Denis Coderre: My life as an undergrad at UdeM in the '80s

(L-R): Denis Coderre and Guy Breton

(L-R): Denis Coderre and Guy Breton

In 5 seconds

Montreal's mayor reminisces with the university's rector, Guy Breton, about their student days

Denis Coderre is the fourth graduate of Université de Montréal to serve as mayor of Montreal*. He was president of the Québec wing of the Young Liberals of Canada when he began his undergraduate studies in political science here in 1983. “I saw the campus as a place where I could not only debate amazing people, but also learn what it means to have intellectual rigour,” he recalls.The mayor took a moment recently to speak with UdeM rector Guy Breton about their university years and to reflect on the evolution of Montreal.


Denis Coderre: What I remember most about my years at UdeM were the meetings we had there and the people I met. My gang was part of the Liberal renewal after the (Pierre Elliott) Trudeau era and the election of (Conservative prime minister) Brian Mulroney. My "war room" as Quebec president of the Young Liberals was the university itself. I can remember a number of professors in particular who left their mark on me, such as Robert Boily, Guy Bouthillier and also Stéphane Dion, whom I followed a few years later to Ottawa. In addition, I learned a great deal from my fellow students and the discussions we had outside the classroom, most of the time at (the now defunct) Clandestin.

Guy Breton: I also spent time in bars … as a trombone player doing gigs with a jazz band to pay for my medical studies. The fact that I’m not actually an UdeM graduate, but rather a graduate of Université de Sherbrooke and McGill University, is probably my biggest fault! At Sherbrooke, we learned the importance of being involved in the community, of not only thinking of our patients but of the population as a whole. That’s a lesson that’s stayed with me throughout my career.

DC: As an undergraduate I specialized in public administration, and so I was very interested in what was going on at Montreal City Hall, which was going through quite a transition at the time. It was the end of the city's Golden Age. With Expo 67 and the 1976 Olympic Games, Mayor Jean Drapeau had put Montreal on the map. After Drapeau, there was a period of decline, but not in democracy. With the arrival of Jean Doré, we moved from a representative democracy centred on one very strong personality to a real participatory democracy, and that was an  inspiration for me. Mr. Doré consulted people a great deal, turning city hall into a “house of the people."

GB: When I was studying at McGill, I observed another type of transformation going on in Montreal. I saw us transitioning from a bicultural (French/English) city to a multicultural metropolis, a city of the world. Immigrants were no longer coming just from Europe. Universities have always been important vectors of migration, even more so today. In fact, this year Montreal outranked Paris for the first time as the best city in the world for foreign students.

DC: Foreign students feel at home when they come here, because what makes Montreal unique is what we call le vivre ensemble – our ability to live together and thrive. Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve and Jeanne Mance founded the city 375 years ago as an example of le vivre ensemble that was possible between the French and the aboriginals. Today, that spirit remains part of our DNA. In Europe, when you hear about immigration these days it's very often a question of illegal migration. Here, we talk about citizenship.

GB: I recently awarded a research grant to Alexandre de Brébisson, a doctoral student from France in artificial intelligence. I asked him why he chose to come here, and he gave me two reasons: our university's scientific reputation in his field, and the city itself. "It's just great to live in Montreal,”he said.


* The three others are Jean Doré (1986-1994), Jean Drapeau (1954-1957 and 1960-1986) and Louis-Arsène Lavallée (1912-1914).