Spread the love

20 years ago, demergers broke up Montreal

Photo: Marie-France Coallier Le Devoir Former Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay at home.

Jeanne Corriveau

Published at 0:00

  • Montreal

Twenty years ago, referendums on demergers allowed 31 Quebec municipalities to regain their autonomy, after a brief marriage that lasted only three years. In Montreal, Longueuil and Quebec, divorces have plunged the cities into sometimes acrimonious quarrels. Two decades later, the dust has settled, but a sort of bitterness remains among defusionists and defenders of big cities.

In Montreal, the dream of an island, a city was torn to pieces on June 20, 2004, when citizens of 15 cities voted in sufficient numbers to allow their former municipality to rise from the ashes. Gérald Tremblay, who had been mayor for three years at the time, now believes that the demergers shattered the momentum his administration was trying to give the metropolis. For Peter Trent, a demerger leader, the operation helped repair, at least in part, the damage done by the much-hated forced mergers.

In March 2003, Jean Charest, who led the liberal troops, promised to give citizens of the merged cities the opportunity to vote on the demerger of their municipality if he were brought to power. Once elected, he had to follow through on his promise. For months, the defusionists had been active behind the scenes, with Peter Trent at their head, while within the city of Montreal, now made up of 27 boroughs, Gérald Tremblay tried as best he could to maintain a semblance of harmony within the municipal apparatus and to heal the wounds of the suburbs swallowed up against their will by the megacity.

“The government did it,” he said, “to respect democracy. But the exact opposite happened,” says Gérald Tremblay today. By demerger, the reconstituted cities saw a large part of their budget controlled by Montreal, he explains. “I toured the municipalities [before the referendums] and I told them that I was going to control 70% of their budget. This is what happened. I had a right of veto with the other city councilors on the agglomeration council. So bravo for democracy. »

Gérald Tremblay is of the opinion that the demergers have bogged down the City of Montreal in debates that it could have done without, when there was so much to do to revive the metropolis. “It broke the momentum,” he said. Did this harm Montreal ? The answer is yes. This delayed many projects and gave rise to many discussions, sometimes fruitless, sometimes constructive. »

He recalls that Jean Charest himself recognized, in 2019, during a fundraising dinner for the Bar Foundation in which Lucien Bouchard also participated, that his promise of municipal demergers was a “terrible error”, comments reported by La Presse.

Jean Charest declined our interview request, citing a lack of availability.

The Ex Club

Former mayor of Westmount, Peter Trent does not see the situation the same way as Gérald Tremblay. It is true that the municipalities that have demerged have not regained their full autonomy — the demergers have also criticized the Liberals for having reneged on their promise to “cancel” municipal mergers, to finally offer them “partial demergers”. —, but today he estimates that the former suburban municipalities which remained within the fold of the City of Montreal, such as Saint-Laurent, Anjou and Outremont, suffered much greater losses.

Successive administrations, from Gérald Tremblay to Denis Coderre, have gradually centralized the management of the City of Montreal, affected by bureaucratic bloat. “There are some things that don’t change. Bureaucrats, by nature, are centralizers. It’s in their minds, underlines Peter Trent. The districts manage much less than 20 years ago. »

20 years ago, demergers broke up Montreal

Photo: Marie-France Coallier Le Devoir Gérald Tremblay creates a thousand-piece puzzle.

He cites a study carried out in 2022 by Jean-Philippe Meloche, professor at the Faculty of Planning at the University of Montreal, which revealed that in 2002, Montreal boroughs managed nearly 32% of the City of Montreal's budget. Montreal, up from 16.5% in 2021. Meanwhile, the 15 linked cities have made gains over the years and now control 100% of their local spending, argues Peter Trent.

Alan DeSousa, mayor of the borough of Saint-Laurent – ​​a former suburban town – retorts that the fate of the demerged cities is not rosy. “The mayors of the cities that left Montreal have been demanding changes for 20 years,” he notes. He recalls that since the demergers, linked cities have been subject to the agglomeration council, created to decide on common expenses, such as the police and firefighters, and 87% controlled by Montreal elected officials who vote as a bloc. “They have no influence on the amounts they must pay to the agglomeration,” indicates Mr. DeSousa.

Salaries in rise

It is normal for Montreal to have the big end of the stick on the agglomeration council given its demographic weight, recognizes Peter Trent, but what he cannot digest not, it is the cost increases that nothing seems to slow down.

In the wake of municipal mergers, the working conditions of all municipal employees on the island were harmonized, which resulted in an upward adjustment in the remuneration of many employees in the former suburbs. “In Westmount, there are employees who received increases of $10,000 to $15,000 per year. Now we are stuck with these increases,” laments Peter Trent, emphasizing that in Quebec, municipal employees already benefit from salaries nearly 40% higher than those of the Quebec public service.

The demergers aimed to remedy the lack of democracy during the demergers decreed without an electoral mandate by the PQ, maintains former Minister of Municipal Affairs Jean-Marc Fournier. Twenty years later, he is careful not to comment on the impact of the demergers. He notes some democratic challenges in current decision-making structures, but according to him, the dust has settled and the disputes sparked by mergers and demergers have calmed down. “The time that has passed seems to have settled the aspect of passions. The bureaucratic imbalance is not enough to have revived a desire to shake up the model again,” he said.

The former elected officials also agree to say that despite the high number of mayors and municipal councilors on the island, which are 103 in Montreal alone, no one in the Quebec government seems to want to play again in municipal structures.

According to Jean-Marc Fournier, the real problems of cities lie in the financing of infrastructure and the responsibilities entrusted to them, such as housing and homelessness, although these fall under Quebec's jurisdiction.

A situation that Gérald Tremblay continues to denounce. The multiple attempts he made with Quebec to recover a point from the QST did not give the expected results and Montreal is still struggling with a structural fiscal imbalance while having to deal with growing challenges related to infrastructure , homelessness, housing and climate change. “There are three partners who do not talk to each other in the right way,” believes the former mayor about the municipalities and the federal and provincial governments. According to him, the status quo is a precursor to “ruptures, revolts and tragedies”.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116