Valérie Plante says she could “write a book” about her experiences so far as the first woman to serve as mayor of Montreal.
Despite her pride in shattering the glass ceiling at city hall, it’s a topic she has largely avoided since making history two years ago.
“At the beginning of my mandate, people would ask me that question and I wouldn’t answer, because I also knew that it would be a trap, for me,” she said in an interview. “It would be ‘Oh, she’s victimizing herself,’ that type of thing. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
But at the midpoint of her mayoralty, Plante is more open about the double standards and unreasonable expectations.
“At the same time, I’m in a great position right now because I can call these things out,” Plante said, breaking into her trademark laugh.
This frankness is but one sign of Plante’s confidence as she reaches the midpoint in her mayoralty on Tuesday. With two years down and two to go, Plante has settled into the role of boss. She has grown more comfortable wielding her power, finding a way to reconcile her sunny ways with her new-found authority.
Although she recently committed an unforced error with her attempt to reschedule trick-or-treating, Plante has enjoyed smooth sailing in recent months. Announcing the Grand Parc de l’Ouest and speaking on the same stage as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the United Nations in September were high notes.
Plante was in her element chatting and smiling with the often grim Greta Thunberg when the teenage climate activist signed the livre d’or at City Hall after leading half-a-million people in a demonstration here. In contrast to Quebec Premier François Legault, who gave Thunberg the cold shoulder, Plante looked every bit the dynamic leader in touch with the pulse of the people.
But it hasn’t always been easy. Some major stumbles out of the gate made Plante’s first year as mayor a rocky one. Her maiden budget contained a separate water levy to mask higher-than-promised property tax increases. And a hastily unveiled plan to block through traffic over Mount Royal polarized Montrealers. She listed the latter as a low point.
But Plante said she learned hard lessons from those rookie missteps, first, the importance of consulting.
“If we want to come up with the best solution, you need to talk to everybody, even people that might challenge you and say it’s not a good idea. You need to hear the reasons,” she said. “It’s really connected to my style of leadership, which is, I’m a team player. So that’s what I learned that I’ll take forward.”
The Office de consultation publique de Montréal has never been so busy, holding hearings on everything from racism and systemic discrimination to the renaissance of the Namur-Hippodrome sector. Nor has sounding out the public been as popular, with OCPM consultations on Mount Royal setting records for participation.
At the same time, Plante said she has come to trust her own instincts about when to put her foot down.
Perhaps this became easier after the exit of Luc Ferrandez last spring. The three-time Plateau borough mayor and member of Plante’s executive committee responsible for big parks had a proven track record and much credibility within Projet Montréal. But he and the mayor clashed over style. Ferrandez’s abrasiveness often complicated life for the much more conciliatory Plante.
Though Ferrandez was vocal about his disenchantment when he quit, his departure may ultimately have come as a relief for Plante.
At the same time, Plante has expanded her team. Some of the opposition’s brightest stars have defected, including Marie-Josée Parent, a councillor in the Verdun borough, and Cathy Wong, a Ville-Marie councillor who is also speaker of city council. Both ran under the banner of Équipe Denis Coderre, now rebranded as Ensemble Montréal.
Wong’s decision to join the mayor’s team came at a key moment for Plante and her vision for an inclusive city. One of the developers of the Children’s, the cluster of skyscrapers rising on the site of the old hospital, reneged on an agreement to include social housing in the project. So Plante “put on her pants,” as she described it in French, and nixed a sixth tower.
Plante is trying to show there’s a new sheriff in town, reining in the kind of unbridled development that resulted in soulless, service-less Griffintown. Her proactive negotiations with the future developers of the Molson site was a coup for her urban agenda. Her 20-20-20 bylaw is still in consultations, but is expected to be passed in January and come into effect in 2021. It will require new housing projects of a certain scale to contain 20-per-cent social housing, 20-per-cent affordable housing and 20-per-cent family units.
Needless to say, big developers are not pleased. Besides launching lawsuits and threatening a slowdown in construction activity, they are also surely looking to recruit a friendlier opponent to confront Plante in the next election.
For the moment, though, Plante has a clear field ahead of her. Ensemble Montréal still only has an interim leader, while both Coalition Montréal and Vrai Changement Pour Montréal have been reduced to a handful of seats on council.
Two years is an eternity in politics. But for the moment, Plante is in the driver’s seat with the cruise control on.