Unapologetically Canadian Episode 23 features an interview with Lachine Mayor Maja Vodanovic.
I asked her three key questions:
I first asked Lachine Mayor Maja Vodanovic about her experiment in public participation government. She’s holding an official consultation about the development of a 60-hectare site at the east end of her borough prior to a plan being developed, something that’s never been done before in Montreal.
We spoke about the normal process in which developers and the city agree on a plan before the public gets a say. Residents and neighbours are only consulted afterwards, in the assumption that citizens will green light changes.
The traditional process includes enough hurdles that only the most unpopular projects get refused, but at that point everyone involved has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and sometimes millions on plans that never see the light of day.
Mr. Yaccarini [François Yaccarini, development agent with SDC Angus] you know he was he was there at a conference that we organized. And he said that even with the best intentions, things can go wrong. They had made a plan and the citizens were not happy. And they had to review it and they wanted to do something good and ecological but it was turned back. And they spent over a million dollars on the plans.
Vodanovic also spoke about her public participation plans after the OCPM releases its report about the Lachine East development.
Once the consultations are over, we’re gonna do an atelier de travail. So every week or every two weeks I don’t know how exactly it’s going to develop but I know the promoters are willing to meet every month.
Around the table, we will have the urban planner that the the developers hire, the architects that the borough hires, urban planners, that we have the central city around the table, because of course that’s complex in Montreal there’s always two levels of everything, and we have representations from the citizens.
Imagine Lachine Est is an organization that’s been around for two years. I was part of it before. Now I of course I can’t, I had to distance myself but it was a citizen movement that I very much support because its urban planners, engineers, government workers live in Lachine and are very interested in being a part of the development of their own city and doing something innovative. So they will be around the table. And I think I don’t know but their membership is growing monthly. They’re becoming quite quite important.
And there’s also the organizations have regrouped into something called under the SDEC societé de developpement economique so there’s are 10 or 12 important organizations in Lachine that have come together and that are pushing for the same things and they also want a green development. Because a development durable when you say it is is actually a development that has inclusion of social housing, that has a mix.
You can’t be green if you’re just rich and segregated from the others. You don’t get the points. It has to be a true durable development is a mixed development where you can actually work can live and where all society can be together. And that’s actually the best kind of development and it’s best for everybody not just for the rich or the poor. A mixité is very good for all.
Integrating social housing properly will be a particular challenge, says Vodanovic, but another big challenge with the Lachine East Development will be including schools within the project.
So in planning it out, we have to figure out where the schools are going to be. That’s another issue. The school board doesn’t have the money to buy the land. Usually the land is given to them across Quebec. But the land is so expensive in Montreal so promoters can’t really say ‘oh here’s a couple of million dollars’ to the school board. You know it’s very hard. So we’re going to try to deal with all those problems from the beginning with everybody and brainstorm together.
Vodanovic is confident she’ll be able to bring people together because she’s always done so, even when issues are difficult. She began her public service activism with a concern about pesticides that led to a successful campaign to get them banned.
15 years ago I started the fight against pesticides in urban areas. So I am from Beaconsfield. At that time in Beaconsfield during the spring it would smell of chemicals instead of flowers because everyone’s spraying their lawn to kill all the dandelions. And I had neighbors who had had who lost their children to…it was horror stories all around.
After that, her activism extended into a concern about clean water, something she investigated with the help of local schoolchildren.
We wanted to clean it up. We figured out that what was wrong with the stream, why it was polluted. About 150 homes had their toilets connected to it. You know the sewage was going directly into the stream and I found this out with the kids. And as we were doing our investigation and then we said well how are we gonna change this? And the kids went and spoke to the federal government and the provincial government and the municipal government.
Her experience studying water has been particularly helpful because Vodanovic now serves as Montreal’s representative on the regional government organization (La Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal) that links 82 municipalities. One of the key CMM concerns recently includes proper flood zone mapping for its territory.
