Will Montreal finally get its champion?

Martin Patriquin on the challenges ahead for a city brought to its knees by corruption

Martin Patriquin’s article was first published in October:

Alexandre Laurent / PhotoNews / Getty Images

Mobsters stuffing cash into their socks, city managers on the take, two mayors in a row driven out of office, the first by revelations of seedy campaign financing, the second by allegations of outright fraud. Montreal, you might say, is having its New York circa 1970s moment: a beautiful, vibrant city brought to its knees by corruption, shabby government and the politics beyond its own borders.

We know what eventually happened in New York: successive mayors, first Ed Koch, then David Dinkins, began the gruelling cleanup of the city before superhero corruption fighter Rudy Giuliani swept in and the city’s fortunes soared. The moral of the story would seem simple: any city with good bones, and Montreal certainly has that, can go from the doldrums to new heights, given the right person at the top.

So with a municipal election looming—one that mayoral candidate Richard Bergeron calls “Montreal’s most important election in the last 25 years”—is this the moment Canada’s second-largest city will finally get its champion? There’s certainly a lot at stake for Montreal’s next mayor, set to be elected Nov. 3. He or she will oversee two mega-hospital projects; the revamping of much of the city’s major highways and transportation corridors; the replacement of the ailing Champlain Bridge; and the launch of one of the largest real estate development projects in the city’s history. All while grappling with the grinding corruption many say has become ingrained in Montreal’s governance.

But if there are similarities between the Montreal of today and the New York of three decades ago, there is also one key difference. While Giuliani, like all New York mayors, held enormous political power over the city he governed, Montreal suffers from a radically decentralized system of governance that has spawned a dizzying tangle of bureaucracy. Worse still, over time this mishmash structure has leached power from the mayor’s office to the benefit of Montreal’s 19 boroughs. “Montreal has made itself unmanageable,” says Stephen Leopold, a Montreal real estate magnate who worked for years in New York City.

It is perhaps why the slate of candidates vying for mayor don’t inspire Giuliani-style change. The presumptive front-runner, Denis Coderre, is a six-term Liberal MP who oversaw the Quebec wing of the federal Liberals during the party’s dark days of the sponsorship scandal. His team is largely made up of politicians from Union Montréal—the very party alleged to have raised thousands in illegal donations, according to testimony at Quebec’s corruption inquiry.

Also in the running is Marcel Côté, a successful businessman who has nonetheless hitched his electoral wagon to a coalition made up of sovereignists he himself spent his career deriding. There’s Bergeron, a three-time mayoral candidate of the left-leaning Projet Montréal and noted 9/11 “truther.” The pack is rounded out by Mélanie Joly, a 34-year-old political neophyte; and Michel Brûlé, an anti-English pamphleteer.

To be clear, Montreal’s fortunes aren’t nearly as dire as what New York faced back then—or even as grim as many in the city tend to think they are now. And change is still possible. But precious few cities the size of Montreal have undergone the kind of renaissance needed now without a powerful mayor at the helm. It begs the question: is such a thing even possible?

If, as Franz Kafka once wrote, “every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy,” consider what several bureaucratic attempts to revamp Montreal have wrought on Sherbrooke Street when the city’s main east-west artery is buried under snow.

Sherbrooke Street’s continuous 31 km passes through six city boroughs, each with its own snow-removal crews and budgets, with several Kafkaesque oddities along the way. The downtown boroughs of Ville-Marie and Plateau-Mont-Royal are divided by University Street. After every snowfall, pedestrians and motorists alike can watch the cumbersome dance of each borough’s snow clearing machinery as it trundles into the side streets of downtown Montreal in what amounts to a giant, arbitrary U-turn.

Sherbrooke also runs through three of Montreal’s 15 demerged cities, the residents of which decided in 2004 they wanted no part of the amalgamated Montreal. These, too, have their own crews—and don’t coordinate their activities, snow clearing or otherwise, with the city.

Snow clearing, like garbage collection and sewage treatment, is the most elemental of municipal responsibilities. As the Sherbrooke Street exercise shows, the city has managed to complicate what should be a straightforward task. It isn’t entirely Montreal’s fault; its system of governance was foisted upon the city by successive provincial governments in what urbanist and professor Gérard Beaudet calls “improvisation and more improvisation, along with a soupçon of bad faith.”

How exactly Montreal became “a Swiss-cheese mess,” as Concordia University professor Harold Chorney once described it, stems from a confluence of the merger mania trend of the late 1990s, and the perpetual language battles familiar to anyone who calls Quebec home. In 2000, the Quebec government, led by the Parti Québécois, instituted the merger of nearly 50 Quebec towns and cities, Montreal included. As with Toronto before it, the main reason was to cut costs.

Many of those former towns and municipalities on the island of Montreal couldn’t bear being forcibly merged with the city—particularly at the hands of a sovereignist government. So prior to the 2001 municipal election, Montreal mayoral candidate Gérald Tremblay proposed a grand solution to keep them happy: each municipality would remain a city unto itself, with a mayor and council with full hiring, taxation, borrowing and legal powers. It wasn’t enough. Despite winning the election, Tremblay, by then mayor, lost 15 former towns to demerger referendums in 2004.

Today, the island of Montreal now has nearly as many merged boroughs (19) as demerged cities. Amalgamated Montreal has four levels of government (borough councillor, borough mayor, municipal councillor, municipal mayor) comprising 105 elected representatives—nine more than Toronto and New York City combined. In 2011, the team at the satirical television show Infoman attempted to chart the structure of Montreal’s government. The results took up nearly an entire wall of a cavernous Radio-Canada recording studio.

