Activist mayor Maja Vodanovic brings public into Lachine’s urban planning process
Unapologetically Canadian Episode 23 features an interview with Lachine Mayor Maja Vodanovic.
I asked her three key questions:
- If you include public participation at the beginning of a development project instead of at the end, will you be able to create a common vision for a space that everyone will buy into?
- How has Vodanovic’s former activism played into her current life as a political leader?
- Does the mayor see herself as Canadian?
Usual Development Process
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.
Public Participation Development
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.
Business and Community Groups Involved
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.
School Board Issues
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.
Mapping of Flood Zones
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.
Home Work Balance
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.
Immigration is Positive for Canada
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.
About the Author
Tracey Arial helps Canadians grow with notable nonfiction and urban agriculture.