There’s three million dollars given from the provincial government from the last provincial government to do the mapping and to look about how the dams can help and how they interact with the waterways and what can be done to prevent the floods and how we can be resilient. And the mapping will show the chances of areas being flooded in 20 years 50 years and 100 years. You can make ways for the water to get in into the land but to be redirected in a controlled way.
After speaking about her current challenges, I asked Vodanovic about her biggest surprise becoming a politician.
My biggest surprise is that I can stay the activist that I am. That’s my biggest surprise. You know usually you say when you go into politics that you’ll change, you you will have to compromise, you will have to…but I don’t feel that. Not yet. So far I’ve been able to push things and speak my mind and do things. In ever since I was elected, there’s been over 160 articles about Lachine and things I’ve said and done and I’ve never really briefed anyone you know. I’m still alive, I’m still in politics. So that surprises me. It surprises me that I have this freedom and I have the capacity to do things. So it’s like a win win win win so it and I just don’t want it to to stop.
I can give you an image. At the beginning when I was an activist and working with a whole bunch of volunteers and we were trying to find solutions for things. I felt like a locomotive. I felt like a red locomotive but I was going real slow and I was working real hard to just move a couple of inches with all the wagons that were very heavy.
And now the train is going very fast. And I’m try to keep on, you know not to derail. And just to keep going and there’s like more and more wagons and where we gonna go. Where are we going? It’s very exciting. Because there’s the potential of great change. But with the speed comes responsibility. More responsibility with the position I have and a chance to do greater things.
Like many politicians who love their jobs, Vodanovic struggles to maintain a standard of excellence while also keeping her personal relationships strong.
Yesterday I had so much work to do for today because today’s council, the council at the town hall, and I have to speak about some things. And I wanted to spend the day preparing for it. And my niece came from Edmonton. And my kids are working and so I took care of my niece and I went to see my daughter. And I did not work. I took time for them. And. I think it’s good you know. And I went to bed and I said Oh God my speech today’s not going to be the best. But it’s a compromise.
When I asked Vodanovic about whether she considers herself a Canadian, she said yes. She then spoke about how her experience on the Canadian Council for Zero Waste has strengthened her appreciate for our country’s diversity.
I get to work with Canadians. You know I was mainly in Montreal and I worked with you know people from Quebec City but now it’s people from Vancouver and people from Alberta and from Ontario. And I love them. I realize like they’re so nice you know we kiss in Quebec but they hug. And it’s a very genuine hug. There’s a kindness.
I think Canadians are very kind people and peaceful. But we’re very far apart. It’s a very big country. And I feel very privileged now being on the council to meet them and we do a lot of Skype Conferences and we we were together by phone and and then sometimes we see each other and there are very very very incredible moments. And I feel my Canadian identity very much. I feel like this need for us to be more cohesive and more united as a country because we’re so small.
We’re such a small country where there’s so few of us that if we’re separated we’re not strong. But if we’re all connected we become strong. So to me that’s a huge issue.
You know, I’m an immigrant so I was accepted by Canada. And when I go to ceremonies recently I was invited as an elected official to go. When immigrants become Canadians, there’s a special ceremony. And I cry. I still cry. Oh my God, these are so good. This is such a good thing that we accept all these people. We should accept more people.
That’s my point of view. I came from Croatia I came from Croatia in 1975.
And I go back a lot. So I feel very much. You know my kids feel very strongly even if just half of them is Croatian.
I wish Canada was more like Germany you know. Like where Angela Merkel just said you know what she brought in a million people a million Syrians. Because she said we can do this and we need we need a lot of skilled people. We don’t have enough people especially in Montreal. There’s a lack of skilled workforce right now. So immigration should not be a problem for us. We should welcome it, especially people that are skilled. You know. So I definitely feel Canadian.
Last weekend, the mayors of Lachine and Verdun tested new ways to determine how neighbourhoods get created. Each consulted local experts and residents prior to creating plans for new development.
Their methods differed, but if either or both methods work to make residents comfortable and attached to new projects, municipal land use planning in Montreal could change forever.
Either way, residents appreciated efforts to bring them into the fold early in the planning. Both consultations attracted hundreds of participants. Covering them for my local paper marked a pleasant change.
