City Reader

Montreal: A Citizen’s Guide to City Politics

By Taylor C. Noakes

A review of Montreal: A Citizen's Guide to City Politics by Eric Shragge, Jason Prince, and Mostafa Henaway, editors

Published on November 3, 2021

At first, I didn’t know what to make of the preface of Montreal: A Citizen’s Guide to City Politics – Luc Ferrandez’s 2019 resignation letter. I remember feeling blindsided by the news at the time, not because I’m a supporter of Projet Montréal or Ferrandez in particular, but more because I assumed Ferrandez had everything he could have ever wanted as a local politician. The Projet Montréal formula worked, and Ferrandez deserves a lot of credit for that.

So why resign about a year and a half into the party’s first mandate to run the whole city?

Ferrandez makes an interesting point in his letter, one that neatly (if unintentionally) summarizes the rationale behind Black Rose Books’ second edition of essays on Montreal urban issues, edited by Mostafa Henaway, Jason Prince, and Eric Shragge. He states that given his well-known personal commitment to the environmentalist cause, as long as he was a member of the administration, the public would presume the environmental portfolio was in good hands and being taken very seriously.

According to Ferrandez, the reality was that his Projet Montréal colleagues weren’t nearly as keen to embark on the environmental program he had laid out, one that was designed to give Montreal a fighting chance in the war against the climate catastrophe. The summary of his proposal is as applicable and relevant today as it was two and a half years ago – the need for such bold action is far, far greater.

There’s a blindness amongst Montrealers to some of our city’s deep-seated problems, a blindness exacerbated by the few timid baby steps we’ve made towards progressive governance, as well as some environmentally conscious technologies – like the Métro and hydroelectricity – that we use and enjoy, but essentially played no role in developing. In his resignation letter, Ferrandez warned us not to sit on our laurels. By including it here, the editors caution us once more.

Graphic Novels

Montreal: A Citizen’s Guide to City Politics isn’t a book motivated by the forthcoming municipal election as much as it is by the pandemic, which laid bare the grim realities of four decades unfettered neoliberal capitalism and environmental degradation, in our city as much as others. In Montreal, the pandemic exposed the parallel cities – one where the middle class could work from home and order whatever they needed delivered straight to their doorstep, and another made up of workers whom we term as essential, but in practice treat as replaceable. The people who maintained the quality of life of the middle and upper classes of our city – the warehouse workers, food pickers and packagers, construction workers, Uber drivers and deliverers – are often treated as foreigners in their own city and barely register in the context of municipal politics, but within these pages they occupy a central position.

The question the editors ask is one that we should all be contemplating as we head to the polls: will Montreal become a citadel for the global elite as they weather the storms of terminal capitalism and climate catastrophe, or will we use our municipal government to oppose the extant formations of political and economic power? The world over, the city is where wealth is concentrated and created, and paradoxically, where extreme wealth inequality is found. But it is also in the cities that alternative economic development theories are tested and proven, that citizens wrestle control from the hands of the elites, and that progressive policies move from theory to action.

The editors outline three central questions in their introduction: what is the role of the city of Montreal and its boroughs; what are the possibilities and limits of a progressive municipal government; and how does a city like Montreal become an agent of structural, social change?

Added to this are three key issues, normally considered to be outside the realm of traditional municipal governance, that the editors believe should nonetheless shape cities’ agendas: the climate emergency (cities are both the root cause of, and therefore must be the solution to, the crisis); economic polarization (particularly with respect to investments of surplus capital and the effect this has on making the city increasingly unaffordable); and the overwhelming pressure put on cities to follow the dictates of the free market (despite ample evidence demonstrating just how ill-conceived such thinking is for modern cities). The question, however, is not how to avoid becoming a city of economic and environmental extremes, but rather how to stop being one.

The ideas explored here are applicable to most major cities, particularly those of North America, but the examples are wholly our own. In this respect, the book is true to its title in that it is a guide to city politics, but it also locates Montreal within a global contemporary context, perhaps to dissuade the bubble mentality that comes with living in a Francophone city set in the midst of an inter-continental Anglosphere. The book is also steeped in a unique kind of social history that’s far more relevant (and useful) than what is found in most academic historical studies texts, providing a foundation and framework for the book’s various themes. It’s almost a social history of Montreal activism, focusing less on how these activist movements exist and more on why they do.

