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Democracy in Montreal: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

By Latendresse, Anne | Canadian Dimension, September-October 2004 | Go to article overview

Democracy in Montreal: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back


Latendresse, Anne, Canadian Dimension


Barely three years after the creation of Montreal's megacity, the municipal political boundaries are to be redrawn once again. Instead of one big city divided into 27 boroughs, the island of Montreal 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'Urfe, Kirkland, Pointe-Claire, Beaconsfield, Dollard-des-Ormeaux and Dorval), one at the eastern end (Montreal-East) and five in the middle of the island (Westmount, Mount-Royal, Cote-Saint-Luc, Montreal-West and Hampstead).

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This is what some of the residents of Montreal'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 Montreal'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 Montreal's megacity, with its new administrative structures and the decentralization of power toward the boroughs?

Montreal's municipal reform: one island, one city

In Montreal, 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 Quebec 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 Montreal 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 Montreal 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 Montreal boroughs (the South-West, Cote-des-Neiges/Notre-Dame de Grace and the Plateau Mont-Royal) and three former suburban municipalities (Cote-Saint-Luc/Montreal-West and Hampstead, Westmount and Verdun).

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