I’ve followed municipal land use development in the city for years. Most of the time, residents have little or no influence about what happens in their neighbourhoods.
The usual land use planning routine features city officials privately meeting with developers to negotiate a new project.
Their plan then goes through an internal planning committee of residents and local municipal planning experts.
The committee makes changes.
Developers pay architects for more concept plans.
By the time the development gets approved, both the city and the developer are wed to a project. Only then do local residents get a say.
From the developer and city official perspective, residents who notice problems are trouble-makers.
Traditionally, politicians deal with the potential conflict by attempting to hide legally-required consultations from residents.
Journalists and citizens with an interest in land use planning pay careful attention to official consultations set for December, January, July, August, and holidays. Consultations set for those times are likely to represent very unpopular developments. The consultation for one particularly touchy development took place on the night of the Stanley Cup Playoff! Only four people attended.
Too often, major changes are made to neighbourhoods without property owners being informed at all.
I know of one case where residents in fancy skyscrapers didn’t discover that future developments would eliminate their precious views of the mountain, the river or both until shovels went into the ground.
Usually, public consultations pit residents against developers. If possible, politicians try to divide critics. Advocates for projects with condos and townhouses work hard to set people with environmental concerns against social housing activists.
From the resident perspective, city officials and developers care little about neighbourhoods.
Residents who notice problems must work hard to prevent developments from occurring as planned. I’ve seen local residents prevent a former school from becoming a senior’s home shortly after a baby boom because they knew that more schools would be needed in the neighbourhood a few years later. They stopped grocery store owners from expanding because they knew that the resulting traffic would create safety hazards for children attending the school across the street. Schools haven’t opened for years because neighbours use every avenue open to them to stop projects.
Local residents prevented one major development near the highway three different times. In that case, it was hard to believe that the city and the developer kept bringing back the same unpopular project.
In contrast, the presentations in Lachine and Verdun during the weekend felt lively and fun.
The Lachine event featured an open house with developers, local activists and business groups staffing tables to share their visions with residents. A video camera taped attendee visions for the future neighbourhood. It felt so positive and inviting, a few people wondered if it were some kind of trick.
The Verdun event felt equally positive. Set up like a competition, the presentation featured volunteer teams of architects, interns and citizens presenting extraordinarily-well-thought-out plans for the new development. After each team presented, attendees could ask questions or make comments. It was not only informative as a process, but kind of fun too.
I hope these two events usher in new practices in municipal land use planning.
My profile of longtime LaSalle borough mayor Manon Barbe appears on page 1 of yesterday’s (March 14) City Edition of the Suburban.
Barbe is a great example of a successful political leader who has broken many glass ceilings over the years through dedicated service, gumption and persistence. I don’t agree with all the positions she holds on issues, but her ability to make decisions and stand by them is admirable. She also works hard. I’ve seen her personally wait tables to serve veterans their lunch at LaSalle Legion events.
Four months ago, I gave up years of long-standing neutrality as an electoral observer, critic, and reporter to take on a political life. On Sunday, 6,387 of my neighbours soundly rejected my offer and chose the Projet Montreal incumbent.
Congratulations Marie-Andrée Mauger!
Congratulations also to our new Mayor Valerie Plante, Verdun borough mayor Jean-François Parenteau, city councillor Sterling Downey and borough councillor Luc Gagnon.
I trust you’ll all represent Desmarchais Crawford needs in the best way possible because voters always make the right choices.
Despite a basic faith in a very messy democracy, I’m still crushed at not being able to serve with a great team for the next four years, full of gratitude for all the people in this wacky adventure, and at a loss to figure out how to serve now the election is over and my dreams are dashed. I have no role in Montreal’s political future. It’s not possible for me to go back to my previous neutral identity, nor am I satisfied with simple citizenship.
I’m not sure how to move forward, but I’ll begin by thanking the 3,620 people who voted for me.
Thank you so much for your trust and confidence. I really appreciate your support.
