One of the most notable events in urban Canada last year was the election of Rob Ford as mayor of Toronto. Progressives across the country cringed as they watched Canada’s largest city elect a boorish, car-loving, anti-bike, bungalow-dwelling, right-winger as mayor. What on earth happened? I’ll leave it to the Torontonians to analyse what went so terribly wrong, but for us Montrealers this event makes us ask an interesting (err…terrifying) question:
Could a Rob Ford be possible in Montreal?
The quick answer is no.
First off, we have political parties, which act as powerful gatekeepers to the mayoralty. A prospective candidate has to either have the profile and credentials to win the nomination of an existing party or the skill and determination to found their own, build its organisation, and recruit candidates for all 105 positions across the city. This reality essentially rules out black horse candidates like Ford, for better or worse.
Second, Montreal’s demographics would play against such a candidate. Around a decade ago both Montreal and Toronto were forcibly merged with surrounding suburban municipalities, and suburban discontent continues to play a major role in municipal politics. Rob Ford’s campaign was largely based on channelling this anger, and a map of the ward by ward results in Toronto reads like a map of the old City of Toronto vs. the suburbs. This tactic was ultimately successful in Toronto because 61% of the city’s population resides in the former suburban municipalities. In Montreal that number is only 35%, with the large majority of the population being located in central neighbourhoods. Gérald Tremblay’s victories in 2009 and 2001 show that it is possible to lose in the historic city and still win based on heavy suburban support, but he still performed relatively well in the central neighbourhoods. It would be extremely difficult to win the mayoralty (and a council majority) without a reasonable showing in urban, often left-leaning neighbourhoods.
And finally, we Montrealers simply aren’t that right wing. This is perhaps a bit self-congratulatory and I know many Torontonians would have said the same thing about their city until recently. But simply put, the political centre in Montreal is significantly more to the left of that of even pre-Ford Toronto. Case in point, current Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay, widely seen as a centrist here, is implementing an agenda broadly similar to that of former Toronto mayor David Miller, considered a progressive in his universe. According to pollster Jean-Marc Léger, the Montreal electorate is one of the most left-leaning in the country with the average voter best described as a moderate social democrat. There’s no guarantee that this will remain constant, but it would take a massive shift in public opinion to get anyway near a Ford-like candidate.
That said, we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back just yet.
Confidence in city politics (and politics in general) is at an all time low in Quebec. Hardly a week goes by when there aren’t new allegations of corruption or abuse of power. Mayor Tremblay, and the city administration as a whole, have repeatedly ended up in situations in which they look dithering, incompetent, and impotent. Citizens who under other circumstances could be rallied to a progressive, pro-city vision risk becoming convinced that the system in irreparably broken. Unless confidence can be reestablished, we run the risk of a backlash. Maybe not a Rob Ford, but some sort of nasty, anti-politics populism could rear its head.
This is especially troubling, given the important role local government needs to play in making the transition towards a more sustainable society. It’s increasingly clear that the current North American model of cheap oil-fuelled sprawl is reaching a breaking point. With their powers over transit and land usage, municipalities need to be front and centre in building an alternative model of development that is environmentally and socially sustainable. Moreover, if we want to radically change our city we have to shake up ingrained ways of living and using the city. By necessity it will mean constraints and clawbacks of certain things people have become accustomed to. Even many of the relatively moderate measures being put in place now, such as Tremblay’s new car tax and the Plateau’s parking plan, have created much grumbling.
In order to rally people behind an ambitious collective vision, and convince them to make changes on the individual level, they must feel confident that public authorities are working competently and in their best interests. Unfortunately this isn’t the case in Montreal right now. And politicians could arise to harness these frustrations and bring a regressive agenda to City Hall, if not the mayor’s chair.