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Canada What's at stake in the race to be Montreal's mayor

14:07  25 september  2021
14:07  25 september  2021 Source:   montrealgazette.com

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  What's at stake in the race to be Montreal's mayor © Provided by The Gazette

Will the COVID-19 pandemic help or hinder incumbent mayor Valérie Plante’s chances of re-election?

When Montrealers go to the polls on Nov. 6-7 to choose the next city administration, political observers say the health crisis could be a double-edged sword for Plante and her main rival, Denis Coderre.

How the city will recover from the pandemic is among voters’ top concerns as Montreal’s election campaign kicks into high gear, along with housing, gun crime, protecting Mount Royal, bike paths and reflecting the city’s diversity.

Monday’s federal election showed that despite fairly high ratings for his pandemic management, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s roll of the dice in hopes of winning a majority did not pay off.

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But Plante’s handling of the pandemic could enhance her bid for a second term, predicted Danielle Pilette, an associate professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal specializing in municipal governance.

She pointed to how Plante took matters into her own hands in March 2020 by asking travellers arriving from abroad at Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport to self-quarantine for 14 days.

“She rose to the occasion by creating public spaces and encouraging people to use them, and they were very popular and widely appreciated,” Pilette added.

“If Ms. Plante plays that card, I think it will work in her favour,” she said.

But Chris Erl, a doctoral candidate at McGill University specializing in municipal politics, said there’s also a chance that Montrealers’ frustration with the pandemic could rebound on Plante.

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“I think COVID is something that’s really out of a lot of people’s control, but because Valérie Plante has been in office for the past four years, it’s going to impact her more than it’s going to impact Denis Coderre,” he said.

Downtown still hasn’t recovered and is unloved by the population, Pilette noted.

“With COVID, (Coderre) has been able to say, ‘Let’s return to the good old days when I was mayor, when we focused on investment, when we focused on building the city up, when we focused on bringing in new jobs and new opportunities for people,” Erl said.

“He’s really playing to people’s nostalgia, I think. It’s a strategy that’s worked in the past and he’s a very skilled political actor, so he’s trying to remind people of what it was like when he was mayor, while of course leaving out some of the notable policy failures,” he said.

Ten points ahead in popular support last May, Coderre has dropped to neck-and-neck with Plante, according to a Léger survey for Le Devoir Wednesday. Coderre now has 37 per cent of voter intentions, to 36 per cent for Plante, it said. Movement Montreal Leader Balarama Holness has eight per cent support, while Marc-Antoine Desjardins of the Ralliement pour Montréal has five per cent.

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Plante is favoured among people in the city centre and the under-35 age group, while Coderre is ahead in the west and east ends  and among older voters.

Among the top concerns for Montrealers, the poll found, are housing (55 per cent), gun control and policing (33 per cent) and the economic recovery of downtown and shopping streets (27 per cent).

“Those are all issues that I think are going to play a role,” Erl said.

“I think how the candidates react to the diverse needs and wants of residents will really influence who wins, especially how they structure their response to COVID, how they talk about economic development and how they deal with police violence and security,” he added.

a close up of a street sign in front of a building © Provided by The Gazette

Housing

Plante promises 60,000 affordable housing units over the next 10 years, including both rentals and condos. The city will invest $800 million in land acquisition for the program if she is re-elected, she announced Wednesday.

Coderre called the plan extravagant, saying it was yet another promise she would not be able to fulfil.

In 2017, Plante promised 12,000 social, affordable and family units during her first mandate. While she claims to have attained that goal, the city’s auditor general cast doubt last year on whether any social units had actually been built by June 2020.

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Holness has accused Plante of making up housing statistics and demanded that she disclose how many social and affordable housing have actually been built.  Youssef Amane, Plante’s director of media relations, confirmed Thursday that 11, 564 of the promised 12,000 units have been approved, while 7,019 are presently occupied.

In April, the Plante administration’s bylaw requiring the inclusion of social, affordable and family-sized units in some new projects came into effect. It was expected to result in 600 new social housing units annually.

The bylaw met with stiff resistance from developers and Coderre’s Ensemble Montréal party.

Coderre is more inclined to rely on the private sector and higher levels of government than to regulate, Pilette said.

