MTL Blog's Interview With Balarama Holness: His Views On Language, Police, Bagels & More
MTL Blog

The race for Montreal mayor was shaping up to be an encore performance of the Plante-Coderre rivalry until Balarama Holness crashed the political stage.

With bold proposals and a promise to put "people before politics," the community organizer and former CFL star is looking to bring his Mouvement Montréal party into city hall.

MTL Blog sat down with Holness for a wide-ranging interview about his life, his politics, the language debate, bagels and so much more.

MTL Blog interviewed Valérie Plante and Balarama Holness in the run-up to the 2021 municipal election. Denis Coderre did not respond to an interview request.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Who is Balarama Holness and what qualifies him to be mayor of Montreal?

'I'm More Than Qualified To Be Mayor:' Balarama Holness On His Shot For Montreal's Top Job www.youtube.com

First and foremost, I'm a father. Also, I'm the son of an immigrant from Jamaica. My mother is a French kid from Montreal. I represent what it means to be a Montrealer. I'm both francophone and anglophone, someone who's Black and white, someone who studied here, who lives here.

I love my city. And I think it's important for us to engage ourselves in order to create a city that's going to thrive, economically, socially and culturally.

That's why I'm running for mayor of Montreal. I think that this city should be someplace where we feel at home, where you can come as you are, speak the language that you want. And also whether it's your different sexual orientation, your skin colour, your ethnicity, your nationality, you can really feel comfortable at home in a city and thrive in all ways of life.

Your opponents have criticized you for proposals they say are unattainable. How do you respond?

I once said I am a dreamer, just like my mother. I'm extremely ambitious. I'm adventurous. I'm someone who works hard. But I have a track record to prove it. My track record over the last four years is founding a nonprofit organization that forces the city to have a consultation.

My background in law prepares me to actually create bylaws that are powerful, and a great example of this is this 20/20/20 housing bylaw. What the mayor did is she left a gaping hole in the bylaw that allows promoters to buy themselves out of it. That's just one example of many.

It's not just about being prepared as a politician but being prepared with a judicial understanding of how laws and rules are created and how to implement them in order to get what you want.

The housing crisis is upon us right now with 24,000 people waiting for social housing. Valérie Plante actually failed to create a bylaw that actually equalled what she wanted, which was affordable homes for Montrealers.

My background as a community organizer, my legal background, also my education background, and my working with people make me more than qualified to be mayor of Montreal.

But what makes you different from other Montreal politicians?

We are not politicians and we're putting people before politics. What that means is that I am going to put the interests of Montrealers first.

A great example is the cones. We all said that we want to remove the cones. Once the politicians get to city hall, they don't remove the cones. And what we're telling you is that we're going to actually do what we say.

Whether it's removing cones, whether it's putting green spaces throughout Montreal, particularly in low-income neighbourhoods, whether it's helping small businesses, or whether it's getting Montreal more autonomy, more power, more independence, more taxation powers to allow us to actually thrive from a $200 billion GDP.

The current business model of the mayor is tax Montrealers as much as you can, to give you the levels of tickets to put bike lanes everywhere and to block off roads, so you get out of your car. That's a poor business model and a poor vision for the city of Montreal.

How would your administration reassure English-speaking students, international students, that Montreal is still a good place to study, despite polarizing and constant language debates?

We're a party that has been very clear. We can value the French language, we can value French culture, all while recognizing that Montreal is a bilingual city. That is simply the nature of Montreal.

What we're proposing is to have a public consultation on the issue of language right here in Montreal. So we can hear Montrealers and what they have to say about this issue.

Rest assured a Holness administration is going to do everything in our power to uphold the rights of all Montrealers, particularly those who can be minorities or anglophone. Moreover, do you want a government that tells you what you can and can't say when you walk into a store? Whether you can say "hi" or "bonjour?"

I think that we are legislating far too much into the daily lives of regular people, and we should not be legislating on what languages you can speak.

We have proposed that the official languages in Canada are English and French. Last time I checked Montreal is in Canada. Therefore Montreal should have official languages in English and in French.

Your plan to make Montreal officially bilingual has been heavily criticized. Why do you think that you can accomplish it? And, why propose it at all when it seems like the majority of Quebec is against it?

The majority of Quebecers might be against it, but the majority of Montrealers aren't. And that's the difference here, as I'm running for mayor of Montreal.

