VALÉRIE PLANTE: I’m talking about mobility, the quality of life in neighbourhoods, housing, economic development by supporting small enterprises and local businesses. We were able to quickly bring to life one of our campaign promises, which was to introduce 300 new hybrid buses. We haven’t had that kind of money put into bus infrastructure for years. We’re also putting so much money into housing, something we’ve never seen before, to make sure all kinds of families can actually live in Montréal.
M: You were criticised for raising taxes in your first budget. Did you understand why people were opposed to the move?
VP: I was disappointed I had to do that. It was not easy. But at the same time I could not agree with just keeping the status quo. I understood how people were surprised; in some cases disappointed. It was a reality check. But I truly believe I did the right thing. It was the responsible thing to do.
M: But you concede that it was a promise broken?
VP: I do not want to minimise this but it isn’t a 20 per cent tax rise. The biggest reality check when we started our mandate was discovering the state of the books. We realised the financials were not what we thought they’d be, so we had to make a difficult decision.
M: Corruption has been a big issue in Montréal. How successful have reforms to combat it been?
VP: This is now a clean city. Some of the money that was spent illegally, we’re getting back [by fining companies guilty of paying bribes] and it will be reinvested into services. If you’re in politics for the right reason there’s no way you’re letting somebody run away with money that doesn’t belong to them. We are very vigilant now.
M: Where are the key areas of opportunity for Montréal?
VP: Investors are interested in coming here. We’ve shown the ability to bring a lot of headquarters here, like in artificial intelligence, for example. We have so many creators and thinkers around that industry; I want to keep that creativity here. Entrepreneurs shouldn’t have to go to the US to get financed.
M: How have proposals such as a ban on religious veils impacted notions of diversity in Montréal?
VP: We’re in a very special bubble; we’ve always been a cosmopolitan city. Sixty-five per cent of immigrants who come here stay. It just isn’t applicable in Montréal. This is a place where we welcome everybody and that’s a strength for us.
M: Have the political challenges you’ve faced at the beginning of your term changed your agenda?
VP: The real learning curve has been that hopes were so high; some people have been disappointed. But I’m going to take all of that and run with it. That’s why I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time.
In its heyday, Montréal was Canada’s economic hub and home to major international events. But by the time of the 1976 Olympic Games, the exodus (as it’s still, contentiously, described) had begun, driven partly by separatist sentiment in Québec that culminated in the 1995 independence vote. A protectionist approach to the French language has been a barrier to doing business in Montréal but attitudes are changing.
A 2016 census revealed a rise in bilingualism across Québéc, with 45 per cent of people speaking both English and French at home. Rigid laws around the use of Quebecois are relaxing too and the number of Montréalers whose mother tongue is neither English nor French is also rising. The city’s revival is well underway. Unlike Toronto and Vancouver, its housing stock is diverse and affordable, and quality of life is high. Over the past decade, tech firms in particular have gravitated to the city and its food, drink and cultural sectors are enviable.