An update

by Robert K. Whelan and Pierre Joncas

In Inroads 15 we described the process leading up to the June 20 demerger referendums in Quebec municipalities.1 We paid particular attention to developments in Montreal where a new administration under Gérald Tremblay came to power in January 2002 in the “One Island, One City” that had been created by the PQ government.

The Tremblay administration was soon confronted with changes following the 2003 provincial election campaign, in which Jean Charest’s Liberal Party promised to submit the mergers to the people directly concerned for their approval. The changes took the form of a law, Bill 9, which opened the door for old municipalities to revert to their former status as separate, independent entities, albeit with much reduced powers, and set out a series of stages through which it could take place, the last being a referendum. As a result of the June referendums, opponents of the Montreal megamerger managed to carve out a large chunk of their new island-city, including a huge crescent-shaped piece at its southwestern end, comprising 28 per cent of its land area and 15 per cent of its population.

Observers stress different motives as driving the défusioniste (i.e. demerger) forces. Martin Horak and Andrew Sancton see the opponents of amalgamation in Montreal (as in Toronto) as middle-class residents with a strong sense of local identity.2 Julie-Anne Boudreau agrees the opposition is middle-class-based but views Montreal as primarily a territorial struggle over cultural identity propelled by the desire of anglophones to protect life in English in Montreal.3 Heather Murray sees these movements as part of a general desire to assert and exercise urban autonomy,4 expressed, for example, in the current struggle to use proceeds of the federal gasoline tax to finance urban infrastructure.

In this brief update, we shall discuss the difficulties faced by the défusionistes, some aspects of the referendum campaign and the outcome itself. We shall conclude with a discussion of short-term prospects for Montreal, other metropolitan communities and the provincial government.

Demerger: A difficult process

Bill 9, adopted by the Quebec National Assembly in December 2003, created a complex process for boroughs to regain their former independent status as separate municipalities. First, the government hired “independent” consultants to assess the costs, impacts on services, and advantages and disadvantages of demerger in Montreal, the other seven megacities and 34 other recently created smaller agglomerations. A summary of their findings, distributed to residents eligible to participate in the two-step demerger consultation, made it clear that demerger would not yield a return to premerger status and that the powers of demerged cities would be much narrower than they were prior to the forced mergers. In the case of Montreal, some responsibilities (such as police and property assessment) previously managed by the old Montreal Urban Community (or MUC), abolished in the merger process, would remain centralized under an “agglomeration council.” So would other services (such as firefighting and municipal courts), which had belonged to the municipalities before the merger transformed them into boroughs. Montreal will have a controlling vote in this new council (scheduled to hold its first meeting in the fall of 2004), where the lightly weighted votes of demerged suburbs will, for all intents and purposes, be meaningless. The evaluation summary also stated that, in almost all cases, if a borough demerged its residents would be taxed more heavily for the same services.

For a demerger referendum, once requested by 10 per cent of the registered voters in a premerger city, to succeed, Bill 9 required its results to be clear, meaning a simple majority (i.e. 50 per cent plus one) of those voting. But the bill added a further hurdle for the défusionistes: to take effect, a Yes majority would have to comprise more than 35 per cent of the registered voters. Hence, if 65 per cent of them stayed home, demerger could not take place; with a turnout of 50 per cent in municipal elections, the demerger forces would need over 70 per cent of the ballots cast to win. At a 70 per cent turnout, a 50 per cent plus one vote was all that would be required since it would satisfy the 35 per cent rule.

Put succinctly, the government scheme made it costly merely to call for a referendum which, in the event, would require an extraordinarily high voter turnout, given traditional citizen indifference to local matters. Worse still, the government saw to it as well that, compared with merged boroughs, demerged cities would enjoy only slightly greater control over local matters, but at increased cost to ratepayers.

This reflected the government’s overall attitude. In a Radio Canada interview, Jean-Pierre Fournier, the Minister of Municipal Affairs, stated that the government was opposed to coerced mergers and was honouring its promise to restore municipal democracy. Yet Fournier’s claim strikes us as disingenuous – at best. From the very outset, Premier Charest issued orders that Liberal ministers were neither to sign the registers nor to campaign for demergers, although he didn’t prohibit public endorsements of One Island, One City. Yves Séguin, the Minister of Finance whose riding includes the borough of Outremont (home of one of the authors), did precisely that. Charest himself, while refraining from campaigning, made known his intention to vote against the demerger in the Montreal borough of Westmount where he resides (arranging, however, to do so in an advance poll, away from the glare of media attention). To cap it off, on the referendum ballot the term in French for demerger was the brutal démembrement (dismemberment) rather than the widely used and well-understood défusion (demerger). In English, the gentler “dismantling” was the term used.

