Keep your friends close…
By: Dan Laxer
The media used to poke fun at Prime Minister Jean Chretien for his struggles with the English language, until research surfaced showing that he would make the same types of mistakes in French as he did in English. The same cannot be said for Mayor-Elect Denis Coderre. Despite his accent, his English is excellent. Still, it’s not his first language. So can we chalk up his controversial words to the Hasidic community as a linguistic misstep?
At a private meeting with the Hassidic community, a meeting that was caught on video by an audience member who was allegedly breaking the rules set by organizers, Coderre urged the community to support him. There is nothing wrong there. It’s what a politician is supposed to do. Want real change? Vote for me. Tired of corruption? Vote for me. Do you love Montreal as much as I do? Vote for me. But what Coderre said is nothing like any of those phrases. What he said was “If you want my friendship, if you want my support, don’t divide the vote. I don’t need division.” He went on to say “I’m fighting right now against the charter (the proposed Charte des Valeurs… or whatever it’s called now) because they’re dividing the people, and its diversion because they think that we can mangle…” and here he spots the offending videographer, stops speaking, points to him or her, and says “You’re not recording, eh?” And there the video abruptly stops.
The media, both Francophone and Anglophone, and Coderre’s opponents, jumped all over the video clip. Many of us had visceral, emotional reactions to it, myself included. Was the frenzy justified?
CJAD political commentator Jean Lapierre ran to Coderre’s defense a day after the video surfaced, admitting that he, too, while campaigning as a politician, had used similar words. He argued that it is exactly what a politician ought to be saying. I emphatically disagree. Because the implication of Coderre’s words is that if the Hassidic community does NOT vote for him, or somehow divides the vote, then there will be consequences. The Quebec Jewish Council issued a press release in Coderre’s defense, explaining that the clip was taken out of context, and that Coderre’s words were not a threat. But that’s exactly what it sounded like: vote for me or you’re on your own. And it reminded me, rather, of former Liberal MP Tom Wappel (Scarborough Southwest) who, in 2001, made headlines when he refused to help a Canadian citizen, a war vet. Wappel wrote to the gentleman, saying “How is it that you are writing me for my help if you did not think enough of my abilities to justify voting for me?” And to me that sounded very much like Marlon Brando’s lines in The Godfather: “If you’d come to me in friendship…”
Friendship. The very word that Coderre used in his address to his Hasidic audience. “If you want my friendship…” Perhaps not the best choice of words, not the best tactic, in a city riddled with underworld connections and corruption.
Time for full-on damage control.
Coderre’s appearance on the radio the following morning smacked of opportunism, and might have been one of the most arrogant moves I’d ever seen on the part of any politician. “Nonsense,” he said about the video, charging that it was his opponents attempting to discredit him in the final hours of the campaign. “Rhetoric,” he called it. “Semantics.”
“We need a majority,” Coderre said about his words in the video. “I’m asking the people to give us a strong mandate.” Then that’s what he should have said. Give me a majority, give my team a strong mandate and we will take your concerns to City Hall, to Quebec, and to the Federal government. That’s what I want to hear from a mayoral candidate. That’s what I want to see a newly elected mayor do.
If anything, the video, albeit against the rules set by organizers of the evening, and indeed taken out of context, did give Coderre the opportunity to revise his statement. The clip begs the question: how would Coderre know if they’d voted for him or not? And even if they hadn’t voted for him, should they not be able to count on his friendship and support regardless? Likewise, should that veteran in Scarborough not have been able to count on Tom Wappel’s support whether he’d voted for Wappel or not? Of course. The Hasidic community should be able to count on Coderre’s support as much as any Montrealer. But can they? Coderre said the next day “I am going to be there for them all the time. I will defend them, and will take a stand for them vis-à-vis Ottawa and Quebec. I can do that.”
Of the four candidates who wanted the job of mayor, Coderre certainly has the most political experience. Heck, he first joined the federal Liberal Party at the age of 19, when most of us were pulling all-nighters, either to finish term papers or to win a pub-crawl. But are we sure he’s the right man for the job? Does he have the fire in the belly, the passion and love for Montreal, to do what it takes to either return Montreal to its former glory, or better yet, raise her up and carry her into the future? Or did he only throw his hat into the mayoral ring because he didn’t make it as a contender for the federal Liberal leadership?
Time will tell. And, indeed, he may have his own Inspector-General to answer to. But if he wants our friendship and support…