A Rob Ford in Montreal?

Rob Ford with puppet

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.

13 comments

  1. I think a good sign that we won’t get a Rob Ford-like mayor would be the dismal campaign of Louise O’Sullivan in the last election who received about 2% of the popular vote and was relegated to fringe nut job status by the entire Montreal media establishment (although, I think one of the angryphone West Island papers supported her). Much of her platform points were very similar to those of Ford without the baggage of buffoonery held by Ford.

  2. I take offence to the term angryphone.  Don’t cheapen a discussion with such ignorant labels. 

  3. @ Chris: Yeah, Louise O’Sullivan was treated as a non-story by pretty much everyone. I would imagine Beryl Wajsman’s The Suburban probably gave her good coverage, but in the end that paper endorsed Tremblay, if I’m not mistaken. She also proved incapable of building up a party and finding candidates; I think her party only ran people in maybe a quarter to a third of the seats across the city.

    @ Marc: Angryphone may be a disparaging term, but I do think it’s a pretty good tongue in cheek way to describe a certain subsection of Anglos who were unwilling to adapt to post-Quiet Revolution Quebec. Thankfully, there are less and less of them as they’ve either made their peace with the new social reality or left the province (or died off, in the case of the older generation).

  4. Right. If you thought I was referring to all Anglophones as “angryphones” you were mistaken (I am an Anglophone myself). Many of the West Island papers have a tendency (from an editorial perspective) to embody many of the traits described above by Devin which is why I described them as such.

  5. Actually, Westmount, the wannabe gated community of TMR, the ghetto of Côte Saint-Luc, Montréal-Ouest, the über-ghetto of Hampstead, and a good chunk of the West Island ghetto are full of Angryphones.  These areas are, of course where Beryl Wajsman’s personal fief (aka. The Suburban) are distributed.

  6. i am no supporter of ford. but it is worth mentioning that he won by a relative landslide, and one cant assume that everyone who voted for him is ignorant. find this slant a bit condescending to average canadians.

  7. That is exactly the point – most quebeckers do not think of themselves as “average canadians”. Perhaps those angryphones are more representative of the “rest of canada,” but quebeckers would much rather “do it our way”….

  8. Herm kay – this is a bit of a fluff piece.

    1- the question is meaningless and the curt, TLDR negation of the initial question makes the whole affair seem disingenuous.

    2- as long as we’re talking about progress, we should be aware the political parties – especially with regards to entrenched two-party systems like we have here in the 514 (until Bergeron succeeds at making friends beyond the municipal sphere and/or tables a PM revision to a budget – to say nothing of actually forming a gov’t – I’m not counting Projet Montreal for the purpose of this comment), are anathema to legitimate progress. Dark Horse candidates are about the best shot progressives have.

    3- while it is true that suburban disengagement and disenfranchisement is responsible in part for Ford’s win, we should not then equate his win to a ‘suburban’ voting block or create an imagined stereotype of the suburban voter. One island one city would still be best for all Montrealers, and I’d go even further, so as to eventually gain the tax-base of the whole region. Either way, if we want to be a progressive global city, we’ll need suburban money, and we’ll have to keep people living there and make them happy to do so. Living in the suburbs doesn’t mean you’re inherently anti-Progressive.

    4- we’re not that right-wing?

    Take another look. Conservative, anti-Progressive thinking can be found everywhere, and Montreal is no different. What’s troubling is how often we talk about Montreal or Quebec as seeming bastions of liberalism and progressive attitudes, and discuss this trait as something nearly physical in nature. We’re as potentially right-wing as Toronto, and a quick look at the policies of the PQ, the SSJB, the QLP or the Quebec branch of the CPC will show we’re not that different.

    What makes us different is how we act, how we get engaged and how we vote. Consider this the next time we’re supposed to head to the the polls – I often wonder just how lethargic the youth of Montreal actually is, considering just how few votes a guy like Tremblay gets elected with.

    Montreal does have a significantly higher concentration of students in the urban core, and this may say something about our progressive nature, but as long as the youth in Montreal stay divided – whether along class, racial, religious, linguistic or sexual lines – we won’t be able to effect much change, and having someone perhaps worse than Rob Ford as mayor becomes a very real possibility.

  9. Shouldn’t you be trying to understand why Rob Ford won, and by such a bog margin?  If Richard Bergeron lived in a bungalow, would you hold it against him?  Montreal has problems that Toronto does not, such as widespread corruption in the construction industry and in the awarding of city contracts.  People might vote for someone seen as an outsider, regardless of policies, if they feel it is the only solution.

  10. As a Torontonian and a supporter of former Mayor David Miller, I am tired of hearing about Ford’s “landslide”. He got just under half of the votes cast, and the votes against him were mainly split between two less than ideal candidates.

    His win is a direct result of voter discontent, unhappiness with two major public sector job disruptions (garbage workers and transit), and a good dose of suburban anti-city sentiment with the “folks downtown” being blamed for the evils of the universe.

  11. Although I generally agree with the article, I think one point was missed – an unengaged electorate.

    Ford was able to bring anger (albeit unjustified) to a base of people who really did not understand what was happening at City Hall, which in turn engaged them. I cannot explain Ford’s win in the suburbs any other way, considering former mayor Miller sought policies to invest in the suburbs,(which have been curtailed by Ford). If we had an engaged, aware electorate, they would not so blindly vote against themselves. An unengaged, unaware electorate (regardless of what city they reside in), will always be open to populous manipulation and discontent. Progressive policies tend to be hard on people and are not easy to implement, and not understanding why they are undertaken can fuel the anger and resentment seen by a disengaged Toronto electorate.

  12. If Naheed Nenshi can rise to power in Alberta, what makes you think Montreal will follow a straight and predetermined path of liberalism? There are plenty of things that could disillusion people with the current way. If not, the city has simply lost its political vitality and any mediocrity will reign.

  13. Just a question, but why can’t the nasty, anti-politics populism candidate come from the left? It’s certainly been a long time since that has happened – it seems the left has forgotten how to rabble-rouse, to be honest – but it’s certainly still possible.

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