Valérie Plante is approaching the start of her fourth year in office as mayor of Montreal in circumstances dramatically different from when she marked the start to her third. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic crisis that has come with it, has completely upended life as we knew it in Montreal.
As hundreds of thousands of students, including Plante’s own two sons, head back to Montreal’s classrooms for a back-to-school season unlike any other, she joined Global News Morning to reflect on 2020 so far.
Looking to post-crisis partnerships
With Montreal’s unemployment rate peaking above 10 per cent in the middle of the lockdown and many, if not most, businesses seeing their profits slashed by social-distancing rules and shoppers reluctant to spend money, Plante highlighted the need for the city to have help from both the provincial and federal governments to see its residents and businesses out of the crisis caused by COVID-19.
“We’ve been working really hard on this,” she said, “and there’s been a lot of money that’s been injected, both from the (province) and also from the City of Montreal.”
She told Global’s Laura Casella that the city has also noticed that downtown businesses are suffering more than those in residential neighbourhoods.
“What we’re going through is something similar to Toronto and Vancouver. We’re big cities — and New York is the same, and Paris and London — where city centres, where there used to be a lot of tourists and people coming to work, well, we have challenges now,” she said.
“There has to be an understanding from other levels of government that a city, a metropolis, cannot do it by itself.”
Racial justice and John A. Macdonald
With racial justice demonstrations taking to the streets of Montreal and other cities around the world, Plante said she’s focused on how to concretely make people of colour feel safer in the city.
Plante said hearing racialized people say they don’t feel safe from harassment and intimidation by police while driving, “to me is a huge concern.”
“It’s a step-by-step (process), and we don’t want to wait years for the next step,” Plante said.
Following the removal of the John A. Macdonald statue in Place du Canada Park, questions emerge on whether it should be replaced
She also highlighted her administration’s recognition in council of systemic racism in the city, which took place earlier this summer.
“From there,” she said, “we can have this open conversation, even though it’s uncomfortable.”
Asked about the weekend incident that saw anti-racism protesters tear down the statue of former prime minister John A. Macdonald, however, Plante did appear uncomfortable. Saying “it’s never the answer” to tear down a piece of public property, no matter the cause, she said the city is already working on ways to better contextualize its ties to history.
Moving forward, Plante said the city is leaning on the advice of a committee for further advice “regarding statues, but also street names, where there’s a lot of concern, and a lot of questioning, from different groups and minorities.”
“I find it’s a very interesting time in history, where we need to hear those concerns and move forward into putting it in context,” she added.
Housing and the east end’s ‘tent city’
Asked about the homeless encampment that has occupied a grassy stretch of government-owned land off Notre-Dame Street in the east end, Plante said the responsibility to ensure all Montrealers are housed is a shared one.
“I think it would be wrong to put the focus on us, the city, in that matter,” Plante said.
Citing efforts her administration has undertaken to require new high-rises to include subsidized housing, Plante emphasized that Projet Montréal has done what it can to speed up the construction of new affordable homes.
“There hasn’t been any money injected into social housing by the government of Quebec, and there’s now money waiting, between the federal and the provincial (governments), for social housing,” she said.
When it comes to slowdowns with her party’s ambitious plans to grow the affordable housing stock in Montreal, Plante points the finger squarely at Quebec City.
“Let’s never forget that whenever it’s homelessness issues or housing issues, the bottom line is, those are provincial responsibilities. And the city is there to support, to find solutions, to take care of you. But we definitely need to look at the provincial (government) and say, ‘How do you support social housing?’”
Looking ahead to 2021 — and beyond
This time next year, Plante will be hitting the campaign trail in an election sure to be dramatically different from the one she came from behind to win in 2017.
Asked if leading the city through the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis that has come with it has changed her perspective on how Montreal should be run, Plante replied: “I think my vision is the same.” She said her core goals of promoting public and active transport and making housing accessible for all are just as important now.
“We still need to have those big issues in mind, but it does bring a new light,” she said. “And I think the little tent village we have is such a good example. Housing is huge. Government needs to be interested in that matter, and now we have a pandemic that did increase the precarity of a lot of people. So, now it’s in our face, and we need to push certain buttons more.”
The committed environmentalist, however, added that even though climate change has faded from the spotlight in recent months, it’s still a top priority for her.
“Even though we’re currently going through a very tough time right now with COVID-19, it’s nothing to compare to what a big climate-change crisis could look like in a few years.”
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