It was super fun to vote for myself too! Other than that, there are three big lessons I learned as a political neophyte:
When people talk about a “political machine,” they actually mean people. Nothing happens without the most amazing group of people surrounding you all the time, and most of the key people consist of family members.
My family were involved in everything. From the moment Parenteau asked me to join his team until today when he texted to see if I’m alright, my husband has been the rock his name implies. He told me that although this was something previously unconsidered, the job seemed a perfect fit for a long-time political aficionado who loves her neighbourhood. He encouraged me to consider the offer seriously. He expressed so much confidence in my ability to get and fulfil the job if I wanted it, I couldn’t help but try.
Thank you so much Pedro for encouraging me to set out on a wonderful fun adventure. It was worth it.
Not only did family members encourage me to run, they also donated, volunteered and supported me throughout the campaign. They also forgave me for asking them for volunteer help and donations all the time. They were the ones I called to celebrate voting for myself. They were the ones with hilarious stories trying to make me laugh as I sopped up the tears last night and again today.
Some of them even worked longer than I did yesterday! Huge special thanks to Paul, Arial, Christine, Ray, Stephanie, Ed, Kimm, John, Marco, Chico, Anna, Lorrey, Tony, Maria, Emi, Claude, Manny and Ben.
Thank you all so much! I’m so sorry to let all of you down.
Thanks also to the family members of my team mates. You are all so wonderful.
The best friendships get made between team mates during political campaigns. Whatever happens in the future, the opportunity to cast votes for Ann Guy, Marie-Eve Brunet, Jean-François Parenteau and Denis Coderre last week was an honour and a privilege. You are all amazing people.
Special thanks to Guy and Brunet for welcoming me into your team and making me feel like family.
Ann, you are someone I’ve long admired for your continually community involvement, understanding and active communication about municipal affairs. Thank you for your mentorship and friendship.
Marie-Eve, I knew you were a wonderful person who has led the administrative process of a number of important projects for women and families when I joined you on your journey to take back Desmarchais-Crawford. Thank you for sharing your great risk with me. I’m sorry you lost.
Voters had other plans in the end, but this has been an extreme friendship-making experience. We three will be friends forever and I have the pictures to prove it!”
Verdun borough mayor Jean-François Parenteau is the best leader ever and he knows how to make everything fun. Door-to-door, driving from place to place, making phone calls—he always manages to make jokes and have fun.
JF, from the moment you asked me to run with your team until about 9 p.m. last night, I had a wonderful time. You encouraged me and my teammates all the way through this crazy journey. Thank you.
I liked my other teammates Pierre L’Heureux and Marie-Josée Parent and our tireless campaign manager Sarah Gagnon-Turcotte well enough at the beginning of this journey, but man, now they are forever friends too, as are Véronique Tremblay and Jean-Olivier.
I’m so going to miss all of you. Thanks so much for truly making me understand the value of teamwork.
From this day forward, I’ll never hear Bye Bye Miss American Pie or see a picture of that darn Agatha without smiling fondly.
To everyone on our team: I am so hurt not to get to work with you all over the next four years. Thinking about the lost opportunity makes me tear up.
It wasn’t just a group of new good friends this experience helped cement. Friends were nearby in one way or another every single day during this campaign in so many ways. They donated to my campaign, went door-to-door with me, helped put up campaign posters and made phone calls. A huge thanks to Ed, Josh, Li-Jian, Liz, Assaf, Rae, Barbara, Reford, Peter, Thomas, Gabriel, Charles, Ron, Jennifer, Diana, Dorothy, Janice, Barb, Claire, Sandra and Lucy.
You are all very precious friends.
Thanks also to all the new friends that I met who helped with our campaign also, including Andrée-Kim, Pascal, Ludo, Max, Ben, Francyne, Kathleen, Warren, Eric, Josée, Martin, Marie-Pierre, Lise, Laurent, Mélanie and the many many others I got to know so well.
I also really appreciated hearing from dear friends in the competing party who wished me well.
Thank you. Your support and unconditional friendship is so appreciated.
