Balarama Holness wants to make one thing clear: his platform is not changing.
While having a quick lunch at a downtown café earlier in the week, the Montreal mayoral candidate explained his decision, as he put it, to allow the Ralliement pour Montréal to “join our ranks” (he did not want to call it a merger ).
Holness says it was a political decision that allows him to field a fuller slate candidates ahead of the October 1 registration deadline and get a better shot at Denis Coderre and Valérie Plante.
But he said the commitments made by his party, Mouvement Montréal, remains “intact”.
“We need some innovation, some new ideas and some brave people at City Hall,” he said.
These ideas include in particular an obligation to redistribute funds away from the police budget, which was $ 679 million last year, and put some of that money (upwards of $ 100 million, he said) into things like social housing and social services.
Holness also still wants Montreal to be recognized as a bilingual metropolis – a commitment that seems to fly in the light of one of Ralliement’s main promises to protect and strengthen the French language.
Following the surprise announcement last week, several members of Ralliement said they were annoyed by the decision to join the Mouvement. The rally candidate for mayor of Lachine said he would not run.
“The basis of the two political parties is not compatible,” Jean-François Cloutier said at the time.
Members of the Movement also said they were not heard before the announcement.
But Holness says he sees no conflict between the two parties’ attitudes to language and that they collectively represent a viable alternative to the status quo.
He says Ralliement’s leader, Marc-Antoine Desjardins, who is now running for mayor of the Outremont district, would be tasked with protecting the French language if Holness is elected mayor.
Holness says he will hold a press conference next Tuesday to confirm his commitment to the Mouvement platform.
However, a spokesman for Desjardins, which now also works with Holness, suggested on Friday that there could still be minor changes to the works.
In an email, Anne-Julie Labrecque said the press conference will be used to “clarify certain points”, especially around language and police.
“We want to ally the two parties to Montreal’s well-being,” she said.
‘More than disturbing substances’
Over lunch, Holness said he is encouraged by what he hears from voters as he goes from door to door and that it is clear now “we are more than disruptive. We are challengers.”
The 38-year-old, a former security guard at Montreal Alouettes and a graduate of McGill Law School, represents a new opportunity for voters in a campaign in which the main candidates, Plante and Coderre, have both been mayor once before.
Holness feels he has not been given a fair chance to make his case available to the public, after being frozen out by several mayoral debates, including one that hosted the Conseil des Relations Internationales de Montréal and another by Tourism Montreal. He says these decisions are further proof that the city’s institutions are “democratically bankrupt”.
Despite his relocation status, Holness has been a political presence in Montreal for several years. He ran under Plante with Projet Montréal for mayor of Montréal-Nord in 2017.
Then, as the founder of the Montreal in Action social justice group, Holness helped push the city to hold consultations on systemic racism in municipal institutions.
The resulting report found that the city had “closed its eyes” to the problem of discrimination and made 38 recommendations.
The city has since designated one Commissioner for Anti-Racism to oversee changes in the city.
His activism gave Holness a higher political profile – and even a feature in the New York Times that described him as a leading voice against systemic discrimination in this country. In it, Holness pondered becoming a “Canadian Obama.”
Holness’ campaign is still small compared to his main opponents. He states his own media inquiries and had his two-year-old daughter with him for part of his campaign day (she could not go to the nursery due to a COVID scare).
But Holness says he has raised $ 30,000 in donations and has a database of 4,000 volunteers. He now has 73 candidates out of a total of 103 possible places.
“It really is a grassroots movement that became a political party,” he said. “If you care about the environment, if you care about housing, if you care about social justice, we are a party that will not just represent you, but will fight for you.”