Many Canadians live in the comfortable belief that municipalities exist as a distinct level of government. But that’s not what the constitution says. Does a lack of autonomy make municipalities more vulnerable to corrupt practices?

When Canada’s constitution was proclaimed in 1867, most people lived in rural areas. Little thought was given to the task of governing urban entities or to the provision of many services we now take for granted. The British North America Act, as it was called then, recognized two levels of government, federal and provincial, with municipalities existing only as creatures of the provinces. Over the years, the provinces made up the rules as they went along, producing mixed results. Though the constitution has been amended, it still reflects a rural bias, with even the largest municipalities subject to provincial whim and treated “as a bunch of immature children,” in the words of Peter F. Trent, the mayor of the central Montreal municipality of Westmount.

“Yet municipalities have as much democratic legitimacy as provinces,” he says in a recent and highly readable book.1 “While provinces are fixed and arbitrary straight-line divisions drawn by nineteenth-century surveyors, municipalities are organic, evolving, spatially relevant entities that reflect their residents’ needs more faithfully than provinces can ever do.”

Trent gained prominence as an opponent of the forced amalgamation of municipalities on Montreal Island in 2002, an action taken under a Parti Québécois government. One justification for this move was that wealthy suburbs should bear more of the burden carried by the central city (although the same logic did not seem to apply to suburbs off the island, which according to the 2011 census contained roughly half of the Montreal metropolitan area’s 3,824,211 people). The amalgamation was partly undone four years later under a Liberal government when 15 municipalities, most of them with significant English-speaking populations, voted in referendums to regain their autonomy.

Montreal Island is now a checkerboard of city boroughs and autonomous municipalities, each with its own mayor and council. On top of this are the city mayor, his executive committee and the city council. The division of responsibilities between the city and its boroughs is based on an arcane formula that leads to confusion and overlap. This cumbersome structure, imposed by the Quebec government, makes governing the city an administrative and logistical nightmare. Some argue that this, in turn, has resulted in weakened controls over spending. One major scandal that triggered the current climate of outrage involved a massive contract for the installation of water meters. (This scandal could have been called Watergate, but it wasn’t.)

Montreal is cursed by the electoral stability of its provincial ridings. A handful of ridings in the east end have been safely in Parti Québécois hands for decades, while most other ridings on Montreal Island have remained loyal to the Liberals. Only in the suburbs is there a significant number of competitive ridings. For obvious reasons, competitive ridings are going to get more attention from whoever happens to be in power. One result of this is provincial policies that have tended to favour suburban sprawl.

It does not take a great leap to imagine a conspiracy in Quebec City aimed at weakening Montreal. Many people in the provincial capital regard their city as a rival to Montreal (a notion that is not widely reciprocated). Across Quebec, millions of people view Montreal with a blend of suspicion, resentment and misunderstanding. The same is true of many Ontarians’ attitudes toward Toronto, but there is a key difference. Toronto is the provincial capital, and provincial decisions affecting Toronto are made there. Control is exerted locally.

The pitfalls of provincial interference in local affairs can be seen in the Montreal public transit system. The Société de Transport de Montréal (STM), a municipal body that runs the subway system and city buses on Montreal Island, accounts for well over 80 per cent of transit use in the metropolitan area. As the successor to the Montreal Tramway Company, it has more than a century and a half of institutional experience in moving large numbers of people.

For whatever reason, the Quebec government did not see fit to entrust the STM with a broad role in transit development. In 1995, Quebec created a provincial body, the Agence Métropolitaine de Transport (AMT), to run the suburban trains, handle capital spending (lavished mostly on off-island suburbs) and coordinate the services of various Montreal-area transit operators (little coordination is evident). The blunder-prone AMT, notorious for cost overruns and often at loggerheads with the STM, has become a political dumping ground. Its current head is Nicolas Girard, a former Parti Québécois MNA rejected by voters in the 2012 election. One recent embarrassment involved the purchase of 20 new bimodal locomotives that weigh slightly more than the models they replace. The AMT did not think to check whether the tracks near Central Station could support the extra weight. They couldn’t, and a train derailed. Meanwhile, the locally controlled STM won a top award in 2010 from the American Public Transportation Association.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Montrealers had ample reason to be unhappy with longtime mayor Jean Drapeau, who ruled in authoritarian fashion without interruption from 1960 to 1986. But he knew how to assert what he perceived as his city’s interests. Though he may not have had the constitution on his side, he was fully capable of bending provincial officials to his will. Premier Robert Bourassa, in particular, seemed to cower in his presence. Then there followed a succession of weaker mayors – Jean Doré, Pierre Bourque, Gérald Tremblay and the current interim mayor, Michael Applebaum. It did not take long for the province to reassert its authority.

The question I posed at the beginning of this article has no easy answer. At the time of writing, the Charbonneau Commission had not begun its examination of the Quebec department of transport. There, compulsive outsourcing may be a big part of the problem, as it is at the municipal level, enabling greedy private-sector firms to set their own terms. Stay tuned.


1 Peter F. Trent, The Merger Delusion: How Swallowing Its Suburbs Made an Even Bigger Mess of Montreal (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012).