On joining this race, I had an incomplete view of how political involvement could affect me emotionally. For the past few years, I’ve been learning to become a social entrepreneur with differing summer and winter activities. In the winter, my key role included local journalism. Favourite stories were those that enabled someone to solve a problem. Ensuring payment for a senior to replace lost dentures, profiles on active businesses with a current struggle, tenants kicked out of housing units for only $5, a neighbourhood that needs traffic calming, etc. As it turns out, those are the kinds of issues councillors solve regularly, and we were able to solve several on the campaign trail, something that was extremely gratifying.
In the summer, I’m part of several urban agriculture and local sustainability projects, which I would have been responsible for at the borough level had I won the election. Early on, I assumed all my activities would continue as is if I lost. After I declared, but before the campaign began, a discussion began about whether elected officials should sit on non-profit boards that receive city funding. I do too much anyway, so I began transitioning out of those boards to ensure the groups could thrive without me. I still sit on two, but am in the process of leaving one and will leave the other in March.
What do I want to do now? It’s not clear to me yet.
I was and remain happy to have served on Denis Coderre’s team, even though briefly. At the city level, I had been looking forward to working Cathy Wong, Steven LaPierre, Russell Copeman, Richard Bergeron, Réal Ménard and Elsie Lefebvre. Today, only Wong retains her seat.
The rest of us will surely find new ways to contribute to Montreal, but I’m sad Denis is no longer mayor.
In the past four years, Denis changed the face of Montreal, both economically and physically. The unemployment rate, at 8%, is lower than it’s ever been since I moved here in 1993. In the past year alone, Montreal has created 51,000 jobs, more than half of which are full-time. Over the past four years, our credit rating went up from A + to AA-. Infrastructure is being completely overhauled. The Bonaventure Highway has been redesigned. New public squares are being created. Overall, 5,100 kilometers of roads and water pipelines are being redone to remove lead, minimize leaks and improve design.
I also admired Coderre for his ability to attract smart people who liked getting things done. He started his mandate with only 27 of 65 seats, but managed to recruit opposition members to get a majority on council. Transparent governance, dropping our debt cost, lessening corruption, building trade links and expanding Montreal’s municipal powers are good for the city and I still wish he had another four years to see the transformation through. He made important moves in favour of reconciliation with First Nations, combating climate change, increasing Montreal’s natural diversity. All these issues are important to me, so it stings that voters handily rejected him. Even worse that some insult him rather than thanking him for his accomplishments.
Thank you Denis. It was an honour to work with you for four months. I wish it had been four years.
For now, my vision remains linked to a Denis Coderre win and now that that has been decimated and his contributions thrown aside as though they don’t matter, I’m left with empty resolve and an understanding that a huge wave of positive love and emotion are directed at another leader whom I don’t know, although I am gratified that Montreal has its first woman mayor.
For now, nothing remains of my election hopes, so there’s nowhere to put that pent up energy. It’s like being left out of a party happening next door.
All I can do now is remember a wonderful journey of hope unrealized.
En votant pour moi comme conseillère d’arrondissement dans le district Desmarchais-Crawford, plusieurs choses vont se passer! Vous pourrez compter sur une élue qui adore travailler en équipe pour trouver des solutions créatives à nos défis collectifs. Vous aurez à votre service une femme prête à renforcer la résilience de nos quartiers de manière à ce que les gens, la politique et la nature se renforcent mutuellement. Je suis passionnée par la nature et sa diversité, la communication et la bonne gouvernance. Je serai à l’écoute de vos espoirs et de vos préoccupations.
Idéalement, vous voterez pour toute notre équipe. Nous savons comment collaborer avec les citoyens, les entreprises, les employés de l’arrondissement et le reste de la ville de Montréal afin de continuer à bâtir Verdun en s’appuyant sur ses forces et ses atouts, y compris ses vastes espaces verts, ses multiples emplois en soins de la santé et sa scène culturelle dynamique. Les élus seront intégrés à la structure administrative de Montréal, pour que vous puissiez obtenir rapidement des informations et des solutions à vos problèmes. Ensemble, nous allons faire de Verdun un quartier modèle dans un Montréal durable!