Regional Restructuring in Montreal: An Historical Analysis

Article excerpt

The current upsurge of interest in metropolitan government on both sides of the Atlantic is mirrored in the debates raging in Montreal. An earlier boom period in the formation of metropolitan structures in the western world, the 1960s and early 1970s, left the region of Montreal with a legacy of partially fulfilled hopes and promises. At that time, as in many other countries, the political debate centred around issues of service provision, economies of scale and the need for coordination in matters such as land-use, control of urban sprawl, transportation and environmental protection. The instrumental arguments focused on size, territorial extent and representation.

Today, while these arguments are still voiced loudly, the context has changed markedly. On the one hand is the ethos of globalisation and the perception that cities must be competitive on the world stage in order to prosper. Neoliberalism, the retreat of the welfare state, and the restructuring of the responsibilities and financial arrangements of the various levels of government have led to increased social fragmentation, social exclusion, often among immigrant groups, and severe inequities between the various parts of metropolitan areas. The central cities tend to house the poor and harbour the homeless, while the suburbs attract the more affluent.

On the other hand is the acknowledgment of the importance of localism, community values, knowing why and how dollars are spent, participatory governance, consensual partnerships, along with increasing powers of special interest groups, business leaders, and corporatism in general. The ideas from the 1960s and early 1970s, of top-down directives, forced municipal amalgamations, imposed regional or metropolitan structures, are being challenged by principles of grassroots planning and collaborative action.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the slow march of the region of Montreal towards metropolitan governance. It is organised in a chronological manner and follows the historical evolution of policies and debates. Over the decades, local, regional and provincial actors have come to recognise the interdependence of central and suburban municipalities. But they have offered different definitions of what ails the region and have resorted to different rationales for government action (or inaction) on these problems.

If there is one continuous thread in Montreal's long saga of half-failed reforms, it is the fact that there is, politically speaking, no such thing as the problem of metropolitan governance. At any given time, various issues get conflated and often confused; over time, different problems gain prominence while others recede into the background. Governmental reforms do not proceed merely because the various parties agree on the problems at hand; they occur when the authorities experience a sense of urgency about one or another issue, be it infrastructure provision, environmental preservation, municipal solvency or economic competitiveness.

We argue that the most recent round of municipal reform and regional institution-building is a continued reaction to the fiscal crisis of the State and that it lays the groundwork for a downloading of responsibilities from central to local government. Alongside the search for zero deficits on the part of the province (and the federal government), however, the desire to improve equity among municipalities and the will to foster democracy are strong motivations for local actors.

As balancing budgets, downloading responsibilities to lower-level governments, and keeping older cities competitive in the world economy are the order of the day, municipal amalgamations and regional coordination mechanisms are of great interest to decision-makers. In the case of Montreal, local factors such as the political culture of the province and the persistence of linguistic tensions add to the difficulty of arriving at consensual decisions in the region. …