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Elections and activism: a Montreal experience

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January 26, 2014

The November 3, 2013 Montreal municipal elections took place in the midst of the debate over the Quebec Charter on “secularism.” In these elections, the untold story was the success of opposition party Projet Montréal (PM), a broadly progressive, anti-corruption, environmentalist party. Despite the election of a high-profile ex-federal Liberal as mayor of Montreal, this party, made up largely of ordinary people, kept all of its incumbent seats and doubled its number of elected officials since the last elections. They, like other Montreal municipal parties, oppose the “secular” Charter.
In December 2013, Chantal Sundaram interviewed two people active in both street-level and electoral politics in Montreal about the relationship between electoral politics and activism. Adrienne Gibson is a member of the left-wing Quebec provincial party Quebec solidaire, and also campaigned for candidates in two recent Montreal elections: for Projet Montreal in the municipal elections, and for the Federal NDP in a Montreal riding. Deborah Murray is a member of Quebec solidaire, a supporter of Projet Montreal, and a member of the International Socialists.
Chantal: In English Canada, we have seen a big shift in how the media is covering what’s going on in Quebec. It went from being all about the Orange Wave getting the NDP into opposition, and then the Maple Spring, and then switched to corruption scandals and the Secularism Charter. And then in the municipal election, all that was portrayed was the election of Mayor Denis Coderre. Let’s start there: the Montreal election as a window into how people are still thinking about resistance. First, the official story: who is Coderre?  
Adrienne:  Well, Coderre is a liberal, of the federal Liberal Party. He was there throughout the sponsorship scandal. He’s a career politician. He saw an opportunity and seized it, saw a vacuum and seized it. He’s an old school politician from the Chrétien old boy’s club era. He’s establishment in a way that people feel comfortable with because he’s got a big personality, like the mayor of Quebec City, Labaume.
Deborah:   In recent weeks Coderre’s been doing a lot of PR with Labaume, who is very closely connected with Pierre Karl Peladeau, who’s connected with the push for an arena in Quebec City, a hockey team deal, and who, when he was head of the Journal de Montréal, locked-out journalists and brought in scabs for 2 years. So if you look at who Coderre is associating himself with, he’s anti-worker and he’s networking across Québec.
Adrienne:  For me, an interesting comparator is with some of the mayors in Western Canada.  In Winnipeg the former mayor Glen Murray was the first openly gay mayor; he was really interesting and progressive. In Calgary, you have a mayor, Naheed Nenshi, who is not progressive but is outside the establishment in a lot of ways. He’s Muslim. He’s brown. He’s never been involved in politics before. So he’s populist in a positive way. Whereas Rob Ford is the dark side of populism.
Chantal:  So Coderre was spun as the victor. But what were the major issues?
Adrienne:  I feel that Projet Montréal actually set the agenda, probably because they were the only ones with a platform when they started. For example, they had a plan for improving public transportation, so everyone else felt they had to come up with something, and transportation became a really important issue. That was one of the ways in which Projet Montréal controlled the campaign, and it’s not surprising none of the other parties had anything else starting out except their leaders’ personalities.
Chantal:  Who is Projet Montréal? 
Deborah:  They are not a left-wing party but they attract a lot of left-wing activists. Some of their origins come out of associations with activists in Québec solidaire, an early relationship between members in the two parties. In the 2009 Montreal elections, Nima Machouf (married to Quebec solidaire MNA Amir Khadir), elected as municipal councillor to the Jeanne Mance Council, gave up her seat to Projet Montreal leader Richard Bergeron after he lost his bid for Montreal Mayor, so that the party’s leader could have a seat at City Council. In the recent election, leaders of Québec solidaire openly called for voters to break with the old parties of corruption and opt for progressive and environmental candidates.
They’ve been strong on the environment and really taking politics down to a local level. In the Plateau riding getting rid of car traffic and making parks and schools safer were priorities. They made real visible change and weren’t afraid to be bold, making lane ways into green spaces for people, planting more trees, reinvigorating the parks. People always went to the parks, but not in the numbers we see now. They’ve put things in like exercise equipment, ping pong tables, that bring a sense of community.
Chantal:  Did it sink in with the people of Montreal that the breakthrough by Projet Montréal was as much a part of the election story as Coderre getting elected?
Adrienne:  No, the mainstream media don’t talk about Projet Montréal unless they absolutely have to. It was all about Coderre winning and, “oh yeah, Projet Montréal is the official opposition and (Project Montreal leader) Bergeron lost, isn’t that too bad.”
Deborah:  I think that’s exactly correct. I don’t think that the party has been given a lot of profile in the media on a broad base level. I mean, they had landslide wins …
