Canada

Megacity Madness

The Parti Québécois’s plan for municipal mergers has ignited a political firestorm in Montreal

Brenda Branswell December 18 2000
Canada

Megacity Madness

The Parti Québécois’s plan for municipal mergers has ignited a political firestorm in Montreal

Brenda Branswell December 18 2000

Megacity Madness

Canada

The Parti Québécois’s plan for municipal mergers has ignited a political firestorm in Montreal

Brenda Branswell

Gisèle Bonnardeaux’s anger is no secret on her quiet Westmount street. Placards lean against her brick house. Protest signs dot the lawn. But the most telling testimony is parked in the driveway. Her sports utility vehicle is covered with signs and stickers. Some sport the slogan “Ne touchez pas à ma ville!” (“Hands off my city”), and all are directed at Bill 170, the Quebec legislation that will transform Montreal into a megacity by merging it with the suburbs that share the island. Eight of the existing 28 municipalities are set to disappear. The rest, including the tony enclave of Westmount, will become 26 emasculated boroughs with no taxing powers. Bonnardeaux, who turns 53 this week, cannot stomach the loss of her community as she knows it. The sign on top of her SUV heralds a protest rally planned for Dec. 10. “I don’t go unnoticed,” she admits with a laugh. “My son is completely ashamed of meemdash;he doesn’t want to sit in the car.” But, she adds, “what makes me ashamed is to feel obliged to do this for democracy.”

Thousands of others share her outrage. They accuse the Parti Québécois of trying to ram the legislation through the

National Assembly before Christmas without proper consultation. Some English-speaking Quebecers suspect darker motives, since many of the municipalities being lost are heavily anglophone. But the PQ insists its goal is to strengthen the city economically. Montreal will become the latest Canadian megacity-other urban areas such as Toron to and Halifax have already gone that route. Bill 170 also proposes the creation of four other megacities in the province: Longueuil,

Quebec City, Lévis and Hull-Gatineau. !£

But by tampering with the level of governlt; ment closest to citizens, the PQ has waded into contentious territory. Five Montreal-area residents sought a court injunction last week against the bill on the grounds that citizens were not properly consulted. And a downtown rally scheduled for Sunday was expected to attract thousands of protesters. Amid the growing controversy, Montreal Mayor Pierre Bourque, an advocate of the mergers, launched his own offensive, urging people to sign a pro-merger petition. “It’s our collective future that is at stake,” he insisted.

When the merged city comes into effect in January; 2002, Montreal's population will soar from 1 million to 1.8 mil lion-but the number ofcouncillors will plummet from 256 in 28 municipalities to 71 in the megacity; The PQ argues the reform is needed to unifi~,~ Montreal so it can compete more effectively for business with other cities, and the Board ofTrade of Metropolitan Montreal agrees. With about 30 in dustrial parks, the island's municipalities have competed for business for years, says board spokesman Pierre Laflamme. "There is a big waste of energy;" he says, "and a big competi tion amongst ourselves." Another problem, Bourque con tends, is a lack of equity: other municipalities do not pay their full share for benefitting from the metropolis. "We must work together to reignite, reinforce the economy and

the development of the island,” Bourque told Macleans.

Peter Trent buys none of it. The articulate mayor of Westmount is one of the most vociferous opponents of the plan he dubs “urbicide.” If the bill passes, Westmount plans to launch a court challenge; like others, Trent contends that helping out Montreal financially does not require a merger, which he argues will bring no good to Westmount. “Were getting a triple whammy here,” laments Trent in his modest city hall office. He says taxes will rise while services decline. “And thirdly,” he adds incredulously, “were going to disappear.” In fact, many shudder at the prospect of joining Montreal for one compelling reason: they see it as a poorly run city, and point to Montreal’s militant unions as another potential source of trouble. In referendums last month in some municipalities, voters massively rejected the merger (in Westmount, 98 per cent opposed the plan). But the PQ vowed it would not be swayed by referendum results, which critics consider brazen hypocrisy on the part of a sovereigntist party committed to putting the future of Quebec itself to a vote.

The mergers sit especially badly with anglophones. The 14 bilingual municipalities on the Island of Montreal will be

amalgamated into nine boroughs. Although they will retain their linguistic status, anglophones still worry they are losing another institution, says Ed Manis, a spokesman for Alliance Quebec. The English-rights lobby group believes the PQ’s main motive was to eliminate bilingual Montreal-area municipalities that previously passed partition resolutions to remain in Canada in the event of a yes vote for sovereignty. Others, including Trent, see the disappearance of anglophone municipalities as “a felicitous byproduct” for the PQ, which they claim is using the mergers to set the stage for downloading responsibilities to Montreal in the future.

Premier Lucien Bouchard has cast the municipal reforms as one of the PQ’s most important initiatives. But he may pay a political price—not only anglophones are riled. Bonnardeaux, for one, no longer considers herself a péquiste. Westmount, for her, is home, a place with a close-knit atmosphere and a network of volunteers who care about the community. “If I call the mayor, I can call him at home at night,” she says. “He’s in the phone book. That’s what we’ll be losing.” For many merger opponents, the prospect of one enormous city has already brought on a mega-headache. E3