For most Montrealers, the reach of municipal politics extends only as far as the trash can and the snowplow. As long as both are taken care of, the people don’t much care who’s in charge: in 2005, barely a third of eligible voters bothered casting a municipal ballot. This November’s election was going to be a variation on the theme, pitting Montreal’s charisma-free mayor Gérald Tremblay against fussy upstart Benoît Labonté. Early polling suggested Tremblay would ride into a third term on a wave of indifference.
Not anymore. Labonté recently ceded his spot as leader of Vision Montreal to Louise Harel, a former Parti Québécois minister with a well-known taste for the jugular. Much to the chagrin of Mayor Tremblay, Montreal’s politics are suddenly dominated by a familiar Quebec staple: language politics.
Harel has been a sovereignist hard-liner and the face of the PQ’s far-left flank for nearly four decades. A former social worker and lawyer, she joined the party in 1970 and promptly led a unionization drive of its office workers. Even though René Lévesque had always aligned himself with the province’s unions, he didn’t appreciate the move. So when Harel was first elected in 1981, she found herself on the backbenches. Appointed immigration minister in 1984, she resigned less than three months later, along with six other ministers, in protest of Lévesque’s softening stand on independence.
She reappeared in Jacques Parizeau’s government 10 years later, and as municipal affairs minister oversaw the forced municipal mergers in 2001 under premier Lucien Bouchard. These mergers irked many in the province, particularly Montreal’s English communities. Singling out Westmount, Harel suggested “the stench of colonialism” was wafting from the city’s wealthiest, largely English neighbourhood. (Harel made a point of not learning English as a student; though she has since tried to learn, she has difficulty conversing in la langue du Shakespeare.)
The English media has responded in kind to Harel’s return. Twenty-five years ago, the Gazette blasted Harel for being a “doctrinaire socialist”; last week, the paper suggested Montreal would be only slightly worse off with Maurice “Mom” Boucher as mayor, referring to the former Hells Angels leader now in prison for murder. Letter writers of both solitudes expressed outrage at having a mayor who can’t speak English; others were outraged at the outrage. PQ Leader Pauline Marois piped up in defence of her close friend; paleo-sovereignist Gerald Larose said Quebec was a colonized state. The election may be in 2009, but the rhetoric was right out of the 1970s.
Early indications are that she has a good shot at victory. A speculative poll published shortly before Harel’s announcement gave her a 20-point advantage over Tremblay, whose squeaky-clean image has been tainted by recent charges of favouritism in the awarding of city contracts. A Léger Marketing online poll following her announcement had Vision Montreal at 13 points above Tremblay’s Union Montreal. (Municipal parties still dominate Montreal politics, though neither Vision nor Union are identifiably left or right, and usually stay clear of Quebec’s Liberal-PQ divide.) Harel hasn’t said much about what she plans to do if elected, other than vowing to fix the various messes she says Tremblay has made during his eight-year tenure.
Perhaps more confounding than the sudden popularity of a sovereignist politician in a city that voted overwhelmingly against Quebec’s separation in 1995 is Harel’s choice of bedfellow. Benoît Labonté, who would likely be second-in-command in a Harel government, is a staunch federalist who once worked for Paul Martin and who has strong ties with Montreal’s business community. Then again, it might be a perfect fit: Labonté can placate those put off by Harel’s Péquiste past.
Moreover, Montreal’s anglophone community, one of Tremblay’s strongest bases of support, has effectively silenced itself. In 2004, 14 communities, all majority English-speaking save for one, voted to “separate”’ from the city, meaning they vote in their own municipal elections. As a result, today’s “merged” Montreal is a Swiss cheese collection of boroughs in which Anglos have less of a say than before. Battered as he is, though, Tremblay remains a formidable opponent. His core voters are older homeowners, a demographic that can traditionally be trusted to actually cast a ballot on election day. He also has near-unanimous support amongst those anglophones who are still eligible to vote.
“This has to be a two-horse race,” a Union Montreal strategist told Maclean’s, worried that an anti-Péquiste pressure party will spring up and draw away Tremblay’s vote. One potential candidate, who has no love for Tremblay, has nonetheless fallen into line behind the mayor. “I don’t want to be known as the guy who got Harel elected,” he told Maclean’s.
Harel also must contend with this fact: fewer and fewer Quebecers, much less Montrealers, believe in her raîson d’être. A recent La Presse poll found that 75 per cent of Quebecers don’t believe Quebec sovereignty will ever happen. Fifty-four per cent, meanwhile, are against the idea entirely. Should she be elected, Harel will have to endure something she is not yet used to: Montreal’s yawning indifference to anything going on beyond the curb.