Balarama Holness wants to make one thing clear: his platform isn't changing.
While grabbing a quick lunch at a downtown café earlier this week, the Montreal mayoral candidate explained his decision to, as he put it, allow Ralliement pour Montréal to "join our ranks" (he didn't want to call it a merger).
Holness says it was a political decision that allows him to field a fuller slate of candidates ahead of the Oct. 1 registration deadline and have a better shot against Denis Coderre and Valérie Plante.
But he said the commitments put forward by his party, Mouvement Montréal, will remain "intact."
"We need to have some innovation, some new ideas and some courageous people at city hall," he said.
Those ideas include, most notably, a commitment to reallocate funding away from the police budget, which was $679 million last year, and put some of that money (upwards of $100 million, he said) toward things like social housing and social services.
Holness also still wants to have Montreal recognized as a bilingual metropolis — a commitment that appears to fly in the face of one of Ralliement's main pledges, to protect and strengthen the French language.
After the surprise announcement last week, several members of Ralliement said they were upset by the decision to join with Mouvement. The Ralliement candidate for mayor of Lachine said he would not run.
"The base of the two political parties are not compatible," Jean-François Cloutier said at the time.
Members of Mouvement, as well, said they were not consulted prior to the announcement.
But Holness says he sees no conflict between the two parties' stances on language and that, united, they represent a viable alternative to the status quo.
He says Ralliement's leader, Marc-Antoine Desjardins, who is now running for mayor for the borough of Outremont, would be tasked with protecting the French language if Holness is elected mayor.
Holness says he will hold a news conference next Tuesday to reaffirm his commitment to the Mouvement platform.
However, a spokesperson for Desjardins, who now also works with Holness, suggested Friday that there still could be minor changes in the works.
In an email, Anne-Julie Labrecque said the news conference will be used to "clarify certain points," particularly around language and policing.
"We want to ally the two parties for the well-being of Montreal," she said.
'More than disrupters'
Over lunch, Holness said he is encouraged by what he is hearing from voters as he goes door to door and that it's clear now "we're more than disrupters. We're contenders."
The 38-year-old, a former safety on the Montreal Alouettes and graduate of McGill law school, represents a new option for voters in a campaign where the main contenders, Plante and Coderre, have both been mayor once before.
Holness feels he hasn't been given a fair chance to make his case to the public, having been frozen out of several mayoral debates, including one hosted by the Conseil des Relations Internationales de Montréal and another by Tourisme Montréal. He says those decisions are further proof that the city's institutions are "democratically bankrupt."
Despite his newcomer 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 social justice group Montreal in Action, Holness helped push the city to hold consultations about systemic racism in municipal institutions.
The resulting report found the city had turned "a blind eye" to the problem of discrimination, and laid out 38 recommendations.
The city has since appointed an anti-racism commissioner to oversee changes in the city.
His activism gave Holness a higher political profile — and even a feature in the New York Times which described him as a leading voice against systemic discrimination in this country. In it, Holness mused about becoming a "Canadian Obama."
Holness's campaign remains small by comparison to his chief opponents. He fields his own media requests, and had his two-year old daughter along for part of his day of campaigning (she was unable to go to daycare because of a COVID scare).
But Holness says he has collected $30,000 in donations, and has a database of 4,000 volunteers. He now has 73 candidates out of a total of 103 possible seats.
"It's really a grassroots movement that turned into 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's not just going to represent you, but is going to fight for you."