Meet Your Candidates, Meet Your City No.1

The Filipino Chess Club of Montreal, at its former home, a Tim Horton's
The Filipino Chess Club of Montreal, at its former home, a Tim Horton’s

I’m going to try and interview a few local candidates in the run-up to election-palooza this November.

First up is an extended version of an article I wrote for Forget the Box on Sujata Dey, Projet Montreal city councillor candidate for the Darlington district of Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace-de-Loyola-de-Snowdon-sur-Décarie-et-Upper-Lachine-Road-Next-to-the-Superhospital-and-the-Poorer-Little-Italy-de-l’Oratoire-de-l’Université-de-Montréal-Westmount-Adjacent. The photo above is taken from an article written by the candidate on community planning in her borough for a website called Montreal Serai.

Okay, it’s not really called that, but to the point, CDN-NDG is, in my opinion, a borough too big. Though we’re a big city, we’re a city of neighbourhoods, and I think we’ll benefit from smaller-scale representation. The borough system always seemed a bit odd to me – in CDN-NDG’s case too big to really cater to local needs, awkwardly gathering up a lot of the city’s diversity (cultural, social, aesthetic, historic etc.) into something that doesn’t quite work for residents while being big enough to become bloated with corruption. Remember, Michael Applebaum was once the paranoid borough mayor of CDN-NDG.

Now this isn’t to say that the borough system is structurally corrupt (I hope), but I think I’d prefer a ‘renovated’ system that devolved the power of the borough mayors and empowered the role of councillor as a member of a stronger, ‘more executive’ municipal legislative body, such as a congress of councillors. Ideally we’d have more councillors so that there’s a better representation of the city’s many communities, and neighbourhoods. I’d like a city where I actually knew my councillor and she or he knew me.

In any event, the article is part interview with the candidate and part ruminations on the city and its political reality. I hope you enjoy.

***

I find myself in front of a community centre/library in a converted office block on a muggy summer Sunday afternoon. High up on Cote-des-Neiges Road the mountain still forms the backdrop looking towards the city, with the road crawling out from the gap between Mount Royal and Westmount like a river pouring forth from a waterfall. Cote-des-Neiges Road is a never-ending torrent of humanity, the eponymous borough well represented by its main thoroughfare. The borough, Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace, is the most populous of Montreal’s many boroughs, and is arguably one of the most cosmopolitan and integrated neighbourhoods in all of Canada. The Cote-des-Neiges component is itself more heavily and densely populated and has served, nearly consistently since the end of the Second World War, as the ‘first neighbourhood’ for many generations of immigrants. This is as true today as it was more than sixty years ago.

I’m here to cover the nomination of Ms. Sujata Dey, a businesswoman with deep roots in the community, as Projet Montreal city councillor candidate for the Darlington district of the aforementioned borough. Darlington, the northernmost part of Cote-des-Neiges, is also one of the poorest and most ignored parts of the city. Sitting there I realized this is where my father’s people come from, this is exactly where he spent his formative years.

They would tell you it’s changed dramatically, but all that I see is pretty much exactly the way they described it. Ours is a subtle timelessness.

The conventional thinking amongst establishment politicians in Montreal is that the poorest neighbourhoods are generally where immigrants reside and that, simply put, immigrants don’t vote in municipal elections. Therefore, the establishment parties don’t pay much attention to the needs of residents living in these areas and do almost no campaigning or reaching-out. This may explain why only about 39% of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2009 election, totalling just over 400,000 votes split between three main parties. A low turnout by anyone’s standards, but also in keeping with the ‘focus on your base’ mentality that so pervades Montreal municipal politics. That base, even in 2013, is all too often Caucasian, French-speaking and (at the very least) lapsed Catholic – the very same people who’ve been leaving the City of Montreal for adjoining suburbs at a near constant rate for the last forty years.

There are a lot of people who exert undue influence over Montreal, yet who also do not pay any taxes to the city and can’t vote in our elections. Keep this in mind when (if) the parties begin discussing their plans for the city – see how much is actually focused on the citizens who live here versus the interests of those whose time spent in the city is framed by their work schedules. Makes me wonder if ‘One Island, One City’ was really that bad of an idea in the first place.

In any event, Ms. Dey did not mince words.

“This is Montreal’s Enron moment.” I agree, though I wonder how fresh Enron is in people’s minds. Inasmuch as Enron was a great reminder for why we need strict government oversight to prevent fraud on an epic scale, so too does Montreal require a more invested citizenry. When we fall asleep at the wheel, when we resign ourselves to not being able to do anything to change the status quo, we lose. Enron foreshadowed the economic collapse of 2008-2009; it’s my hope that a prolonged era of darkness in Montreal city politics is coming to an end, rather than about to peak. I don’t know how much more the people can take. If the fall brings a whole new onslaught of fresh arrests and implications, we may lose our faith altogether.

