Ten years ago today was the start of megacity madness

Bourque’s one-island-one-city speech launched the municipal reorganization

By HENRY AUBIN, The Gazette, May 26, 2009

 Today is the 10th anniversary of a milestone – many would say a millstone – in Montreal’s history. That event is the speech in which mayor Pierre Bourque announced his support for the merger of Montreal Island.

Bourque’s one-island-one-city vision was a turning point in the debate over the island’s future. It has plunged the island into a morass of inefficiency from which no escape seems likely – not because escape is impossible but because the necessary political will does not exist.

To appreciate the importance of Bourque’s speech on May 26, 1999, you have to remember the context:

The Parti Québécois had been re-elected the previous December, and during the campaign Premier Lucien Bouchard had ruled out any island-wide merger.

The long-awaited Bédard report on Montreal’s future, ordered by municipal affairs minister Louise Harel, concluded one month before Bourque’s speech that it would make no sense at all to merge the entire island: It said that “diverse studies (in the U.S. and Canada) demonstrate that per-capita expenses tend to increase after a merger.”

Yet the Bédard task force was aware of the government’s bias in favour of some kind of merger, so it said that if there must be a merger let the island’s 29 municipalities be massed into three to five new entities – but not one. Indeed, under the report’s five-city scenario the city of Montreal would actually have lost seven per cent of its population, shrinking below the one-million mark to 966,000.

Bourque would have none of the report’s richly documented skepticism and he pitched a city of 1.8 million. In a masterpiece of baloney-baffles-brains rhetoric, he declared, “Montreal has a universal destiny that transcends the reality of its immediate environment.” I wrote at the time that this was “mumbo jumbo,” but what do I know? Then as now, the Board of Trade was essentially an echo-chamber for city hall, and the business audience lapped it up.

In an interview yesterday, the then chairperson of Bourque’s executive committee, Jean Fortier, acknowledged, “We never developed an argument on the advantages of the merger.” Bourque, he said, knew the PQ could ram a merger bill via closure through the National Assembly, so “We had only one person to convince – Bouchard.”

Bouchard and Harel came around to Bourque’s view the following September and the merger became a reality on Jan. 1, 2002. Harel did find an argument, “fiscal equity” – that is, the idea the wealthy suburbs would contribute more to the poor parts of the city, including her own Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. The suburbs said that they’d contribute whatever Quebec wanted so long as they could stay independent, but Harel insisted on the radical route.

Harel’s reasoning has a bitter postscript. As the mayor of Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Lyn Thériault, told me yesterday, fiscal equity has “absolutely not” occurred.

I asked Bourque’s second in command, Fortier, for his post-mortem on the merger. “It was not good,” he says, “There has been no increase in efficiency or harmony.”

Fortier called back to say he’s not completely negative – that he sees some modest improvements: Fire service is better, he says, and decentralization has brought better management and traffic control to some parts of town.

And yet a merger was unnecessary to get these gains.

I often ask senior city and provincial officials if they can name any significant achievements since the merger that could not have been obtained without the merger. These officials are pro-merger, yet not one has been able to cite any such achievement. Yet none of them wants to rethink the way the island is organized.

Bourque’s legacy includes degradation of most services, more managers, stronger (merged) unions and a big jump in businesspeople’s contributions to the city’s political parties as businesses compete for larger contracts.

But do not worry. As Bourque would say, Montreal has a universal destiny that transcends the reality of its immediate environment.

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