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Battle for Montreal city hall takes nasty turn ahead of Sunday's vote

MONTREAL — As the race to see who will be Montreal's next mayor moves into its final days, the campaign has taken an increasingly personal tone, with the two main candidates accusing each other of lacking integrity.

MONTREAL — As the race to see who will be Montreal's next mayor moves into its final days, the campaign has taken an increasingly personal tone, with the two main candidates accusing each other of lacking integrity.

Polls show incumbent Valérie Plante locked in a tight battle with Denis Coderre, the former federal cabinet minister who served one term as mayor before she defeated him in 2017.

While earlier the debate focused on climate change, crime and the rising cost of housing, the final days of the campaign have seen Coderre accuse Plante of not caring about sexual assault victims and Plante attack Coderre for hiding his business dealings.

After being lectured on transparency by Plante this week because of his initial refusal to disclose whom he worked for after leaving office, Coderre went on the offensive Thursday.

"Why did she lie? What does she have to hide?" Coderre asked at a news conference after CBC reported that Plante had been informed of sexual assault allegations dating back to 2012 against one of her party's city councillors. This seemed to conflict with Plante's comment last year that she had no knowledge of sexual assault or sexual harassment allegations against any members of her party.

Coderre's party, Ensemble Montréal, went even further on Twitter, accusing Plante of having "no empathy for victims of sexual assault."

Plante says her party, Projet Montréal, did its "due diligence" when it came to the councillor, Craig Sauvé, who has denied the allegations and was not charged. He announced Thursday he was leaving Projet Montréal to sit as an Independent "to avoid becoming a distraction." Plante said her 2020 declaration that there were no allegations against members of her party was accurate because Sauvé and the complainant had gone through a mediation process and a police investigation had closed. 

"We did follow the right process, and we were proactive," she said in an interview Thursday. "When the police officers decide that it's a closed case, I think that the presumption of innocence needs to prevail."

For most of the final week of the campaign, it had been Coderre facing questions about transparency.

Coderre has refused to release his tax returns — unlike in the 2013 and 2017 elections — and initially said he would not disclose the names of companies he consulted for, citing confidentiality agreements. But on Wednesday, Coderre released the names of all clients, except one, which he later acknowledged was TC Transcontinental, a printing company that has lobbied the city about its door-to-door flyer business.

"I think it shows that Mr. Coderre, his definition of transparency is quite elastic and he chooses what suits him in terms of transparency," Plante said.

Also on the list was Cogir, a large real estate company, and the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, a pro-car lobby group and a governing body for motorsport events — including Formula E, whose former Montreal edition Coderre promoted as mayor.

Coderre said if elected, he would recuse himself if there's a possibility of a conflict of interest regarding certain files. "I've been doing that for 40 years, complying with the law and the ethics measures because I'm a man of integrity," he said. 

Christian Bourque, executive vice-president at polling firm Leger, said he doesn't think Coderre's client list will deter his supporters, but the former mayor's initial reluctance to reveal it may shape the opinions of undecided voters. "I've never heard somebody say lack of transparency is a good thing," he said in a recent interview.

At a news conference Thursday morning, Coderre didn't want to talk about anything other than the allegation against Sauvé. When asked about his plan to improve the lives of young Black Montrealers, Coderre told a reporter to look at his party's website.

Plante, on the other hand, says she would rather be talking about her plans for social housing and environmental change, which she said were sidetracked by the pandemic.

"We have put together very bold and proactive actions to fight climate change, to find long-term solutions for housing in Montreal," she said. "We want to continue to build on what we've done."

Danielle Pilette, an urban studies professor at Université du Québec à Montréal who specializes in municipal governance, said the election is ultimately about two different visions for the city.

“The issue in this election is really economic development — particularly real estate — versus public transit, the environment and the social development plan,” she said in a recent interview.

Bourque said a poll conducted in late October suggests the cost of housing is the No. 1 issue in the campaign among voters, beating out environmental questions and economic revival. But he said the provincial and federal governments have more influence over the cost of housing than the city.

"I think it's it's been difficult for both candidates to clearly establish a vision for the future that's within the scope of what they can actually do," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2021.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press