Did Denis Coderre move too quickly on the pit bull bylaw?

Montreal's mayor is facing a legal challenge and stiff opposition to his pit bull bylaw. Did the populist mayor move too quickly in his aim to please following the mauling death of a woman this summer?

Montreal mayor's pattern is to act first, deal with fallout later

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre moved quickly to impose a ban on pit bulls after the mauling death of a Pointe-aux-Trembles resident last summer. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

This story has been updated to reflect that the suspension of Montreal's bull-type dogs was extended Wednesday until there is a final court ruling on the SPCA's legal challenge of the bylaw.

This summer, only 10 days after a Montreal resident, Christiane Vadnais, was fatally mauled by a dog in Pointe-aux-Trembles, Denis Coderre pledged to introduce new rules by September for pit bulls and other dogs deemed dangerous.

At the time, the mayor promised "a balanced approach" that would allow existing owners to keep their pit bulls under certain conditions.

With the city's new bylaw suspended following a legal challenge by the SPCA and widespread protests, however, many are wondering if Coderre succeeded in striking the right balance — or if the bylaw was too hastily prepared.

The unfolding controversy is part of a pattern emerging during Coderre's time in office: Act quickly and deal with the fallout later.

They want to go fast, for the photo-op and the announcement.- Valérie Plante, Projet Montréal

Earlier this year, Coderre made the sudden decision to impose a one-year ban on horse-drawn calèches, even though permits had already been issued for the tourist season.

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The move came after a number of widely shared videos showed horses colliding with cars and apparently suffering in the heat.

The moratorium was challenged immediately by calèche drivers, and a Quebec Superior Court justice granted an injunction that overturned the ban, ruling the city had overstepped its authority.

At that point, Coderre decided to abandon the idea altogether, saying, "I won't spend the summer battling one injunction after another."

Projects trumpeted, then delayed or abandoned

A heavy equipment vehicle sits idle in Viger Square last month. (CBC)

Some of the projects he planned for Montreal's 375th anniversary have also been scaled back or have been subject to delays.

Last month, the city was forced to temporarily suspend its $28-million plan for Viger Square because it still needed approval from Quebec's Transport Ministry.

The early stages of preparation were supposed to be completed by the end of October, but the target date is now sometime next spring

"They want to go fast, for the photo-op and the announcement," said Valérie Plante, a Projet Montréal city councillor who is hoping to go head to head with Coderre in next year's municipal election.

Another project, the overhaul of Place Jacques-Cartier in Old Montreal, was scrapped entirely after restaurants raised concerns about the project.

Is breed-specific ban enforceable?

When it comes to pit bulls, debate has swirled around whether there should be a breed-specific ban or whether it would even be enforceable.

Bless, an American Pit Bull Terrier, is treated to a grooming session by Anna Maria Ranieri at Pampered Pets in Montreal. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

The judge at Monday's court hearing of an SPCA bid to have the new rules governing pit bulls suspended had concerns of his own.

Chief among them is how a "pit bull-type dog" is defined.

"I won't hide from you that in my reading of the bylaw … I had several questions," Quebec Superior Court Justice Louis Gouin said to the city's legal representative, René Cadieux.

"Are we talking about first generation crosses? Do we go back to the grandparents?"

The city doesn't appear to have an answer to that question.

If it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, it's got to be a duck.- City lawyer René Cadieux on how to identify a pit bull

In defending the bylaw, Cadieux ​argued the city shouldn't have to present concrete scientific evidence to support breed-specific legislation, citing an earlier ruling in Ontario.

When pressed to explain how the city will discern which dog is a pit bull, Cadieux offered up one-liners that did little to dispel the perception the rules had been rushed into law.

"If it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, it's got to be a duck," he said.

He added that, when it comes to identifying a pit bull, "It's like pornography. You know it when you see it."

For many owners, however, the issue remains far from clear.

In the week leading up to Monday's ban, many dog owners still weren't sure how to prove their pet's breed or how registration for a pit bull permit would work.

Demonstrators protest against the pit bull ban before the bylaw was passed in Montreal last month. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The Opposition Projet Montréal, which opposed the bylaw, has slammed the Coderre administration for failing to open up the debate over the new rule to public and expert participation.

A second court challenge is also being planned by a Montreal-based coalition of lawyers and experts in animal behaviour.

Even if one of these legal challenges succeeds in seeing Montreal's new bylaw repealed, the Quebec government is working on its own provincial legislation. But it has taken a different approach in rolling it out. 

Premier Philippe Couillard assembled a working group prior to laying out his plan and has yet to table any legislation, saying only that the province would likely follow Ontario's lead. 


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.