Montreal Municipal Musings: The Political Faucet: Turning Supporters On And Off

On the night of the May 2, 2011 federal election which saw the NDP come out of nearly nowhere to win close to 80% of the seats in Quebec, I wondered whether and to what extent the NDP’s surprise surge in this province would serve to strengthen the ongoing struggles for social change. Among the emotions stirred in me by the “orange crush” was a strange feeling of déjà-vu; I was brought back to the Montreal municipal election of 1986 in which my party at the time, the Rassemblement des citoyennes et citoyens de Montréal – (RCM)/ Montreal Citizens’ Movement (MCM) swept into power winning 55 of the 58 seats. I remember feeling a bit morose that evening amid the celebrations, thinking that a bare majority – say 30 of 58 seats – would be likely to produce a far more progressive, experienced, politicised caucus than the one elected that night. Six months prior to the election a goodly number of new councillors had not even been members of the party. And indeed this Pyrrhic election victory spelled the end of the MCM as a progressive community-based movement.

The MCM’s transformation transpired in short order. Within two years, many on the left of the party  either dropped out of municipal electoral politics or resigned to found or join new smaller parties. This was not only due to the influx of a crop which included notaries, small business owners and Rotary Club types into an MCM caucus previously composed of activists with long experience as community and union organisers. It was more because once in office, the MCM’s attitude towards the public and the groups that had brought it to power changed virtually overnight.


Grass-roots interest in municipal politics

Starting in the late 1960s, Montreal’s social activists in many sectors started to focus on the undemocratic City Hall as a common enemy. Tenants’ rights organisations, urban renewal and heritage associations, community health and legal clinics, women’s and student groups and an increasing politicized union movement all perceived the closed-closed-door old boys’ club of Jean Drapeau’s administration as a major impediment to many of their aspirations.  Drapeau was protected by a brutal police force (in the 1960s, the City spent more on police horses than on public housing) and by a civil service under strict orders never to speak to journalists. The movement that coalesced into the Front d’Action Politique (FRAP) just before the 1970 municipal elections saw the takeover of City Hall as a means to bring about  fundamental social change in the city. Brandishing slogans such as “Les salariés au pouvoir” and “Brisons l’isolement de nos luttes,” the FRAP program called for a far-reaching decentralization of municipal decision-making towards neighbourhood-based councils (conseils de quartier), the end to tax-exemption for religious properties and the eventual “municipalisation” of all property in the city. Participation in the electoral process was seen by many activists as but one tactic in the ongoing fight for social justice: elected councillors could serve to legitimize and facilitate the essential work being carried out in communities, workplaces, schools, and so on.  1970 was the first time in at least 30 years that class issues had been openly raised in a municipal election campaign.

That FRAP’s challenge to the municipal power structure was viewed as a significant threat is evidenced by the particular attention it attracted when martial law was declared in October 1970, due to an “apprehended insurrection.” FRAP was painted as a “front” for the FLQ and several high-profile candidates in the upcoming municipal election were imprisoned. Drapeau’s slate won every seat on Council come election day.


The Rise of the MCM

The next municipal election in 1974 witnessed the birth of the MCM, which characterized itself more as a party than a movement, although associated with neighbourhood political organizing (“nothing more than a municipal NDP,” sneered some grass-roots activists). The MCM sought to incorporate the municipal concerns of many organizations into its agenda and forged an impressive 90-page program on the politics of municipal services, including free public transit, the demilitarization of the police, an increase in public and subsidized housing and community control over local policies. During its 12 years in Opposition, MCM councillors developed an intimate knowledge of the workings of municipal government and, aided by the press that finally had people at Council willing to talk to them, became the parliamentary spokespersons on a wide variety of social and community issues.

During those years, the MCM deliberately fueled the political hopes of some Montrealers that a change in the municipal administration would liberate the city. Election campaign slogans such as “Changeons Montréal pour le vrai” and “Votez pour vous,” while not explicitly radical, did suggest a substantial reform in power relations after an election victory.

As momentum built towards the November 1986 election (and accelerated geometrically when Drapeau announced his intention not to run again),  the MCM became increasingly  averse to making specific commitments concerning its politics of change. Those in the party pushing for significant political decentralization were told to put their expectations on hold until an administrative regionalization was carried out. It became clear that with electoral victory looming, a strategy to diminish expectations was on the order paper.



