Has Projet Montréal strayed from its progressive roots under Valérie Plante?

·5 min read
Valérie Plante, the leader of Projet Montréal, has her sights set on a second term as mayor of Montreal.  (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Valérie Plante, the leader of Projet Montréal, has her sights set on a second term as mayor of Montreal. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada - image credit)

In late 2002, a small group of residents in Montreal's Plateau neighbourhood got together to push for the transformation of Mont-Royal Avenue. They wanted more room for pedestrians, more cycling and fewer cars.

The growing progressive movement became a political party two years later under Richard Bergeron, a transportation bureaucrat who called for the return of streetcars and a radical shift toward "sustainable urbanism."

In 2017, Valérie Plante finally got Projet Montréal into the mayor's office. But some members of the party feel she hasn't done enough to push forward their progressive agenda.

Jonathan Durand Folco, an expert in participatory democracy and professor at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, supported Plante during her successful bid to become leader of Projet Montréal in 2016, arguing she was truer to the party's roots than her rivals.

Durand Folco has since become more critical. He published an op-ed in Le Devoir saying she could go further and urging the party's base to push her in that direction if she wins a second mandate.

In an interview, Durand Folco praised the Plante administration for its investments in public transit and bike lanes.

But he said the Plante administration hasn't done enough to ensure Montreal remains an affordable place to live. In his view, the city's new housing bylaw didn't go far enough.

"They have a kind of centrist approach to municipal politics and try to have a compromise between the developers, the economic elites and at the same time, having some measures to help the poorest people in neighbourhoods and try to change things," he said.

'Less open discussion, more discipline'

That type of compromise — or concessions, in the eyes of critics — are documented in a new book, Saving the City: The Challenge of Transforming a Modern Metropolis, by Daniel Sanger.

Sanger, a former journalist and a staffer with Projet Montréal for nearly a decade, chronicles the rise of the party from its early days to its electoral victory in 2017 and the ensuing growing pains during Plante's term in office.

Part of the challenge, he writes, was transferring the ideals of party supporters in denser, more urban areas such as the Plateau to the more car-reliant boroughs on the outskirts of the city.

Sarah Leavitt/CBC
Sarah Leavitt/CBC

He points out, as well, that municipal parties in Montreal have traditionally served mainly as vehicles for their leaders rather than full-fledged organizations with strong membership.

Projet — along with Jean Doré's Montreal Citizens' Movement before it — is an exception to that trend, and in Sanger's view that has made things more challenging for Plante.

Last April, for instance, members of the party adopted a proposal to cut the police budget and move toward disarming officers. Plante was quick to reject the idea in her closing remarks, and has maintained throughout the election she wouldn't take resources away from the SPVM.

"The problems have come with a lot of the party members adapting to being in the administration and a more traditional approach to politics, where there is less open discussion and debate, more discipline is required," Sanger said in an interview.

"But with grassroots parties, that is inevitably the problem."

Vehicule Press
Vehicule Press

Many of the most striking passages in the book involve Luc Ferrandez, the former mayor of the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough.

He famously quit the party in 2019 with a letter saying it wasn't doing enough to fight climate change.

"I have the impression I am hoodwinking citizens in having them believe that we are collectively taking all the measures necessary to slow down the rhythm of destruction of our planet," he wrote.

In the book, Ferrandez called the party's decision not to close Camilien-Houde, the road that cuts through Mount Royal, "an early wake-up call" to Plante's conciliatory approach.

He recounts how Plante had told him that the most important thing for her was being re-elected in 2021, not necessarily delivering on the party platform.

Ferrandez declined a request for an interview.

A spokesperson for Plante, Marikym Gaudreault, said Sanger's book is "his personal experience, recollections and discussions with various people on the history of the party and its rise to power."

"Projet Montréal has always been and remains a grassroots party. The members and the caucus play an important role in the decision-making process," Gaudreault said in a statement.

Party members quit

In the book, Sanger describes how Plante's inner circle grew tighter after the election, leaving little room for dissent — and key members of the party on the outside.

He cites the departures of three members of caucus in quick succession — Rosannie Filato, a councillor for Villeray, Christian Arsenault, a councillor in NDG's Loyola district and Christine Gosselin, a councillor in Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie — as evidence of "the administration's poor management of caucus, its human resources."

The book also sheds light on the more controversial departures of Giuliana Fumagalli, borough mayor of Villeray—Saint-Michel—Parc-Extension, who was kicked out of Projet's caucus in 2018 amid complaints of harassment made against her, and Sue Montgomery, who was kicked out of the party over her handling of harassment allegations involving her chief of staff, Annalisa Harris. (Sanger previously served as Montgomery's chief of staff).

Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada
Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada

Julie-Pascale Provost, a Lachine borough councillor, was also kicked out of the Projet Montréal caucus, due to a "lack of collaboration and solidarity" over the party's plan to convert the Lachine marina into a public waterfront park.

In announcing her resignation last year, Gosselin described Plante's leadership as "retrograde and authoritarian."

In an interview Tuesday, Gosselin was less critical but maintained there has been a "metamorphosis" of the party under Plante, which includes a move toward the "mainstream" and a reduction in the level of "participatory democracy."

"We're in a different chapter in history," she said.

"We're a party that has now known power, wants to stay in power and really wants to become the natural choice for all Montrealers."

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