As a city, Montreal is many things to many people, and its eclectic mix of old world charm and new world progressiveness has made it a favourite amongst tourists and inhabitants alike. It is only natural, therefore, that the upcoming mayoral election has garnered a fair amount of media attention, especially in the wake of the many recent scandals that have rocked the city. On October 9th, McGill hosted a French-language mayoral debate, which was the first opportunity for the candidates to discuss their platforms in the public sphere. While this debate was a good opportunity for the public to interact with the mayoral hopefuls, many who tuned in may have been ultimately disappointed by both the event and the candidates themselves.
The debate did have its merits; all four candidates were given the opportunity to describe the many virtues of Montreal, with each drawing attention to its many excellent universities, vibrant cultural scene, and the bilingualism of its citizenry. This praise rightly gave credit where credit was due; Montreal is easily the cultural capital of North America, and Montrealers are as unique as the city in which they live. The reasoning behind this positivity was clear to all: if a city is attractive, then its politics should also be attractive, which would incentivize people to vote.
It is often said that electoral participation is the fundamental mechanism through which democracy is exercised. Such a right ought to be taken advantage of; proponents of the democratic process often say that if you don’t vote, you can’t complain, and this is a valid claim. Addressing these concerns, the four candidates transcended partisanship in order to emphasize the urgency and necessity of voting. In his closing statement, Denis Coderre suggested we vote for him, but he also asked all Montrealers to simply vote. Statements like this are typical of politicians, but in this instance they held a lot of merit given the shameful 38% electoral participation rate of the last election.
Another encouraging moment in the debate occurred when the Charter of Quebec Values was brought up. The issue of the Charter was one of the few instances of cohesion and unity of thought amongst the candidates; all were vehemently opposed to it and vowed to defend the multicultural makeup of Montreal. Moreover, key words like transparency and confidence were uttered frequently throughout the debate, for good reason. Montrealers have been discouraged by the lack of certainty, truth, and genuine intent behind the promises previously made by municipal politicians. All four candidates promised change- a deviation from the past, and a break from the legacy of distrust that has been pervasive in the city’s political landscape for quite some time.
However, the debate proved to be somewhat of a disappointment with regards to its structure, which was not conducive to rigorous discussion of the issues facing the city. Over the course of an hour and a half, citizens were given the opportunity to pose prescreened questions to the candidates, and each was given under a minute to answer. Each candidate gave an articulate and condensed answer, one which touched on their policies just briefly enough to give the audience the impression that they were the most capable choice for mayor. To the discerning viewer, however, the fact that the candidates had their answers at the ready lent itself to a scripted atmosphere which was hardly conducive to the sort of discussion implied by the term “debate.”
Furthermore, the topics that were discussed by the candidates hardly skimmed the surface of the issues on the minds of Montrealers. While the questions posed to the candidates did encompass a wide variety of topics, from bilingualism to social housing projects, there were several gaping policy priorities which were left unanswered.
The most significant of these concerned the corruption that has plagued the city for far too long. While all the candidates staunchly denounced corrupt engineering firms and politicians (Coderre even went so far as to pledge the creation of an inspecteur-generale to objectively asses the budgets of city projects) no one went truly in-depth. None of the candidates mentioned how they would specifically address ongoing scandals such as the revamping of the Champlain bridge or the McGill Children’s Hospital controversy. Instead, the pre-selected questions touched on transport issues such as the construction of a tramway and the pedestrianization of Ste Catherine Street. How can Montrealers expect these projects to be implemented when the streets themselves disintegrate further with each passing winter? While 50 seconds is admittedly a very brief window in which to discuss such an important issue, corruption has become deeply embedded in the municipal landscape, and the fact that the debate did not focus more intently on this topic is inexcusable.
Whichever candidate emerges victorious will be Montreal’s third mayor in a year – not only has there been unacceptable behaviour from politicians, but the prevalence of corruption gives rise to the question of voter apathy and the need for more proactive constituents. The citizens and the media of Montreal need to be more vigilant in holding their politicians accountable. Although the corruption that has taken hold of municipal government is not directly the fault of the citizenry, a foundational aspect of democracy is that the voters must inform themselves and take action in order to prevent problems such as corruption from occurring again. However, this will be impossible unless there is a frank and thorough discussion of the real issues the city faces. Unfortunately, no such discussion took place at last week’s event. Hopefully the upcoming English-language debate, also to be hosted at McGill, will further involve Montrealers and enable them to become the engaged citizens that the city deserves.
-Katherine McNamara and Chloe Giampaolo