Those gathered responded very well to this statement. The room was packed with some seventy people who, historically, have been all but ignored by the city’s former political machines. Sure, some of the people here may be paid lip service in the immediate run-up to the election – a photo-op, a promise to encourage diversity or something along those lines. It doesn’t tend to go much farther than that. Regardless, the room is full, the people attentive. I’ve been to a lot of nomination meetings; few have had this kind of turnout. I would assume these people would be the most disinterested – not for lack of understanding or being able to devote the necessary time, but simply because they’ve been ignored for so long. It goes to show the conventional thinking – much like conventional politics in general – isn’t worth much. The people gathered here care – they’re willing to sacrifice a precious day off to do their civic duty and implicate themselves in the process by which we might actually turn things around in our city.

Ms. Dey makes a fully bilingual presentation; two languages are required to cover all bases, so to speak, with children translating into other languages in whispers for their grandparents. She mentions she wants an ethics code, greater operational transparency, a system of checks and balances – some people’s eyes light up, incredulous – why doesn’t this exist already?

Why does it always seem that Montreal is missing the bare minimum requirements for a sustainable democracy?

Ms. Dey pushes on into new territory, a point made by several Projet Montreal candidates – she wants an audit. Audit the borough, audit the city, audit the departments, audit everything to see precisely where and how we’re wasting so much of our tax revenue. The idea of an audit is wise, though it would be a hard sell. That said, it could result in a cheaper government to run. Again, makes me wonder why we’re not already doing it on a yearly basis – cries of corruption in municipal politics and local construction firms dates back to before the war. Despite its historical precedence, I would argue strongly that we not consider inherent corruption as an element of our culture.

Ms. Dey continues, pointing out the lack of vital community space for such a diverse, growing population. As an example, she points out that the Filipino Chess Club was thrown out of their former informal home – a Tim Horton’s. In communities such as these, the demand for community space far outweighs what’s available, another victim of ‘traditional’ thinking (which stipulates, ignorantly, that recent arrivals don’t have time for trivial social gatherings). The reality is quite different – recent arrivals not only need a lot of community space, but they actually make good use of it. Every room in this office block turned community centre was occupied; once we were done we were hurried out so the room could be converted for a reception.

The lack of available space is itself not too far removed from another point underlined by the candidate – most people who live in Darlington don’t know who their representatives are, simply because they haven’t bothered to introduce themselves to the locals. It’s hard to mobilize for a higher quality of life when you have not only never met your municipal representative, but further still, that the individual in question spends half the year golfing in Florida, or otherwise ‘too busy’ to meet with his or her constituents. This is on purpose – our governments have been of the ‘laissez-faire’ variety that tends to shun civic engagement of any kind, largely because that gets in the way of private real estate interests, which, as we’re now becoming aware, seems to have been what Montreal City Hall was largely used for about two decades.

The people of Darlington are committed citizens, engaged and neighbourly – they have no interest in private real estate deals. They need jobs, they need a housing plan, they need community-focused politicians to take on the slum lords who’ve rendered so much of the area’s so-called ‘affordable housing’ roach infested, leaky, mouldy etc.

What a sick city we live in – I would’ve expected nonsense like this back before the war, but today? In 2013? Ça n’a pas d’allure!

The speech wraps and Projet Montreal leader Richard Bergeron steps up to make some closing remarks in surprisingly good English. I say surprising only because friends and associates had told me he was shy and didn’t consider himself very good. I think he’s being a little too hard on himself.

He praises the party for bringing people like Ms. Dey into the spotlight, for facilitating real community involvement in civic affairs. He derides the gimmicks and corporate marketing strategies of the pop-star candidates who’ve largely turned this forthcoming election into more of a popularity contest than anyone dared dream possible. Bergeron points out that Projet Montreal is the only party ‘without a Mafia expense account’ and, true to form, not currently being investigated by the SQ’s permanent anti-corruption unit (UPAC).

The only party left, the only party at all, the only party that will continue to exist after Mr. Bergeron retires. All of the other groups contesting this election are leader-driven that they’ll simply cease to exist after the election is over.

As you might imagine, this is less than ideal for a city trying, desperately, to re-establish its democratic credibility. There should be many citizen-driven municipal political parties, not just one, but Projet Montreal is the only party still standing. And for good reason – it conducts itself properly. Ms. Dey was the only candidate the party nominated for the district but the party took a vote anyways. It left an impression. Whereas other groups would do this by acclamation, Projet Montreal actually went to the trouble of recording the vote. In that sense, Ms. Dey was elected to represent the party, a small yet nonetheless telling detail. The fact that there was a vote actually attaches the candidate to the people she aims to represent. I’m sure some would deride this as mere pageantry, but I see it otherwise. At the very least it’s thorough; it doesn’t cut corners.

We should expect nothing less from our elected representatives; we go to the polls November 3rd.

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