Montreal·Analysis

Formula E: Making Montreal great again or the mayor's Waterloo?

This weekend’s Formula E race could very well be a roaring success. But that will depend on whether the race can overcome the considerable amount of ill-will its preparations have generated so far.

In his fevered insistence on hosting an electric car race, Coderre is testing his reserve of political capital

Residents near the track have been expressing their unhappiness about the race in a variety of ways. (Alex Savoie/Facebook)

This weekend's Formula E race could very well be a roaring success. But it must, first, overcome the considerable amount of ill-will its preparations have generated so far among Montrealers.

This ill-will is more than the ambient groaning Montrealers express at summer road-work. It is becoming a real political problem for the race's most steadfast — some say stubborn — defender: Mayor Denis Coderre.

He has staked a definite amount of financial capital on the race: at least $25 million so far plus the city's $10 million promise to offset any deficit accrued by the organizers.

The financial stakes are, in the grand scheme of things, relatively small. Even at $35 million, the race would represent only a small fraction of the city's $5.2 billion budget for 2017.

The danger for Coderre comes more from the political capital he's been forced to spend on the race.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre defended his decision to host the Formula E races in the city's downtown Tuesday, saying it shows Montreal's "audacity" and provided a showcase for the city on the world stage. (Radio-Canada)

'Let's be proud again'

In rhetoric that increasingly tests credulity, Coderre and his allies have been feverishly talking up the race's benefits.

Contrary to expert opinion, he claims the race will help turn Montrealers on to electric cars. He has minimized the disruption to residents and businesses, and dismissed his critics as enemies of progress.

At times Coderre can sound like that other bombastic politician whose promises don't always align with reality.

"It's going to be a great event. Let's have fun, let's be proud again," Coderre said earlier this week.

"If we stopped events whenever there are critics, Expo 67 would never have been held."

Traffic along René-Lévesque Boulevard heading west is slower than usual thanks to the concrete and mesh walls put in place for the upcoming Formula E races taking place July 29-30. (Simon-Marc Charron/Radio-Canada)

More Drapeau than Doré

The comparison to Expo — which like everything else in Canadian history seems to be celebrating a significant anniversary this year — is telling.

On the one hand, it is an apple-and-orange scenario. We paved a few streets for Formula E. We built an island for Expo.

But at the same time the comparison suggests how Coderre sees himself in the pantheon of Montreal mayors, more Jean Drapeau than Jean Doré. 

Drapeau too was a builder who promised to make the city great again. As head offices began moving west, Drapeau famously declared "Let Toronto become Milan. Montreal will always be Rome."  

There is no question that Drapeau remade Montreal. He delivered the Metro, Expo and the Expos, whose return is another Coderre pet project.

But he also ran roughshod over his critics, and developed a reputation for an autocratic and megalomaniac leadership style.

There was no one around to put the brakes on his designs for the 1976 Olympics, which heavily indebted the city and crippled its prospects for growth at a crucial moment in its development.

It is now impossible to separate Drapeau's legacy from the Olympic fiasco. Formula E could cleave to Coderre in the same way.

Jean Drapeau served as mayor of Montreal from 1954 to 1957 and 1960 to 1986. (Doug Ball/Canadian Press)

By itself, the race won't be the mayor's Waterloo. But it risks becoming emblematic for voters of all the troublesome aspects of his four years in office.

It recalls the administration's tendency to develop policy on the fly, to bluster past opposition, to sacrifice mundane considerations for grandiose visions.

Drapeau limped out of office as Doré surged on a promise to put big projects aside, to scale down and focus on the everyday concerns of residents.

At the rate Coderre is burning through his reserve of political capital, he might befall a similar fate, faced as he is with a similar type of challenger.

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

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