This, in turn, leads to what is perhaps the most important, interrelated lesson of the whole book, namely that there’s a long history of progressive social activism leading to proactive political change in our city’s history, and that small-scale grassroots efforts led by committed activists can take on the elites and win.

On that note, Chris Curtis’s chapter on Indigenous activist Nakuset is an absolute must-read, as it both amply demonstrates the extreme (and inexcusable) hardships faced by Indigenous people (particularly women) in our ostensibly woke and with-it city. It’s also equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring: Nakuset is a role model for anyone in our city hoping to make a difference – I don’t know of too many people who’ve managed to handle as much tragedy as she had and still persevere in making our city a better place. Curtis’ description of Nakuset’s 2017 meeting with then-mayor Denis Coderre reminds that a career in politics is a poor preparation for negotiating with an experienced community activist.

Robyn Maynard’s chapter on race and policing in Montreal is another must-read, as it clearly establishes the long and sordid history of BIPOC men being gunned down by the members of the Montreal police, and the near-total lack of consequences for the offending officers. Moreover, Maynard also establishes how largely unfounded fears of dangerous, young, immigrant gangs are used to exercise and maintain power by the police and local politicians (a particularly important chapter given Coderre’s recent fear-mongering on the campaign trail).

Mostafa Henaway’s chapter entitled “The City as Sweatshop” is also vitally important for understanding the growing economic inequality of Montreal. It’s a point Montrealers need to be reminded of: our city has a large, predominantly immigrant workforce that’s paid substandard wages, that’s forced to endure untenable and inhumane working conditions, and that does so without any of the benefits or protections most Montrealers take for granted. These are the people who fuel our economy, and they are almost entirely invisible.

Another excellent chapter is a reprint of Claire Morissette’s contribution to Black Rose Books’ 1990 edition of the volume. Morissette was one of Montreal’s most important early cycling advocates, and a cofounder of Communauto. After her death in 2007, the city named the Maisonneuve Boulevard bike path in her honour (probably one of the most fitting commemorations in our city). Morissette’s contribution is included to demonstrate how some things haven’t changed in Montreal in the last three decades (namely that our city is still dominated by the interests of motorists, and that the private automobile is the leading cause of environmental degradation in our city).

What bears repeating are some of the statistics Morissette uses to introduce her argument, facts most Montrealers today don’t know and have a hard time appreciating. During Montreal’s post-Second World War “urban renewal” period, fully one quarter of its buildings were razed for highway construction, widening urban boulevards, building parking lots and on-street parking, and providing other car-related infrastructure. Further, from 1966 through 1986, Montreal lost a quarter of its population to suburban sprawl. Most startlingly of all, a 1988 poll by Le Devoir found that 42% of Montrealers wanted cars banned from downtown Montreal.

Finally, Eric Pouliot-Thisdale provides an excellent introductory chapter on Montreal’s Indigenous history that takes a highly detailed look at the history of the people who lived here before the era of colonization, occupation, settlement, and repression. Pouliot-Thisdale’s chapter provides needed context for the historical roots of challenging the imposed power of the elite, as much as challenging commonly accepted, though erroneous and fanciful colonial, narratives pertaining to Montreal’s early history. Rather than simply acknowledging that Montreal is unceded Indigenous territory, Pouliot-Thisdale provides a succinct, compelling, and detailed examination of Indigenous history that challenges the opportunistic and heroic narrative enforced by local ethno-nationalists.

This book isn’t an argument in favour of a particular party or candidate, nor even an ideology. It does ask all the most pertinent questions – not only about Montreal, but all cities – and further provides a foundation for future conversations, debates, and (hopefully) the ideological foundations of new activist groups, new political and social movements, and a new way forward for a city that so many of its citizens fight so passionately for. Unlike Denis Coderre’s Retrouver Montréal, this one is well written, well considered, and will still be useful in the years to come. May it inspire a new generation of people committed to making this city as good and as just as it can be.mRb

Taylor C. Noakes is an independent journalist and public historian from Montreal.

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