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12 Days of Feminists: Jennifer Berry on Exuberant Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante

This month, we’re celebrating the relentless women whose work helped us to resist, persist and get the f-ck through 2017. On day 8 of FLARE’s 12 Days of Feminists, Jennifer Berry celebrates Montreal's first-ever female mayor, Valérie Plante

Valérie Plante feminist: Montreal mayor Valérie Plante

(Photo: Getty Images)

I haven’t lived in my hometown of Montreal for more than three years but when Valérie Plante became the city’s first female mayor in 375 years, I cried tears of joy as if I’d just had my first perfect smoked meat sandwich from Schwartz’s. In less than a year Plante, 43, had gone from relative obscurity in the political world to the mayoral office with a campaign built on accessibility, equality and transparency—and breathed new life into a government plagued by corruption and scandal for as long as I can remember.

Plante was born in the small town of Rouyn-Noranda in Northern Quebec to French-speaking parents. She learned English when she spent at year in North Bay, Ont. as a teenager. After moving to Montreal for university, she worked for several non-profit organizations, most notably as communications director of the Girls Action Foundation, which “believes in the power of girls as agents of social change.” She only made the jump to government when she was first elected to Montreal city council in a surprise 2013 win, defeating longtime provincial Municipal Affairs Minister Louise Harel in Montreal’s downtown Sainte-Marie district, and caused another uproar in December 2016 when she upset Projet Montréal member Guillaume Lavoie by a mere 69 votes to take leadership of the community-focused lobby group. Eleven months later, she was the mayor of Montreal.

When Plante delivered her victory speech on November 5, she said, “Tonight, we wrote a new page in Montreal’s history. Three hundred and seventy five years after Jeanne Mance co-founded the city, Montreal has its first woman mayor. And I’m excited to write the continuation of this history with all of you.” Can I get a “oui, reine!” or what?

For the 30 years I did live in Montreal, I don’t recall seeing anyone that I could really relate to in public office. Municipal and provincial politics felt like an endless stream of older, white, Francophone men with a reputation for back pocket deals and “old boy” tactics (and a few brushes with the law). I also don’t remember ever feeling like there was a ton of hope and enthusiasm coming from those same political offices. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure much of that stems from the fact that the first 10 years or so of my life, I lived with the threat of separation—and also the threat that my very Anglophone family, supported by my Ottawa-born dad’s very Anglophone small business, might have to move out of the province as a result—looming over us. That fear, coupled with the fact that I never saw myself reflected in local politics, meant I didn’t engage with it. But Plante has an energy so palpable and refreshing that it feels downright rebellious.

Now that positivity, and a campaign built on priorities like accessible public services, social housing, increased public safety, bosltering local businesses and better and more affordable public transit, has made Plante not only the first female mayor Montreal has ever had; it also makes Montreal the largest city in North America with a female mayor. That’s an amazing feat for both the city I’ll always think of as home, and for Plante, a relative political newbie who was written off by many as little more than an optimist with no shot at actually winning. For this reason, Plante—the enthusiastic underdog with a bold vision for my hometown—is a huge inspiration, and one of my 2017 heroes.

In her thus far short political career, Plante has proven that she is not to be underestimated. And in the mayoral race, she was underestimated at nearly every juncture. Heading into the campaign, Plante was widely perceived as out of her depth going up against an imposing character like Coderre—elected in 2013—and a serious dark horse without a shot at beating him, particularly because Montreal hadn’t had a single-term mayor in nearly 60 years.

Throughout the campaign, voters often mentioned how they liked underdog Plante’s warm smile and disarmingly positive attitude, seen in direct opposition to the often grumpy Coderre, according to the Montreal Gazette. In fact, when she won the mayoral race, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard called her strategy “politics with a smile.” Still, she trailed the incumbent mayor by 14 points as recently as June. She narrowed that gap to 11 points by August. And in the final weeks of the campaign in October, the two candidates were in a dead heat in the polls.

Luc Ferrandez, Projet Montréal’s interim leader until last December, pins Plante’s victory on her personality and attitude. “She succeeded in getting known with ambitious proposals and a scintillating and vibrating personality,” Ferrandez said the night of the election. “She’s plugged into Montrealers and she succeeded in reinventing Projet Montréal. It’s a real feat.”

An ambitious woman with a “scintillating personality” emerging victorious—how GD refreshing. I say this as a woman in her mid-thirties who has been accused of being “too nice” at several different stages of my working life—and I use the term “accused” because that feedback was presented as more of an insult than an compliment. I always felt hurt by that characterization but despite the gut punch that came along with those comments, I never wanted to change how “nice” I was in order to appease my old-school male bosses at the time or better fit into an industry—first, fashion retail, then cosmetics marketing—that I already knew in my heart wasn’t a perfect fit for me.

I didn’t feel like I could really be my authentic self until I completely changed directions in my career and eventually found my place and my people—and in turn, the comfort to not be scared of being “too nice.” So to see a dark horse candidate like Plante boot Montreal’s incumbent mayor, the “sure bet,” out of office and all with an enormous, infectious smile on her face and the kind of unabashed enthusiasm that can’t be faked made me feel vindicated, and invigorated. And I know it did the same to many others.

But that’s not to say that Plante isn’t tough. If there’s something that’s become my mantra over the years, and hopefully something fellow nice woman Plante ascribes to as well, it’s “don’t mistake kindness for weakness.” After all, just because there’s no longer an old school dude in the mayoral post doesn’t mean that city hall isn’t still full of them, and I’m sure Plante will have to be firm while on the job in order to make good on her campaign promises. But I’d bet my bottom dollar she’ll still do it with a smile. Turns out nice girls do finish first.

More from FLARE’s ‘12 Days of Feminists’ series:
Day 1: Anne T. Donahue on Fierce Truth-Teller Scaachi Koul
Day 2: Sadiya Ansari on Fearless Supernova Jane Fonda
Day 3: Janaya Khan on Mary Hooks Bringing Black Moms Home
Day 4: Meghan Collie on “Unf-ckwithable Voice of Reason” Lauren Duca
Day 5: Nakita Valerio on Effervescent Community Leader Nasra Adem

Day 6: Anne Thériault on Tanya Tagaq Singing Truth to Power
Day 7: Laura Hensley on Unapologetic Activist and Entrepreneur Jen Agg