Why the stakes are high in Montreal's municipal election

Fresh off a federal election, Montreal is now in the throes of another campaign — one that could have major consequences for the city. Here's a primer on the major issues.

A look at the most pressing issues heading into the Nov. 6 and 7 vote

Valérie Plante and Denis Coderre are both vying to be Montreal's mayor for a second time. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Fresh off a federal election, Montreal is now in the throes of another campaign — one that could have major consequences for the city as it emerges (hopefully) from the pandemic.

Voters will head to the polls Nov. 6 and Nov. 7 to decide on the city's next mayor, their borough mayor and their councillor. More than 1,100 municipalities across the province are also holding elections.

In Montreal, incumbent Valérie Plante of Projet Montréal is facing a challenge from her predecessor, Denis Coderre and his party Ensemble Montréal.

Their dividing lines are shaping up to be much the same as last time around, in 2017, when Plante beat out Coderre on a promise to boost funding for public transit, increase social housing and improve the city's network of bike paths.

Coderre has promised a more balanced, business-friendly approach to help the city out of the pandemic.

Balarama Holness, an activist and former pro football player, is among the new faces running for mayor as head of the upstart Mouvement Montréal.

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Balarama Holness, a prominent activist and former football player, is vying to be Montreal's next mayor. His party, Mouvement Montréal, recently merged with Ralliement pour Montréal. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

Holness — an outspoken figure on issues of social justice — made the surprise decision this week to merge with Ralliement pour Montréal, a party led by Marc-Antoine Desjardins that gained traction on a promise to protect the French language.

The unlikely partners have promised a more community-based approach to politics, and policies aimed at addressing the shortage of affordable housing. 

There are also several new parties at the borough level, including Sue Montgomery's Courage in Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, and Quartiers Montreal in Villeray-St-Michel-Parc-Extension.

Municipal elections tend to have a low turnout — in 2017, only 43 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot, while 62 per cent voted in last month's federal election.

But the stakes are high. There are major decisions ahead as the city adjusts to new, post-pandemic realities.

On the whole, municipalities are responsible for nearly 60 per cent of public infrastructure. In Montreal, city hall oversees services crucial to everyday life, ranging from parks and the police department to public transit and bike paths.

"It's not abstract. It's daily life," said Caroline Patsias, a political science professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

Big questions, and lots of them

Heading into the election, Montreal faces an ever-tightening housing market, questions about the role of policing after a spike in shootings, growing concerns over the climate crisis and the resulting extreme weather and, yes, the lingering pandemic.

With the price of both rentals and real estate climbing, housing ranked as the top issue in a recent opinion poll among voters by Léger, commissioned by Le Devoir.

All the mayoral candidates have promised to take steps to address the problem, even if much depends on the actions of the federal and provincial governments.

Plante and Coderre in particular, though, differ in their approaches, with the former promising to build more affordable housing under a model that places more requirements on developers, and the latter advocating a more business friendly approach.

All three main candidates have promised to create registries that would help apartment dwellers better track rent increases.

Housing is one of the big issues in the Montreal municipal election. Rents and the cost of purchasing real estate have climbed in recent years. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

On policing, Montreal's police force has been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent years, given its cost (the SPVM accounted for 11 per cent of the city's total budget last year), calls for a more community-based approach and instances of racial profiling.

The tone of the debate shifted over the summer, after a spike in gang-related shootings. Plante announced more money for Montreal police to combat gangs in the lead up to the election, while Coderre has also made cracking down on crime a big focus. He recently made the claim that "Montreal isn't safe" and suggested safety would be the ballot box question.

Holness, for his part, wants more money devoted to social and recreational services instead of policing. 

The previous municipal election focused heavily on transit and ways to improve getting around the traffic-clogged city.

Plante won with a promise to get the city moving again, with more bike paths, bus lanes and, eventually, a new Pink metro line.

The latter hasn't happened, of course, and the pandemic has kept many people at home.

As many public health restrictions get lifted, candidates have just over a month left before the vote to lay out their visions for the city as it gets moving again. 

How do I vote?

Though the official election period began Sept. 18, aspiring candidates had until Oct. 1 to register with Quebec's director general of elections (DGEQ).

In order to vote in the municipal election, you have to meet certain criteria and be registered on the elector list for your municipality.

The criteria include:

  • Being at least 18 on voting day.
  • Being a Canadian citizen as of Sept. 1, 2021.

Because of the pandemic, some municipalities are offering voters the option of casting a ballot by mail (though not in Montreal). More details are available here.

You also have to fill at least one of the following two criteria:

  • Be living in the municipality and, for at least the past six months, be a resident of the province.
  • Be, for at least the 12 months following Sept. 1, 2016, the owner of a building or the occupant of a business situated within the municipality.

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Benjamin Shingler is a senior writer based in Montreal, covering climate policy, health and social issues. He previously worked at The Canadian Press and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.