Though he is known for his car-salesman-calibre smile, few things make Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre frown more than Uber. Coderre has been swift and frequent in his criticism of the, er, uber-popular ride-booking option offered by the company since it landed in Montreal last fall. Since then, the word “Uber” has rarely left the mayor’s lips without the word “illegal” somehow attached to it.
Coderre’s beef with Uber isn’t particularly novel. The San-Francisco-based company, whose UberX product teams customers with Uber drivers (and not traditional taxis) via its mobile app, has faced some sort of opposition in nearly all of the 310 cities where it has set up shop. The main complaint from municipal governments: that Uber provides a service without licensing protocols or regulatory framework, thereby endangering passengers as well as traditional taxi industries.
Yet Montreal city hall’s reaction to Uber has been comparably harsh. Since February, the city’s taxi bureau seized 40 cars of Uber drivers. Coincidentally or not, Revenu Québec officials recently raided Uber’s Montreal offices for suspected infractions of the province’s tax code—the first time authorities have gone after Uber for tax-related reasons in North America, according to Uber spokesperson Xavier Van Chau.
What is behind Coderre’s outsized opposition to the popular ride-booking company? Some point to his 16 years as a federal MP for Bourassa, home to many of Montreal’s taxi drivers. The city’s taxi industry has long been a wellspring of street-level protest: in 1969, a taxi driver protest of a company-held monopoly on routes to Dorval Airport led to the shooting death of a provincial police officer. Though Uber spokespeople say they have expressed the company’s desire to be regulated, Coderre has remained firm. “The problem with Uber is that it’s illegal transportation,” Coderre said in mid-May.
Revenu Québec officials have echoed Coderre’s sentiment. At issue is whether the company should pay provincial taxes on revenues derived from Uber drivers. Uber claims that its drivers are independent contractors, and it only acts as a third party between a client and the driver. Not surprisingly, Revenu Québec thinks otherwise. “Uber drivers don’t receive any money from their clients. The clients pay Uber directly, and Uber pays the drivers” and should therefore pay tax, says Revenu Québec spokesperson Stéphane Dion (not the former Liberal leader and current MP). No charges have yet been laid against the company.
Yet in attacking Uber, the popular Montreal mayor has seemingly found himself on the wrong side of public opinion. Some 15,000 people have signed a petition in favour of the service in Montreal, while municipal opposition party Projet Montréal has pushed the Coderre administration to devise regulations encouraging ride sharing. Then there’s the issue of money. Uber has promised pay the legal costs of Uber drivers who run afoul of Montreal’s taxi authority. A bit of perspective: Montreal’s has a yearly budget of roughly $4.8 billion. Uber’s valuation is more than 10 times that.
Denis Coderre in conversation with Martin Patriquin