Adrienne: In five or six boroughs where they had no one before, now there’s at least one person if not more. They’ve doubled the number of people elected. It’s huge. It’s the only party that’s still around (since the last election) and they’re growing and they’re the opposition. I feel if it were any other party, this would be a big story. After the fact, people like to say that the outcome was inevitable. But we should not forget that prior to the election, it was said most people secretly hated what Projet Montréal was doing, small businesses hated them, so Projet Montréal was going to get booted out. Instead, they all got back in and more.
Deborah:  I just want to highlight a connection between Projet Montreal and the students. Projet Montréal did come out against Law P-6, the legislation that tried to enforce, on a municipal level, no wearing of masks on demonstrations during the Maple Spring. Projet Montréal did take a clear stand against the restrictions that were put on the student demos.
Chantal:  What about the door-to-door campaign? Did you find that it connected with bigger issues beyond the ones that were at stake in the municipal election, that people were looking for some way to express their dissatisfaction and Projet Montréal was interesting for a range of reasons?
Adrienne:  Mostly people cared about their neighborhoods. A lot of people were cynical about politicians in general. I found Projet Montréal was good for responding to that concern. With the candidate I was helping, we convinced a lot of people to vote who would not have voted otherwise. They were convinced because they met the candidate: he is a social worker who saved the swimming pool in a heritage building that the past administration wanted to close down. One elderly lady told us a lovely story about going there as a young child and how the guy who ran the concession stand would give her chips. People said, “Oh well, maybe I’ll try voting for you because you seem to care and you’re not just in it for the money and power.”
Projet Montréal is a party of people who are not career politicians, not propelled by real estate agents and business people, a party of people who are just citizens. I translated a lot of the candidate biographies and it’s a really broad range. You do have local business people, but also a huge group of community activists. Many have been involved in municipal politics as activists but not in elected positions. That was something that spoke to people.
Chantal: In all the door-to-door campaigns you’ve done recently in Montreal, did you see any common themes, like the question of trusting politicians?
Adrienne:  I think I’ve had that in all the campaigns I’ve done on all levels, municipal to federal.
Deborah:  I think the wonderful thing about QS and Projet Montréal so far is the coming together of the anglo and francophone milieus in a common cause. If you take it from electoral politics to the street, for the very first time students from a couple of departments at Concordia actually went out on strike: you had definite mobilizations out of the anglo campuses before but not to the point of taking a strike vote and walking out. It was the beginning of connecting to the francophone milieu.
Chantal:  But so far what you’re describing is largely the two major solitudes. What about immigrant communities?  Especially with the PQ deliberately trying to create a cleavage with the Charter of Values.
Adrienne:  Interestingly, all of the main Montreal mayoral candidates came out against the Values Charter. Already, as a base line, Montréal municipal politics is much more comfortable with diversity, with a heterogeneous identity, than is the province as a whole. One of Projet Montréal’s newly-elected Councillors is a Hasidic Jewish woman, Mindy Pollack. It is the first time ever that a Hasidic Jewish person has been elected to municipal politics in Montréal or the province, as far as I know, and she’s a woman. How’s that for smashing some preconceived notions about religion and equality of the sexes! I consider it an inspiring instance of being able to reach out to a community that is known for being excluded and separate…
Chantal:  And for her to be elected in the middle of this debate on the Secularism Charter too…
Adrienne:  Yes, that’s wonderful.
Deborah:  We can’t forget that Coderre’s step out against the Charter is federalist. It has nothing to do with the principle of the issue on the ground here.
Chantal: How can activism that is not always in the street be expressed in elections, in a way that isn’t demobilizing?
Adrienne:  My approach is old-school union: get out and talk to people, as much as possible. You have to go and meet people, go to where they are, go to their door and have a conversation with them and listen to what they have to say. Then, if possible, get back to them if there are things to get back to them about. It sounds really boring and long but I think it’s the only thing that works.
Deborah:  I think it’s that simple.
Adrienne: That’s the ticket—actually meeting people face to face.
Deborah:  And it’s the kind of thing anybody can do. It’s also obvious to me that even if the links weren’t so obvious between Québec solidaire and Projet Montréal, or between the student movement and electoral politics, the links actually have been built, and they’ve been built in the anglophone population within these largely francophone-based electoral parties and campaigns. It’s a very optimistic picture for the future. People are getting to know each other.
Chantal: So what I hear is this: elections shouldn’t be a popularity contest. They should be about seeing yourself in the candidate: you’re designating someone that you have control over and access to, to run things in your name. If you look around the world, what’s come out of the resistance to neoliberalism has been this notion that we need to take control of our political systems in some way. People are grappling with that. What does that mean?  It’s not always clear. It seems there have been so many great experiences with the different ways of doing that in Montreal, from the street to the ballot box, and they’re not over.
Deborah:  Not by a long shot.

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