In addition, the government resorted to questionable campaign tactics designed to discourage demerger. For example, a flyer from the provincial Ministry of Municipal Affairs informed residents of Outremont that if more than 10 per cent signed the register, ratepayers would be billed an alarming $140,194 collectively. For the few who bothered to calculate, it worked out to less than $8.55 per voter. The same flyer assured residents that the municipality would disseminate information as to where and when they could sign the register. This was never done, although a full-page advertisement in a neighbourhood newspaper would have cost a trifling sum compared with the public funds spent to promote and defend the mergers. Not surprisingly, only 2.6 per cent signed the register in Outremont, so no referendum was held.

In other merged boroughs where pro-défusion movements were active, proponents of demerger faced a concerted effort by Tremblay’s supporters to discredit their efforts, including innuendo and even intimidation. For example, among the “Top 10 reasons to say No” listed in a flyer distributed to residents of the Town of Mount Royal (TMR) by the Comité Mont-Royal pour Montréal, number 3 was “Because I don’t want to be in an isolated community that withdraws into itself,” and number 8 “Because I don’t want to experience an 18 per cent increase in my taxes” (emphasis in original).

It is clearly a significant achievement that despite these hurdles and inconveniences, at the end of the registration period (Thursday, May 20, 2004), 22 of the 27 forcibly merged municipalities on Montreal Island recorded more than the minimum 10 per cent of signatures required – many comfortably so. In all, 51 of 86 former municipalities in the merged megacities managed to obtain enough signatures. On June 20, referendums were held in six of the eight megacities.

Results and analysis

Outremont and the Town of Mount Royal are adjacent comfortable inner suburbs. But unlike Outremont, TMR mobilized in favour of demerger, with 82 per cent of the ballots, representing 41 per cent of eligible voters, cast in favour. Fourteen other boroughs also voted to demerge. Another seven held votes, but the new status quo prevailed. (In six of these, there were majorities in favour of demerger but the Yes vote did not reach the 35 per cent level required.) To the astonishment of many, when the results were announced Mayor Tremblay gave a “victory” speech, the winners being the communities which remained within the new megacity.

Provincewide, of the 51 former cities holding elections in the six new megacities, 37 had majority votes in favour of demerger but only 23 succeeded in attracting the 35 per cent of registered voters required to reemerge as separate cities. In Longueuil, on Montreal’s South Shore, five of eight cities qualified for referendums and four succeeded, with the fifth not reaching the 35 per cent threshold. Hence, the two megacities in the Montreal region suffered devastating defeats. Clearly, residents were dissatisfied with the forced mergers. Although most of the departing cities in Montreal are West Island anglophone strongholds, the overwhelmingly francophone city of Montréal-Est also opted to leave. In francophone Longueuil, the mayor’s own town of Saint-Bruno as well as Brossard, home of the “megacity hall,” were among those that voted to demerge.

The boroughs remaining in the new Montreal megacity include several of the most populous and industrialized, notably Saint-Léonard and Verdun where no referendums were held, and Saint-Laurent, Pierrefonds and LaSalle, where demerger received a majority of ballots cast but fell short of the 35 per cent threshold. Their continued inclusion broadens merged Montreal’s tax base significantly. A good test of the case for One Island, One City will be how wisely these taxes are managed. Comparisons with demerged cities will be close at hand.

In contrast to Montreal, in the Quebec City area both megacities (Québec and Lévis) survived largely intact. In Quebec City, demerger referendums received majority votes in only five of the 12 former cities, and succeeded in only two relatively small boroughs. In Lévis all four referendums failed, although majorities voted to demerge in two cities. The success of the No campaign can be attributed to the mayors’ popularity and the effectiveness of their political organizations and the campaigns they waged. Rather than staying at home, voters were encouraged to participate en masse. The end result seems to have strengthened Quebec City Mayor Jean-Paul L’Allier by weakening his pro-demerger opponents on the megacity council.

In the Outaouais region, across the river from Ottawa, in the four cities qualifying for the vote, demerger succeeded only in Masson-Angers, failing in the all-important core former cities of Hull and Aylmer. In the Eastern Townships, Sherbrooke remained intact: although the demerger side received a majority of votes in two of the four former municipalities, it fell short of the 35 per cent minimum required. Overall, then, once we leave the Montreal region, the process of municipal consolidation is largely on track.

