Register Friday | October 22 | 2021

The Machine Effect

The limitations of Montreal’s municipal party system meant the recent election wasn’t about vision … but there’s reason for hope

I’ve become addicted to a show on CBC. Lest you think that Canada’s public broadcaster has little of value to offer beyond news and hockey, let me set you straight with four short words: Da Vinci’s City Hall. Last spring the CBC’s long-running series Da Vinci’s Inquest ended with its coroner protagonist, Dominic Da Vinci, running for and winning Vancouver’s top job. Now the action has shifted from the grimy streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to the lofty heights of the imposing City Hall. Like its predecessor, the new Da Vinci series operates in a state of constant tension, weaving a dense pattern of overlapping and interconnecting storylines; some of which may take years to resolve, never mind a single hour. Characters are imperfect, their morality ambiguous, and the city they inhabit is the real Vancouver—its scars and wrinkles are not just revealed but exploited and explored.

It’s an open secret that Dominic Da Vinci is based on Larry Campbell, the no-bullshit city coroner who went on to become one of Vancouver’s most popular and effective—if not always politically correct—mayors. Last summer, to everyone’s surprise, Campbell decided not to run for re-election, which left dangling a number of important issues ranging from harm-reduction in Downtown Eastside, to sustainable development and the expansion of public transit. Perhaps then it was no surprise that Vancouver’s recent election campaign was so interesting, reflecting the kind of political liveliness that makes Da Vinci’s City Hall such a fascinating show.

Not so for Montreal’s municipal campaign which ended on November 6 with the incumbent mayor and his party sweeping council seats and borough mayors’ offices across the island city. Could a show like Da Vinci’s City Hall ever work in a Montreal setting? “No, because it would just be about cynicism,” quips Henry Aubin, the Montreal Gazette’s veteran city columnist. Aubin is disillusioned with the state of civic politics in Montreal. This past election he tells me was “the apogee of machine politics.”

Montrealers have a reputation for being overly cynical about their city but in this case Aubin has a point. The election campaign was a joke. In a big old city with—for the first time in thirty years—a bright future ahead of it, there were plenty of things that needed to be addressed during the campaign. Sustainability, for one; including the need to renew Montreal’s aging metro system (barely enough money is available for the most essential improvements, let alone expansion of service), and the need for a comprehensive vision on urban development that will decrease urban sprawl and improve the city’s quality of life. Poverty is another big issue.

So what was discussed during the campaign? Potholes. Seriously. The two main candidates, Gérald Tremblay (the mayor) and Pierre Bourque (a former mayor), spent more time discussing the most banal and minor issues facing Montreal than they did debating anything of consequence. Both the French- and English-language televised debates disintegrated into an incomprehensible shouting match of personal insults and petty attacks. And the media was complicit in this shameful small-mindedness; election coverage was perfunctory and reactive. Only the Gazette made any effort whatsoever to rake muck or question the main thrust of the campaign. Even Montreal’s four alt-weeklies, whose job it is to offer a critical and adventurous alternative to the mainstream press, barely acknowledged the campaign.

Ah, but there was still something sweet in this sour fart of an election: Richard Bergeron and Projet Montréal. Bergeron’s enthusiastic upstart party presented a decidedly pro-urban, pro-pedestrian/transit/cyclist and anti-car vision for Montreal. The island is currently bleeding people to the sprawling suburbs and in Bergeron’s view this is in large part due to the decline— wrought by the automobile—in Montreal’s quality of life. His solution is to encourage transit-oriented development (an astonishing number of service stations, parking lots and even vacant lots can be found within spitting distance of some metro stations), invest in a $10 billion tramway network to be built over several years, pedestrianize some streets, tax parking lots, instate traffic-calming measures in neighbourhoods and reduce speed limits around the city, all with the goal of densifying Montreal, making it more family-friendly and reducing traffic volume on the island by 2.5 percent per year. What’s most striking about Bergeron’s platform isn’t its innovation, but its ambitiousness. Individually, all of his ideas have been successfully implemented in dozens of cities around the world—just not all at once.

Unfortunately for Bergeron, he was shut out from mainstream media coverage during the campaign. The television stations that organized the debates refused to include him on the tiresome pretext that he wasn’t already elected, and the three French-language daily papers seemed to pretend he didn’t exist. Ironically it was the Gazette that, despite its conservative reputation, gave him the most extensive and enthusiastic coverage; running a full profile of him and his party, making note his views in most of its coverage and stressing in a number of editorials the importance of having fresh ideas in city politics.

Henry Aubin, for one, wasted no opportunity in plugging Bergeron in his columns. Unfortunately, he says, Montreal’s convoluted and well-entrenched party system makes it difficult for alternative viewpoints to find their way into city politics. “Getting individuals with a sense of civic purpose elected is very difficult when you have these political machines. You’re beholden not to your neighbours and fellow citizens but rather to vast machines in which the decision-makers, the people who decide who runs for office, are anonymous.” Unlike most other Canadian cities there is little potential for insightful candidates in Montreal to come out of left field, win the election and make a hard push for change, as was the case in 2003 when Toronto elected David Miller or in 2002 when Vancouver chose Larry Campbell. (Vancouver does have a party system, but it is far more flexible and less machine-driven than in Montreal.)

According to Aubin, the structure of Montreal’s municipal government—in which the largest city council in North America is elected and yet most decisions are made behind closed doors by the mayor’s secretive executive committee—is in large part responsible for the local apathy and lack of interest in municipal politics. But he also points his finger at the media. “The political analysis by the Montreal media is very sophisticated when it comes to provincial politics. We have some excellent columnists and editorial writers who can sift through the entrails of every announcement and extract meaning. But when it comes to municipal politics, the Montreal media knows nothing. The provincial columnists will often write about municipal politics in complete ignorance; there are factual errors and gaping holes in their understanding.”

Maybe it’s a testament to the strength of Richard Bergeron’s message that his party managed to capture two council seats and plenty of popular support in progressive areas such as the Plateau Mont-Royal, downtown and NDG. (although both of Projet Montréal seats are subject to a recount, thanks to widespread trouble with the electronic voting system.) Both Tremblay and Bourque pilfered ideas from Bergeron’s agenda, promising to build at least a couple of tramways, among other things, but it remains to be seen whether Tremblay actually follows through on that promise.

With a new council seat, Bergeron gains a soapbox upon which he can make himself heard, even if Montreal’s system of government reduces individual councillors to anonymous pawns in the mayor’s game of chess. Montrealers and their media have a lot to do over the next several years. First of all, they actually have to start paying attention to what’s going on in their city. Montreal is a global metropolis and the working horse of Quebec, yet it’s too often that the bureaucrats in Quebec City are telling Montreal what to do. It should be the opposite.

So Montrealers, stay vigilant. Keep an eye on your city government (and maybe next time, actually bother to vote). One day, perhaps we’ll have our own Dominic Da Vinci.

Christopher DeWolf wanders our streets as Maisonneuve’s urban affairs critic. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Christopher DeWolf.