Montreal election: More women, more diversity, more young people

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Montreal election: More women, more diversity, more young people
Voter turnout may have been dismal for Montreal’s and Quebec’s 2021 municipal elections, but those who showed up at the polls knew exactly what they wanted: change. More women, more visible minorities and more young people were elected than ever before, with some newly elected officials even making municipal history. 

The lack of diversity at Montreal City Hall has been a long-standing issue, with many calling it out for years. While Projet Montréal fielded visible and cultural minority candidates the first time around, none were elected — a clear indication of how slow progress can sometimes be. In 2017, after Valerie Plante made history by becoming Montreal’s first female mayor, I wrote, “The final piece in the puzzle that is sorely lacking in Plante’s executive committee is diversity. With 31% of the city population composed of cultural and visible minorities, Montreal’s City Hall remains glaringly and disappointingly white. Here’s hoping this, too, changes soon.”

It took four years, but change has finally come. This time around, Projet Montréal not only ran a significant number of candidates who were visible and ethnic minorities (47 of 103 candidates), but, most importantly, it ran them in boroughs where they had a good chance of winning. As a result, the city’s next municipal council will be the most diverse ever, with 17% of its 65 members coming from visible minorities. It’s not ground-breaking, but it’s significant progress.

Breaking the tired old political mold

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Dominique Ollivier (@dominiqollivier)
Dominique Ollivier

Equally important, if not more so, the city’s new executive committee chairperson will be headed by Dominique Ollivier, the former president of the Office de consultation publique de Montréal. Ollivier is of Haitian descent and has extensive knowledge of the issues Montrealers are concerned about. And in CDN-NDG, for the first time ever, a Black woman borough mayor has been elected in a nail-biter that had me refreshing the Elections Montreal page every two seconds on Monday morning. Gracia Kasoki Katahwa, a nurse manager originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is now the new mayor of the largest Montreal borough. 

Not only are more women taking on important new roles, but they’re also coming from non-traditional backgrounds. In the past, city council consisted primarily of the Old Boys’ Club: primarily male candidates with business connections and privileged upbringings. It still does, let’s not kid ourselves, but seeing first and second-generation Montrealers take a seat at the table bodes well for local democracy and representation. 

When Kasoki Katahwa, who came from humble means, spoke during her acceptance speech of calling her dad to tell him she was entering politics and of the silence that followed on the phone afterwards and everything that it represented — the pride, the worry, the sacrifices incurred by immigrant parents so their children could succeed — I teared up. As the daughter of immigrants, that not only mirrored my own experiences, but it also validated my belief that politics needs a serious injection of people with more awareness, and more of a hands-on understanding of today’s vital social issues. With one in three Montreal residents being a visible minority, voters have made it clear that they want people at City Hall that will start tackling these issues, not deny their existence. 

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Gracia Kasoki Katahwa (@gk.katahwa)
Gracia Kasoki Katahwa

Also, can I take a minute to say how refreshing it is to see a nurse at the helm of the CDN-NDG borough? A profession that requires so much empathy, organizational skills, multi-tasking and resilience is well suited for community service, and I hope her win inspires more people from such professional backgrounds to come forward and serve their cities in this way. 

A wind of change across Quebec 

Across the river in Longueuil, almost half of the newly elected municipal councillors, in an election that saw almost the entire city council replaced, are first or second-generation immigrants. The mayor at the helm, who recruited these candidates? A 29-year-old woman, Catherine Fournier, once a MNA for the PQ, then an independent, before she decided to jump into municipal politics to shake things up. Fournier, who in the past brought forth a motion to recognize the status of the asylum seekers known as “guardian angels” working in CHSLDs (a motion Premier Legault rejected), is, in many ways, representative of a new generation of young Quebec sovereigntists, who both understand the added richness of immigration and are much more inclusive and open to diversity. 

Fournier wasn’t the only woman to win the top seat during Monday’s elections. Some of Quebec’s largest cities — Sherbrooke, Granby, Gatineau and Saguenay — all voted in women as mayors. For a minute there, Quebec City almost did, too. Younger people, like Laval’s 33-year-old new mayor, were also elected, indicating that more voters want to see new blood, new ideas and a new way of doing things. 

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Catherine Fournier (@cathfournierqc)
Catherine Fournier

Representation matters 

The jubilation at these results always produces a predictable reaction on social media, with some folks immediately popping up to tell us “they don’t vote for a woman, they vote for the best candidate.” They never realize they’re telling on themselves by assuming the two are an either/or proposition.

The desire to see elected officials accurately represent the increasingly diverse population that they serve has nothing to do with pandering to a “feminist” or “woke” agenda and all the dangerous social movements they seem to represent for those unable to understand that Quebec’s demographic reality is changing. 

Women comprise most Montreal voters and yet the fact that some of us are pointing out that we’re pleased with real representation is somehow seen as “feminist nonsense” or caving to “special interest groups.” The same applies to visible and ethnic communities. That’s not pandering or tokenism invading City Hall; it’s the very essence of representative democracy. 

When white men say they don’t care whether it’s a woman or a man elected because “they’re beyond all that,” I groan. They don’t care because it’s never affected them. White men, you’ve been overrepresented in politics for centuries, so it’s okay if you’re a little blasé about it by now. Let everyone else have their moment. 

Sexism and unconscious bias are still deeply embedded in our society. When Fournier decided to run, I saw the vile comments online, treating her as a silly little woman who stood no chance. Plante was literally scolded for laughing during one of the debates by Coderre. Women are treated harshly in politics; they’re too young, too naive, too angry, they smile too much or they don’t smile enough. Black women get that treatment 10 times over. Misogynoir is a very real thing. So forgive me for taking a minute to rejoice in seeing some of them have the last laugh now, knowing fully well that studies show that when women see other women in public office, they’re more likely to run, too.

When people see public officials that look like them, act like them, come from backgrounds like theirs, share their interests and concerns, it increases people’s faith in a democratic process where the issues, priorities, rights, experiences and values of all voters are represented. That leads to better, more inclusive, more socially cohesive cities where everyone feels heard. That’s a good thing. ■

For the complete Montreal municipal election results, please visit the Elections Montreal website.

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.
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