Valérie Plante: behind the smile
From Ville-Marie borough mayor, to Montreal’s first-ever female mayor, Valérie Plante takes her role, and the city, very seriously.
It’s 2:30 p.m., and Valérie Plante has already welcomed the Quebec Premier prior to the afternoon, but nonetheless, she arrives to our interview on time, prepared, and enthusiastic. The whirlwind of her administration’s first budget has passed, and Plante, Montreal’s first-ever female mayor, saw it through, unfazed. She opens by saying how much she enjoys the swift pace of her position—is Valérie Plante political life’s new unstoppable woman? Not wanting to falsely portray perfection, she does admit to impatience, “My kids would certainly tell you that about me,” she says. “I’m also from a community where you need to find solutions now, not later, so it’s quite a challenge for me to captain this enormous boat. You have to commit a lot of time, and a lot of group effort, to getting things done!”
Women + power
After our photo shoot, it’s time to get down to business. Plante takes off her shoes and sits down on the nearby couch, legs tucked up under herself, an unconventional and relaxed position for any politician—but not this one. How would she define her leadership style? “Unifying, and seeking to foster accord. I’m not the type of person who slams their fist on the table and declares, ‘I’m right!’ I believe in shared vision, goals, and teamwork.” Aren’t those the attributes traditionally ascribed to women, though? Plante’s brow furrows somewhat: “I suppose you could say that, but at the same time there aren’t a multitude of women in the upper echelons of power, so I don’t think it’s a certainty. We’ll see, but honestly I think there are as many different leadership styles as there are women in power.” How could we know for sure? “Elect a lot more women to lead nations, provinces, and cities!” matter-of-factly states Plante before laughing.
Reconciling society and economy
Valérie Plante has won all the elections she’s waged, and she’s savvy enough to know to surround herself with a competent, experienced team. Her mentors and political idols are all formidable women: Anne Hidalgo (for her audacity), Louise Harel (who lost the 2013 election but agreed to advise Plante) newly minted Canadian ambassador to Paris, Isabelle Hudon, and former Desjardins Group president Monique Leroux. What do these women have in common? They’ve all utterly shattered the glass ceiling—just like Plante. Add to that list the Mayor’s new Press Liaison Geneviève Jutras (from Hudon’s camp), with whom Plante worked at the Chambre de commerce du Montréal métropolitain, then at Sunlife Financial.
"I believe in shared visions, goals ans teamwork."
Another significant influence is her experience within the community; Plante is close to unveiling her strategy to combat homelessness. She’s also invested in the social aspect of Montreal—and is willing to bet that that social aspect is a creative, and economic driver for the city. She notes that Montreal distinguishes itself through its social, economic, and cultural diversity, in part fostered by relatively affordable housing. “In Toronto and Vancouver, only certain strata of people can afford to live in the downtown core or area,” Plante explains. “Having people from various economic classes, different sociocultural backgrounds in the same city, the same borough, that’s a huge strength. The unique character of each of Montreal’s neighbourhoods and their strong, individual identities generates a lot of interest in the city; it gives it that famous joie de vivre and petit je-ne-sais-quoi.”
The means—and the ambition
Projet Montréal’s electoral platform was ambitious, and the new mayor freely admits that there can be a wide rift between expectations and reality. “We’re not hiding the fact that finances are regrettably a limiting factor. There are a lot of things we’d like to implement, but to do so, we need to work with other levels of government.” Thinking aloud, Plante adds, “Above all, it’s sustainable public transport where we are most limited and for that, we absolutely need to be in contact with Ottawa. However, I see it as my role—being local government—to rally other levels of government! Up to now, the proverbial stars have been aligned, because we all appear to share a common vision.” Plante also explains that everyone understands the necessity of infrastructure demands: “If you want to be firmly set in the 21st century and plan for the future, maintaining only roadways makes no sense at all; the status quo is totally changing.”
...and what of local business?
A working committee circa 2016 recommended that commercial building taxes increase less than those in the residential sector—a recommendation that wasn’t retained in the Plante-Dorais administration’s first budget. That administration finds itself in the red by some $358 million. “In reality, about 70% of the city’s financial resources come from income taxes,” Plante states. “For the short term, we’re brainstorming ways to diversify revenue sources around that. We need to discuss that sort of thing with Quebec City, but those are not easy, simple, discussions to have.”
While waiting for those difficult conversations to take place, she reminds that there’s a $30 million fund that the city was granted thanks to its newly minted “metropolis” status, which her administration will use to support businesses that have suffered because of infrastructure works. “We know that taxes hit them hard. In some neighbourhoods, rent is incredibly high, and that’s not good for business diversity,” she says.
Despite the city’s financial concerns, Plante remains “happy and proud to invest millions into the reshaping and renewal of the economic engine that is Sainte-Catherine Street.” There, local businesses are facing the harsh new reality of increasingly popular online shopping. She also mentions having expressed her concerns to Prime Minister Trudeau, vise-a-vise the financial preoccupations that local businesses have. “The government absolutely has to establish a position on that, and find solutions,” she urges. “I could have the most gorgeous, accessible business street in the world, but there are some things that are simply out of my control.”
It’s been a few months since Plante began her mandate; has she begun to figure out the nuances and difficulties of her role? “We’re on the frontline; we see the positive and negative impacts of what happens provincially and federally. I deal with that, and I learn as I go.”
Text: Marilyse Hamelin. Photo: Jocelyn Michel