On Sept. 15, members of the Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU) demonstrated to demand that Coderre make a commitment to social housing.

Plante has repeatedly called on the federal and provincial governments to invest in social housing.

With more than 23,000 households on the waiting list for units at the Office municipal d’habitation de Montréal, much more aggressive action is needed, according to the Institut de recherche et d’informations socioéconomiques (IRIS).

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Gun crime and policing

“Montreal is not safe,” Coderre said repeatedly this summer in response to the recent surge in gun violence.

The city needs to make public security its Number One issue and expand the police force, he said.

“Mr. Coderre is focusing more on repression and on law and order, while Ms. Plante is emphasizing dialogue and diversity,” Pilette said.

Last month, Plante announced the hiring of 42 additional police officers and civilian staff to combat gun crime.

She also appealed to federal candidates to ban handguns and crack down on arms trafficking, noting that the rise in gun violence affects cities across the country, as well as local suburbs.

Despite the rise in violence, Montreal is still a safe city, Plante said.

“Although Mr. Coderre seems to want to promote the feeling of insecurity, I don’t think the population is panicking,” Pilette said.

  What's at stake in the race to be Montreal's mayor

Protecting Montreal’s uniqueness

Preserving views of Mount Royal has become a campaign issue in the wake of Coderre’s proposal to scrap a 29-year-old zoning bylaw limiting the height of new skyscrapers to the top of the cross on the mountain.

He later back-pedalled but has not clarified his stand.

At a press conference with Plante Wednesday, preservationist Phyllis Lambert endorsed the incumbent mayor’s vision.

“With Denis Coderre coming out and saying, ‘No more height limits, build, build, build,’ it’s showing his focus on economic development, which is trying to appeal to a suburban base who may not necessarily deal with the impacts of that kind of construction,” Erl said.

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  What's at stake in the race to be Montreal's mayor

Cars and bike paths

“Ms. Plante’s policy has been to reduce the space for cars in general and to narrow streets, either for flower pots or café-terrasses,” Pilette said.

Bike paths, like the Réseau express vélo (REV) on St-Denis St., “don’t help her among certain groups but they are popular with younger people and especially young families,” she said.

Coderre, on the other hand, is “trying to capitalize on that anger and frustration among motorists and people who thought that Projet (Montréal) was going to be a breath of fresh air but they wouldn’t exactly go all the way on all of their policy issues,” Erl said.

“I think if Denis Coderre is trying to build a suburban, centre-right coalition that’s more focused on traditional methods of transportation, on making sure that cars can move through the city pretty quickly, that’s somewhere where he could find a space for himself,” he said.

Coderre has vowed to dismantle part of the REV bike path on Bellechasse St. However, he now says he would keep the REV on St-Denis St.

 Movement Montreal Leader Balarama Holness could play spoiler in key races. “I think especially when it comes to Balarama Holness, his party seems to be the biggest threat to Projet (Montréal) securing another term,” says Chris Erl, a doctoral candidate at McGill University specializing in municipal politics. © Allen McInnis Movement Montreal Leader Balarama Holness could play spoiler in key races. “I think especially when it comes to Balarama Holness, his party seems to be the biggest threat to Projet (Montréal) securing another term,” says Chris Erl, a doctoral candidate at McGill University specializing in municipal politics.

Diversity and defections

Slammed for the lack of diversity in her caucus during her first mandate, Plante has made a point of recruiting candidates who better reflect the city’s demographic mix. Projet Montréal’s slate of 103 includes 47 people from racial and ethnic minorities.

But the departure of former allies like Holness, a former Projet Montréal candidate who organized a 22,000-name petition in 2018 to force public consultations on racism and systemic discrimination, could splinter the progressive vote in some parts of the city, Erl warned.

“I think especially when it comes to Balarama Holness, his party seems to be the biggest threat to Projet securing another term,” he said.

“I think they’ll certainly play spoiler in key races,” he added.

Plante’s split with Sue Montgomery, borough mayor of Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, who has founded her own party in the city’s largest borough and is running for re-election, could also cost Plante, Pilette warned.

Plante “has a very fragile majority in council. Even if she is re-elected, she runs the risk of losing her majority,” she said.

mscott@postmedia.com

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