Montreal is also a member of the 31-member agglomeration council, a cobbled-together mélange of Montreal’s boroughs and demerged towns; it deals with things like property assessment, public transit, social housing and wastewater treatment. Yet another governmental structure, this one including the island of Montreal and the off-island suburbs flanking the city, is responsible for virtually the same issues as the agglomeration council.

The end result? “Montreal’s mayor has less power, and it’s hard to have a global vision for the city when you are in constant competition with other city and suburb mayors,” says Daniel Gill, a professor of urbanism at Université de Montréal. “Montreal is a lot like its hockey team. Les Canadiens were once great, but they haven’t won the Stanley Cup in a long time. Likewise, we are becoming just an ordinary city as a result, not the international city we once were.”

Montreal’s decentralized borough system has its fans, notably Luc Ferrandez, the borough mayor of the Plateau-Mont-Royal. First elected in 2009, Ferrandez has upended many a status quo in the upwardly bohemian quarter. Under his leadership, several streets have been narrowed to incorporate bike paths, while others have had their traffic reversed, if only to stymie the thousands of suburbanite commuters rolling through the Plateau en route to downtown every day. A fleet of electric cars was made available, snow removal reduced to save money and shrink carbon footprints, while artist studios have been protected from the ravages of real estate speculation. “None of this would have been possible at a city level, because these decisions required risk and political courage, which is much easier if you are dealing with 100,000 people and not 20 times that,” Ferrandez says.

Perhaps, but many others argue such perks in the boroughs need to be weighed against the more serious problems facing Montreal. For more than a year, Montrealers have stood restlessly by as testimony from Quebec’s inquiry into its construction industry detailed long-running price-fixing schemes amongst many of the firms doing business with the city, both in construction and snow removal. Many of those same firms, the inquiry heard, gave prolifically (and illegally) to Union Montréal, the party of three-term former mayor Gérald Tremblay. (Tremblay says he was unaware of any illegal fundraising within his former party.)

As well, several key city managers admitted to taking bribes to fast-track construction projects and approve false contingency payments—all of which, of course, ultimately came out of the Montreal taxpayer’s pocket. What role, exactly, decentralization played in allowing corruption to fester is a matter of debate; as Ferrandez points out, the illegal fundraising and price-fixing schemes mostly took place at the city, not at the borrough, level. Yet a strong and effective mayor would arguably lessen the likelihood of this happening again.

But if a powerful mayor is what’s needed to tackle corruption and the entrenched bureaucracy, the status quo—a weak mayor presiding over a balkanized city—suits the Quebec government just fine. According to columnist and author François Cardinal, whose recent book Réver Montréal (Dream Montreal) dissects and offers solutions to Montreal’s ailments, the last thing Quebec City wants is a unified metropolis to the southwest. Think of the power that mayor would wield had iconic mayor Jean Drapeau’s dream of a truly united Montreal come true: today, he or she would speak for the province’s primary economic engine and the roughly two million people who live here—a quarter of the province’s population. “Montreal is seen as a threat to Quebec’s power. Ever since Drapeau, each government has been worried about Montreal having too much,” Cardinal says. “The city was always kept down to make sure it never got too big. Quebec’s Anglos and immigrants are concentrated here, so the tendency has been to dilute its power, to steamroller it so that it resembles the rest of the province.”

As a long-time Liberal stronghold, the city is either taken for granted by Liberal governments or given up as lost by Péquistes. Regardless of which government is in power, politicians of both stripes would rather pursue the vote-rich suburban ridings around the city, Cardinal says. He points to the Metro extension to the northern suburb of Laval, announced by the provincial government in 2002, even though a heavily populated eastern swath of the island remains unserved. “Montreal is basically under a soft trusteeship of the provincial government. The city has too many masters, and the mayor is but one manager among many,” says Cardinal.

Contrary to popular belief, whoever is elected mayor of Montreal next month isn’t inheriting a lost cause. Corruption within the construction industry has been curbed, thanks largely to the long-running inquiry into the subject. Housing sales are strong. Culturally, the city is as teeming as ever. A recent New York Times article highlighted its vibrant film industry, as well as three consecutive Oscar nominations given to movies by three Montreal-based directors.

Perhaps most notably, the city has a lower crime rate than even present-day New York City—and Toronto, for that matter. “Montreal is actually working despite itself,” says Christian Savard of the pro-urbanism group Vivre en Ville. “The number of cranes on the horizon is up, the number of vacant lots is down. There is no urban decay. The population is stable. Maybe it’s time we stop tearing our hair out over our government and work with what we have.”

But challenges remain. As Montrealers long for a champion, they need not look as far as New York. Montreal’s Drapeau was a nebbish technocrat whose culinary tastes extended only to his beloved cheese and crackers. Yet his nearly three decades in power were marked by the very renaissance Montreal so badly needs today. The city flourished under his watch, from the Metro to Expo 67 to a revitalized downtown core. Part of his secret was to sweat the details. “Montreal’s most successful mayor in the 20th century drove around the city at night to find potholes and had the vision to dream by day. He rallied Montrealers like no mayor in history. That’s what it is going to take,” said Stephen Leopold.

Even if there is a game-changing Drapeau candidate amongst the current slate of mayoral candidates—and that is a big if—he or she will be hemmed in by competing powers in the boroughs, and where the relatively simple act of removing snow from city streets is a bureaucratic feat. Even Drapeau himself might not have been up to the task.