Montreal has over 200 cultural communities. There are people in Montreal, growing populations, that speak Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish, and we can go down the list of languages.

I believe that Montreal is a multicultural, multilingual city with an international economic presence, and the business language of the world is English. We have to be realistic about the role of language in Montreal and that duality being English and French. All while protecting the French culture and language, we can still recognize our roots.

And also, I'll remind people was that the British Empire when they formed it and when Montreal was part of this, there was a historic English community in Montreal that built Montreal. And we have to recognize the historic roots of both anglophones, francophones and our Indigenous brothers and sisters.

To act like this is one homogenous group of francophones that live in Montreal is simply a fallacy. We have to recognize the diversity that is Montreal.

You've said in your platform that you would move to reallocate police funds. What do you hope to accomplish by doing that?

In regards to the budget of the SPVM, we are very clear. The budget went from $400 million to $500 million to $600 million to $700 million. Now it's $800 million. 40% of all tickets go to the most vulnerable, particularly homeless people.

So what we are asking is "how are you going to really solve those issues?"

It's by providing homes, having leisure sports, recreation infrastructure, having interveners, social workers, to actually have the SPVM do their job, which is to fight criminals, fight the proliferation of firearms. That is how we're going to stop the rise and violence in the city of Montreal.

So when we talk about the SPVM and their budget, it's a question of reallocating. Why do we use that word? It's because we have the same objective, which is to have social cohesion, to have peace in the city of Montreal. It's not just through policing that you have peace, it's through having a home, to having a park, to having leisure and recreation infrastructure. You need a fine balance.

And what we're establishing is that $800 million for police, when 40% of all the activity and all the tickets go to homeless people, well, maybe we don't need $800 million to give 40% of tickets to homeless people.

Maybe we can cut that budget and provide them with the help that they need, to actually have a home to stay at. And we can actually create a more just, fruitful, and inclusive society.

What we're proposing, and how we're going to reduce the budget, is to eliminate some of those in management and create more connections between police officers on the ground and the chief of police.

A study showed that right here in the City of Montreal, 84% of police officers do not live on the Island of Montreal. What that means is that they are not actually living in the neighbourhoods of the people that they're serving. So we need more community policing, more connections, more social adhesion.

That's why we're saying that the city would be more violent under Denis Coderre or Valérie Plante because they do not understand communities, do not understand police, and do not understand how we can create a more prosperous and peaceful society.

How specifically would you reform the SPVM?

One of the great ways that we could do that is what we call citizen-based policing, whereby you would have an individual who is not armed. This individual would simply be intervening in a situation where someone, for example, has schizophrenia is going through psychosis and needs an intervention.

This person does not need to have a police officer show up. They need to have a citizen who understands mental health, who understands drug abuse, who understands homelessness. They intervene in a situation to help someone who's vulnerable and at risk of really dying in that circumstance.

The other way — and this is very clear — is that we need to change the culture in the SPVM. You do that by providing more sensitivity training. More training on the realities of individuals who are from different ethnicities, different backgrounds, different socioeconomic statuses, to ensure they understand the people who they're serving.

Hopefully, that could build some more compassion, some more trust, and more connections between the police officers and the people that they're supposed to be serving.

What do you have to say to those people who are cynical about politicians' grand proposals?

‘We Are People Just Like You:’ Montreal Mayoral Candidate Balarama Holness On Political Cynicism www.youtube.com

Well, I would say, "I understand you."

We've seen politicians time and time again make promises and don't fulfill them. Whether it's the mayor talking about a Pink Line and the mayor talking about not raising taxes, and the first year, the first thing she does is raise taxes.

We understand that the trust has been broken. And what we are saying is "give Mouvement Montréal a chance."

We are not politicians. We are people who branch all different backgrounds from urban planners, to teachers, to lawyers, to people helping people get back into the workforce off of welfare, people in the arts and culture — everyday Montrealers that have different backgrounds, who understand what it means to live in the city.

So why could you trust us? Because we are not your typical politicians. We are people just like you, community individuals, who are change-makers who want to improve our society because really we love Montreal.

We got some reader-submitted questions on social media.

1. The city's always under construction. Will it be better if you're mayor?

We're going to remove the cones in the first mandate.

2. How would you make Montreal more pet-friendly?

By not putting a ban on [pit bulls].

3. Saint-Viateur or Fairmount?

Both.

4. And finally, what's your favourite restaurant in Montreal?

My kitchen.