Behind-the-scenes book release: Surprises and tensions at Projet Montréal

MONTREAL – Hardly anyone at Projet Montréal believed in the election of Valérie Plante as city councillor, let alone as party leader and mayor of Montreal, reveals a new behind-the-scenes book on the party. The book also highlights the deep tensions that appeared in the mayor’s team once at town hall, with constant departures and, according to elected officials, a concentration of power in the mayoral office.

Sauver la ville – Projet Montréal et le défi de transformer une métropole moderne (Saving the city – Projet Montréal and the challenge of transforming a modern metropolis), to be published next week by Écosociété, is written by ex-journalist Daniel Sanger, a political advisor for Projet Montréal’s elected officials for nine years, since 2010. He notably worked for elected officials of the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough.

“I interviewed at least 50 people for this book. This is my testimony and the testimony of the people I interviewed,” Sanger told La Presse.

Shortly before the 2013 campaign, he witnessed a newcomer arrive at Projet Montréal. The party was looking for a woman with a name not worth too many “Scrabble points” (according to a pillar of Projet Montréal) for the French-speaking district of Sainte-Marie.

Plante, who was then working in a union in Longueuil, was spotted and recruited, before nearly being abandoned by the party when Louise Harel – deemed unbeatable – announced her candidacy in the same riding. “I was like, ‘I’m in deep s–t,’” Plante told Sanger. The party warned her it would concentrate its resources on more promising seats. Plante won regardless.

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Next came the reign of Denis Coderre, extremely hard on Projet Montréal: the mayor succeeded in snapping up Richard Bergeron, the party’s historic leader, as well as other important Projet Montréal officials.

Plante was then a municipal councillor completely unknown to the general public. At the bar where councillors and employees gathered after council meetings, she presented herself to the party’s leaders after noting that only male candidates had been nominated to take Bergeron’s place.

“It came back to bite me,” she said. Opposite her was Guillaume Lavoie, a seasoned politician with an undeniable talent for communication. Plante tried to convince her colleagues to join her (including around a joint of cannabis at a knitting party, according to Sanger), but the caucus strongly supported Lavoie.

The surprise defeat of the latter, too liberal for the militant base of Projet Montréal, was extremely difficult to swallow for many party members. The party was on the verge of collapse. Sanger reported that physical interventions were needed to maintain calm on the night of the election, as insults and middle fingers were exchanged. A few days later, Lavoie reportedly vented his anger at Plante’s supporters – including Sanger.

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The 2017 campaign victory was less surprising for Projet Montréal, because the polls showed – at least partially – the oncoming wave.

However, the political party did not prepare much beforehand: “In 2017, as in 2013 and 2009, we generally did not look beyond election day to recruit candidates,” Sanger wrote. “We rarely wondered if they would make good councillors or mayors, or if they have management skills.” It is to this recklessness that he attributed the management problems of the borough mayors Sue Montgomery and Giuliana Fumagalli, fired from Projet Montréal.

The party’s militant culture seemed to adapt with difficulty to the reality of power. “The caucus wanted to be consulted more, and that led to difficulties,“ Sanger said. ”In caucus and even in the executive committee, we found that there was not enough collective participation in decisions.“

In his second year in office, Luc Ferrandez left politics, arguing that a stronger approach was needed in the face of the climate emergency. He had other reasons, according to the book: “The reason why I resigned was that I saw it had become Team Valérie Plante,“ he said.

In recent months, “elected officials met and penned a letter to Valérie Plante asking her to show greater openness and greater tolerance towards dissent,” Sanger wrote. Others, like councillors Christian Arsenault and Christine Gosselin, preferred to leave the party.

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Results of the mayoral race in 2017:

Valérie Plante: 51 per cent

Denis Coderre: 46 per cent

Source: Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing

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“The leadership campaign divided the party, the elected caucus voting overwhelmingly on one side and by a narrow majority on the other. But it’s the members who decide and Plante did a good job of preventing the party from breaking up afterwards. Yet no one saw her becoming mayor.“

Source: Extract from the book Sauver la ville by Daniel Sanger

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