A tale of 2 cities: Mayoral debate reveals contrasting visions for Montreal

A heated exchange over the merits of centralization dominated the opening-half of the first debate of the Montreal mayoral election campaign.

Denis Coderre defends his 4 years in office, Valérie Plante outlines public transit-oriented city

Highlights of Montreal French mayoral debate

4 years ago
Denis Coderre and Valérie Plante sparred on Thursday night in the first of two debates, as both position themselves as the best choice for mayor of Montreal in November's municipal election. 3:14

It was a debate marked by interruptions, barbs and another sexual harassment revelation, but between all that Montreal's two leading mayoral candidates nevertheless managed to get across their vastly different visions of how the city should be governed. 

On the one hand, incumbent Denis Coderre defended his four years in office, vaunted Montreal's economic record and refused to apologize for his efforts at centralizing power.

Projet Montréal's Valérie Plante, for her part, presented a vision of a more decentralized city, with expanded public transit and social housing options.

The French-language showdown at the downtown Sheraton Hotel was the first of two debates between the two candidates (an English debate takes place Monday).

It was also the first time Plante and Coderre have squared off against each in this kind of format. There was little disguising their frosty relationship.

Borough-city hall relations

An opening exchange over housing and Quebec's new religious neutrality law, which both oppose, was civil enough, but the tension mounted as they outlined their views on the proper balance of power between city hall and the boroughs. 

Coderre's term as mayor has been characterized by limiting the discretion of boroughs when it comes to such municipal services as snow clearing and parking.

"I have an issue with the  ideological approach of the last four years," Plante said, vowing she would offer boroughs more leeway.

To Plante's criticism, Coderre replied, "You have the choice between being dogmatic or arranging things so they work."

Throughout the exchange, the two candidates attempted to cut each other off, both running longer than their allotted times.

Plante at one point suggested that a Projet Montréal administration would eliminate red tape to make it easier for boroughs to take local initiatives.

Coderre attempted to counter by invoking Plateau-Mont-Royal mayor Luc Ferrandez, one of his favourite targets for suggesting Projet is ill-prepared to govern the whole city.

​"I don't see [Ferrandez] often, I wonder what you're doing with him," Coderre said, prompting a ripple through the crowd.

Plante shot back: "If you want to be the mayor of the Plateau, go ahead and do it. Drop out of the mayoral race and become mayor of the Plateau."

The candidates were asked whether they would use public money to fund a new baseball stadium. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)


A question about whether the city should finance efforts to return professional baseball to Montreal produced another series of pointed jabs.

Plante stated that a Projet administration would first hold a referendum before spending public money on building a new stadium, which many observers see as a necessary prerequisite before Major League Baseball would consider an Expos return.

Her rival dodged the question, suggesting such a decision wouldn't be necessary for several more years, and that a team could play in the Olympic Stadium while money is raised for a new ballpark. 

Sensing an opening, Plante interrupted his explanations several times to accuse him of failing to provide a clear answer. 

Coderre used a similar tactic as Plante described how she expected to pay for the Pink line, her proposal to build a 29-kilometre Metro line between Montreal North and Lachine. 

Coderre accused Plante of low-balling the costs of her proposed Pink line. (Projet Montréal)
"Yes, but who's going to pay for it," he repeated. Plante said there was money available in large infrastructure funds set up by the federal and provincial governments. 

"It's not that we don't want a Metro, but it's not realistic," Coderre said. He pegged the cost of the Pink line at $10 billion, while Plante has said it will cost $6 billion.

Experts consulted earlier this month by CBC News suggested the truth is somewhere in between.

The cloud of sexual harassment

The segment of the debate dedicated to transit and traffic issues also produced the most startling admission of the evening. 

Plante accused the Coderre administration of failing to capitalize on new technology to reduce congestion on Montreal roads. Earlier this year, the city had hired Pierre Lacasse, a former traffic reporter dubbed "Mr. Fluidity," for such a task.

He abruptly left the administration a few months later for reasons that were never made clear. Lacasse, said Plante, had failed at his job of improving traffic flow.

"You know very well why that person no longer works for Montreal. It's zero tolerance. We wanted to protect our female employees," Coderre replied.

It marked yet another case of a prominent Quebecer to be suspected of sexual improprieties. On Wednesday, Gilbert Rozon resigned from his positions as head of the Just for Laughs festival and the city's 375th celebrations, as several women come forward claiming to be sexually assaulted by him.

Just for Laughs founder Gilbert Rozon has been the subject of several sexual assault allegations in recent days. (Radio-Canada)

Two other Quebec entertainers — Éric Salvail and Gilles Parent — have also stepped away from their public roles this week amid similar allegations. Hélène David, the minister responsible for the status of women, said the wave of denunciations in the province amounted "a social hurricane."

In their opening statements, both Coderre and Plante expressed solidarity with the victims. "We as political leaders have to act," Plante said. 

Coderre agreed with her when it was his turn to speak. They agreed on little else for the rest of the evening.


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