Future prospects

What might the results of the referendums portend for democracy in the Montreal region? The outcome strengthened the role of the demerged boroughs, now cities again, specifically their control over local service delivery and quality, and restored their authority over about a third of their premerger tax revenue. Had this power been ceded to the boroughs in Mayor Tremblay’s decentralization plan, the results might have been different in some communities.5 What remains of Montreal is in some ways more powerful than previously because it maintains authority over its most important functions, and two thirds of the premerger taxes of the demerged cities remain under its control through the agglomeration council, where it alone represents the entire island including the demerged municipalities. The demergers have also significantly weakened anglophone influence in the executive committee, and for all intents and purposes the West Island is no longer a player in Montreal affairs.

Related to this is the fact that legitimacy of Mayor Tremblay’s governing coalition is already being questioned. A majority of voters in all 15 demerging boroughs supported the mayor and his Union of the Citizens of the Island of Montreal (UCIM) in the last election. As his opponent, former Montreal mayor Pierre Bourque, correctly observed, Tremblay would not be mayor today had the votes of the demerging suburbs been subtracted from the 2001 election tallies, nor would his UCIM control city council. Moreover, in the seven boroughs where demerger failed by falling short of the 35 per cent threshold – some just barely so – resentment toward Tremblay and his team is likely to be widespread and deep. In addition, the Tremblay administration’s tactics during the register and referendum campaigns were not of a nature to attract their suburban supporters of three years ago next time around.

The referendum results and the ensuing developments, by reinforcing the ethnic/language divide on Montreal Island, will make some francophones more ill disposed toward the demerged anglophone enclaves and suburbs. For these various and sometimes contradictory reasons, Tremblay’s opponents, led by Bourque’s group which even more strongly supports One Island, One City, stand a better chance of coming to power in the next Montreal election slated for fall 2005.

In light of these developments, by contributing to pitting suburban sprawl against Montreal needs, the breakup of Longueuil on the South Shore might cause the government to consider new administrative arrangements despite its refusal, so far, to entertain the idea. This would entail restructuring the Montreal Metropolitan Community, the coordinating body for the region, so that it could be entrusted with the task of harmonizing the resources of all Greater Montreal municipalities so as better to serve the needs of the entire area. The idea of a made-for-Montreal solution makes sense since the impact of the demergers outside of Montreal proved to be much less dramatic and significant. Only four small cities demerged in the other new megacities, which remain basically stable.

Finally, how might all this affect provincial elections? In 2003, opponents of forced mergers voted for the Liberals who had opposed the mergers in the National Assembly and given the clear impression during the election campaign that demergers would be meaningful and not onerous. Demergers were not the only issue on the table, of course, but they were among the most important. Indeed, after the election, many defeated Péquistes complained that they had paid the price for their party’s “courage” on this issue. Yet, once in office, the Liberals were faced with the public opposition of blue- and white-collar municipal workers’ unions and a probably even more vigorous behind-the-scenes resistance within the provincial bureaucracy to any demerger legislation.

Whatever the reasons, many voters in middle-class suburban cities feel cheated and betrayed by the government’s at best half-hearted efforts to undo the forced mergers. Indeed, in the September 20 byelections, despite Charest’s highly publicized “success” in negotiations with the Martin government over health care (the first faced by his government), the Liberals lost two seats, including a traditional multiethnic Liberal Montreal seat to the Parti Québécois. They did, however, manage to hold onto their West Island stronghold of Nelligan against a pro-demerger independent. Thus it remains to be seen whether by dissembling on demergers, the Liberals have jeopardized their natural constituency. While suburban discontent on this issue is in itself not enough to bring down the government, it could combine with others to cause its downfall. Owing largely to its disregard for local grassroots democracy, the Charest administration could face a fate similar to that of the Landry Parti Québecois government, which it defeated in 2003.


1 Robert K. Whelan, Richard Vengroff and Pierre Joncas, “Breaking up is hard to do: Merger and demerger in the Montreal megacity.” Inroads, no. 15 (Summer/Fall 2004), 96-105.

2 Martin Horak and Andrew Sancton, “Canadian Megacities: The Politics of Opposition in Toronto and Montreal,” paper, presented at the CPSA Conference, June 3-5, 2004, Winnipeg, pp. 16 -19. Horak and Sancton identify four broad components: provincewide resistance, the Union of Suburban Mayors of Montreal, groups representing anglophones, and Démocracité, an intermunicipal citizen group modelled after Citizens for Local Democracy in Toronto

3 Julie Anne Boudreau, “The Politics of Territorialization: Regionalism, Localism and Other Isms . . . The Case of Montreal,” Journal of Urban Affairs 25, 2 (2003), 179-199.

4 Heather Murray. “The Rise of Urban Autonomy Movements in Canada: Preliminary Findings on the Toronto Case,” paper presented at the CTSA Conference, Jun 3-5, 2004, Winnipeg.

5 For a brief discussion, see Whelan et al , op. cit.