Meeting Valérie Plante for the first time is like getting together with an old friend: The Projet Montréal leader is joyous and friendly, full of laughter and energy, totally unpretentious, and motivated by the best intentions.
At 42, she wants to become mayor to improve the city, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, and is ready for you to be part of the process by voicing your views and thereby participating in the decision making.
When she first entered politics in 2013, running in working-class Centre-Sud neighbourhood, it was anything but a slam-dunk: she agreed to face a woman she happened to admire, the former Parti Québécois cabinet
minister Louise Harel.
Her campaign manager, after discussing her values and interests, and seeing what we saw in our interview, nick-named her “the happy warrior.”
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“I try to see the good in everything, always proactive, looking for solutions — this is the positive side. As for warrior, I never give up. Throughout my life I have shown I have lots of resilience.” Plante defeated Harel, an icon in that part of town, and after Luc Ferrandez resigned, she ran for the leadership and won again.
Her reasons for choosing Projet Montréal to enter politics were that, unique in city politics, it is a real party with some 3,500 members and values she shares.
“We have a base of members, decisions come from the bottom, and then it goes up, which is my way of thinking – this is how I see democracy, not from the top to the bottom, but the other way around.”
“I am really attached to its values, of making the city accessible to everyone, to make districts and boroughs more viable, in terms of transport and housing, which is what I have been fighting for in my career.”
Her cheerful dispositon, positive and easy going personality developed in her family, growing up in Rouyn-Noranda with a stay-at-home mom, Constance Lamarre and her father, Gaétan Plante, a travelling salesman. Her extended family all worked in area mines.
“He had a bus in which he offered stuff for sale in the towns and villages of the area – it was like a dollar store on wheels.”
She spent her childhood, which she describes as “very modest,” working with him on the road, and attributes her ease in connecting with people to that experience.
“It’s all about people,” she says.
Plante came to Montreal 10 years ago for a first degree in Anthropology at the Université de Montréal, specializing in Ethnology, following that up with an M.A. in Museology.
During her studies she supported herself as a tour guide for Air Transat, taking visitors across Canada, also travelling for a year in South America. She speaks English and Spanish fluently, in addition to her native French.
After working in several Montreal museums, she had an epiphany.
“I realized I needed to work with people, more in the community sector,” and started working for Girls Action Foundation, supporting marginalized girls and young women. She helped build self-confidence, encouraging them to believe in themselves – “carrying this baggage, and being proud of it.”
“If you are a young immigrant, a racialized girl, or aboriginal young woman, because of your identity you actually deal with more stuff.”
She also worked as a volunteer in women’s shelters, accompanying women to court and helping them cope with domestic violence.
During that time, she and her husband have raised two boys, 11 and 14, in Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie district, near the Jean Talon market. Her husband, Pierre-Antoine Harvey, is an economist with the Centrale des syndicats du Québec. Plante describes her approach to political action as that of a social democrat.
“The world that I believe in is a world where everybody has a chance to do whatever they want in life. For that to happen you need to have at least a home, the capacity to work, a way to travel from one place to another, to have options.
“For me to be a social democrat, to be progressive, is to make sure that we give enough to people so those possibilities are available.
“At the municipal level, it means doing a better job on housing issues, improving mass transit, and offering more support to not-for-profit organizations, and everything related to the quality of life.”
Making the city “beautiful and safe,” is the overall goal.
As for details, the program for the November election is a work in progress, and the final version will depend on the results of a party policy convention May 27-28 at the Cité des sciences, Université du Québec à Montréal.
One idea is for the city to increase the amount set aside by the current administration to “minimum $30 million” from the current $3 million to buy vacant land and support the construction of mixed-use housing, with, both privately owned condos and rental units that are affordable.
“Housing is priority number one, followed by mass transit. It doesn’t make sense that there have been no major new investments in the past 25 years. I want a bold and ambitious plan for mass transit in Montreal. Why so much investment to expand highways to the suburbs, and we’re not getting it for Montreal?”
The idea is to encourage people to stay in the city.
Her main critique of Mayor Denis Coderre is “his lack of vision. He makes decisions here and there, he changes, depending on what he thinks will make him popular, but where is his vision for the city in five years?”
Should the city commit itself financially to bringing back professional baseball? Plante’s answer is a flat “no”.
Coderre has come out in favour of a return of major league baseball to replace the Expos, which folded in 2004, but the condition set by private investors is public funds for a new stadium.
Plante is adamant that the process is wrong – “We are criticizing his lack of transparency, which we have seen in other files as well. We are talking about taxpayers’ money, a lot of money, and if he thinks this is good for the city he should be asking Montrealers if this is how we want to spend our money.”
“He didn’t get a mandate to do this,” she insists.
Her party has also questioned his failure to declare a $25,000 cheque handed to him by Laval businessman and former Liberal party fundraiser Jean Rizzuto in 2012, while he was an MP, as required by the conflict of interest code of the House of Commons. Coderre first said he should have declared it then said he considered the money to be a “contribution” — not a “donation” — to help cover legal costs in his dispute with a former National Hockey League player over alleged anti-French slurs.
“Denis Coderre has been a long-time politician, and if he doesn’t know the rules by now there is a major problem,” Plante intones.
She is upset with the building of a “natural amphitheater” with seating for 65,000 at Parc Jean-Drapeau, for which more than 1,000 mature trees were cut down, and that the popular Aquatic Park, as well as Circuit Gilles Villeneuve are closed for the summer.
“The amphitheater will benefit first and foremost private promoters for six to ten shows per summer… Denis Coderre never agreed to our request to consult Montrealers on this project.”
As Gazette columnist Allison Hanes pointed out in a recent piece: “The whole thrust of the Parc Jean-Drapeau overhaul is to make more room for festivalgoers at the expense of parkland used by ordinary Montrealers.”
This closing of the pools and cycling paths is among several planned for the expected long hot summer that were “only discovered haphazardly, and at the last minute, turning irritation into full-blown outrage,” Hanes remarked.
Plante says “the amateurism and improvisation of this mayor in this file is appalling,” and Hanes concludes:
“Montreal has a legendary reputation far and wide for being a city of fun. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t live up to its billing for many of those who actually live here.”
That is something Plante promise to change.