Volume 38, Number 5: September/October 2004

Democracy in Montréal: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Barely three years after the creation of Montréal’s megacity, the municipal political boundaries are to be redrawn once again. Instead of one big city divided into 27 boroughs, the island of Montréal will look rather more like swiss cheese: one big city interspersed with 15 small municipalities–eight at the western end (Senneville, Saint-Anne-de-Bellevue, Baie d’Urfé, Kirkland, Pointe-Claire, Beaconsfield, Dollard-des- Ormeaux and Dorval), one at the eastern end (Montréal-East) and five in the middle of the island (Westmount, Mount-Royal, Côte-Saint-Luc, Montréal-West and Hampstead).

This is what some of the residents of Montréal’s 15 former municipalities decided when they voted for separation on June 20. According to one of their spokespersons, former Westmount mayor Peter Trent, the residents of these former municipalities wanted to resurrect their old towns–symbols of a territorial sense of identity and belonging. But apart from the question of identity, with its socio-economic and ethno-linguistic dimensions, does this movement represent a bid to strengthen local democracy? Were Montréal’s former suburban municipalities guarantors of greater democracy by virtue of their smaller size, as their former elected officials maintain? And what of democracy in Montréal’s megacity, with its new administrative structures and the decentralization of power toward the boroughs?

Montréal’s Municipal Reform: One Island, One City

In Montréal, municipal restructuring entailed amalgamating the former central city and 27 suburban municipalities. The megacity, with a population of 1.8 million, came into being in 2002. It required setting up new institutional structures both for the city as a whole and for its 27 boroughs.

The institutional model chosen by the Québec government was in line with existing administrative structures. However, at the request of various interested parties, the model was designed to allow for decentralization based on sharing power and responsibilities in a tripartite structure: the Montréal Metropolitan Community for the greater metropolitan area; the municipal council and the executive committee for the city as a whole; and the borough councils. The latter are the main innovative feature of the reform. For the first time in Montreal’s history, the boroughs have the authority to plan and manage local affairs, with corresponding decision-making powers and budgets. In addition, they have local offices headed up by a borough director and equipped with a staff to better serve residents.

The boroughs were strengthened by Mayor Tremblay’s decentralization plan, which was designed in large part as a response to the desire for autonomy on the part of elected officials in the former suburban municipalities. The boroughs now have political-administrative responsibility for managing neighbourhood services, equipment, infrastructure, parks and green spaces, as well as local community and social development. Furthermore, changes to the Charter of the City of Montréal in December, 2003, gave the boroughs the power to charge fees for certain services and to levy taxes on specific services. Finally, as a nod to the boroughs’ relative autonomy, borough presidents were given the title of mayor. However, these changes did not satisfy the aspirations of elected offcials and some of the residents of the 15 suburban municipalities who voted to demerge from the megacity.

Steps Towards Local Democracy?

The question arises: does their desire to “get their cities back” represent a victory for small towns that stands to advance the cause of local democracy?

Recently, we conducted a study of the municipal reform and public participation at the borough level in three former City of Montréal boroughs (the South-West, Côte-des-Neiges/Notre- Dame de Grâce and the Plateau Mont-Royal) and three former suburban municipalities (Côte-Saint-Luc/Montréal-West and Hampstead, Westmount and Verdun). The findings allow us to arrive at a number of conclusions.

The first concerns the situation preceding the municipal reform, that is, the period when the 27 suburban municipalities on the Island of Montréal had full powers under the Cities and Towns Act and the Land Use, Planning and Development Act. In these typically small towns, democracy was based on a direct personal relationship between elected officials and citizens. Residents of these towns were called upon to participate in activities and in the provision of services by volunteering their time or financial contributions. These personal relations were grounded in a common sense of territorial belonging, but also in sense of community most often based on ethnicity and language. Relations between elected officials and citizens were paternalistic in character: the elected representative was deemed to know what was best for citizens. Public participation was rarely institutionalized except in the area of urban planning where the Land Use, Planning and Development Act required the creation of advisory committees comprising both elected officials and citizens.

Second, although they were not obliged to do so by Montréal’s Charter, the new Montréal boroughs introduced public participation as standard practice in the planning and administration of local affairs. All the boroughs in the new City of Montréal (including those which ultimately demerged) established advisory committees responsible for counseling elected officials on land use and urban planning. Although these committees operated in a strictly advisory capacity, they provide limited opportunities for public participation essentially involving the solicitation of input from citizen-experts.

Other initiatives also called for citizen participation. For example, the Plateau Mont-Royal borough set up a working group on participatory democracy. The Côte-des-Neiges/Notre-Dame de Grâce borough council created two standing committees, one on transportation and the other on intercultural relations. Our study reveals that public participation has been incorporated into a managerial vision in which citizen participation–limited to public consultation–enables elected officials to enact decisions while forestalling potential social conflicts. In other words, public participation allows borough business to be managed more easily by elected officials, but does not really amount to strengthening the role of citizens in urban affairs.

Third, public participation relies on citizen-experts, that is, citizens recognized for their expertise in a particular field or on a specific issue. Our study of public participation did not reveal a wide and inclusive approach to citizen deliberation. Even the borough summits, which were held in preparation for the City Summit, were carefully managed and reserved for a select number of citizens chosen by the organizers.

Finally, last year, in connection with the review of Montréal’s urban plan, a number of boroughs held public consultations. Some, like the South-West and the Plateau Mont-Royal, took the opportunity to bring people together, calling on various socio-economic players in the neighbourhoods.

While public participation has become standard practice, our study did reveal significant territorial variations. Some of the boroughs of the old City of Montréal are trying to find innovative means of integrating public participation into urban planning, while boroughs formed from the former suburban municipalities that opposed the municipal reform to begin with, sought to maintain the status quo by retaining pre-reform administrative structures. As democratic practices exist to varying degrees at the borough level, Montréal citizens do not have an equal opportunity to participate in local planning and administration. Still, by decentralizing power to the boroughs, the Montréal megacity created some of the necessary conditions for a greater democratization of urban life. Once the demerger debate is behind us, the challenge remains for citizens to take charge of their own municipal affairs. And, as for the small towns whose powers have been reduced by Bill 9, they have to prove that they can create genuine spaces for citizen participation. There is clearly a lot of work ahead!

Anne Latendresse teaches geography at the Université du Québec à Montréal. She is currently doing research on local and participatory democracy and urban movements. Anne is also a member of the organizing committee of the Third Citizen’s Summit on the Future of Montréal.

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