An early victim was the party organization itself; the new municipal administration, led by Jean Doré, hired many party members as political attachés, which, together with the 55 elected Councillors, drained the party’s intellectual and political resources. Those elected representative and members worried that the parliamentary wing was drifting from the party program were no match for the high-profile mayor who proclaimed his allegiance to “all Montrealers” rather than to the program on which he had been elected.. Many councillors, all too aware that their election was due more to the Mayor’s popularity on election day than to their constituents’ support for details in the MCM program, backed Doré unquestioningly. Party membership, artificially inflated during the election campaign, plummeted as internal dissent  became  taboo.

Another means of damping expectations was to deliver precious little on issues that were dear to many community and social activists. And what few changes were forthcoming were enmeshed in a strangulating bureaucracy: an affirmative action program for hiring minorities which was so timid that it would take 70 years for the municipal civil service to mirror the ethnic and racial make-up of the city as it stood in 1986; an anti-apartheid policy, adopted after provincial government amendments to the City Charter which continued to allow the Benson & Hedges fireworks competition and the City’s purchase of Shell products, etc.

The most significant failure to deliver was in the area of political decentralization, for years, the MCM’s mantra. A new extensive consultation policy left all real power in the hands of the City’s Executive Committee, which still met behind closed doors. The new Borough Consultative Committee, composed exclusively of local councillors rather then delegates of street committees, was given a jurisdiction limited to offering the Executive Committee advice. Commissions of City Council could hold extensive hearings, but the Executive Committee retained a monopoly on bringing legislation before Council.

The administration’s first slogan became “Une enterprise de services publics à la population” – no longer an agent of social change, but a service corporation, not of, but for the public….

This being said, the Doré Administration did introduce some substantial changes during its 8-year tenure (1986-1994): modernization of the civil service, development of the City’s first master Urban Plan, massive investment in non-profit housing and industrial land-banking, attention to cultural infrastructure and the expansion of the decrepit library system, among others. But rather than giving “power to the people,” users were excluded from control and oversight. Para-municipal corporations were set up in areas of municipal interests outside the control of City Council, such as acquiring non-profit housing and creating industrial parks.  A subsequent decline in real-estate values left several of these corporations responsible for mortgages worth substantially more than the properties’ market value, requiring the City to absorb a quarter of a billion dollars of shaky debt.

Having deliberately demobilized its base of community support, the MCM administration could no longer count on popular support. When the (Liberal) provincial government, in a “reform” of municipal financing policy, cut much of its own contribution to municipal services such as public transport and forced the City to impose surtaxes on commercial and industrial property, the Doré administration, not in the habit of mobilizing the masses, tried back-room negotiations with a deaf provincial government. When municipal tax bills arrived, the masses held Doré responsible and were not interested in listening to any legalistic exculpatory explanations.

An even starker illustration of how the MCM in power alienated its erstwhile base was in connection with the control of parking meters.  The Doré administration had announced the establishment of yet another para-municipal corporation to operate this municipal “business,” previously administered by a municipal department. It was no longer clear whether parking policy was still be part of an urban planning vision or primarily a profit-making venture.  The day the enabling legislation was to be adopted by the provincial  government, the Doré administration (bear in mind that the Mayor had once been the leader of a low-income consumer rights advocacy group and a lawyer for the CSN trade union federation) turned over control of the parking meters to a new body run by the Chamber of Commerce, which in turn was allowed to use part of the net revenues for entrepreneurship grants, outside of City Council’s purview. So much for “les salariés au pouvoir.”


Moving Bourque-wards

After the MCM’s defeat in 1994 (Doré would run again in 1998 with a pro-business party against his former MCM colleagues), the new administration of Mayor Pierre Bourque proceeded to dismantle whatever transformations the MCM had managed to achieve. Chanting “we don’t consult, we act!” councillors from the Mayor’s Vision Montreal party had no use for community involvement.

The Urban Plan, one of the jewels of the MCM’s legacy, was amended over a hundred times during Bourque’s first mandate – in fact, nearly every time a developer sought authorization for a project the rules prohibited. Vision councillors downplayed concerns about principles of coherent urban planning: “If it will expand the tax base, then I’m in favour.” The Urban Planning department itself was merged with the Economic Development department — clearly a conflict of interest. Big Box stores invaded residential neighbourhoods with the blessing of City Hall.

By 2000, the grassroots groups that had invested energy in trying to make municipal government an agent of social change had given up on City Hall.

Yet within a year there was a resurgence of public interest in Montreal municipal politics, though, I would argue, for all the wrong reasons. The social agenda wound up being pushed even further to the sidelines.

Fusion and Confusion

The then reigning Parti Québecois decided to restructure municipalities across the province. In the case of the Montreal region, 29 municipalities on the Island of Montreal were to be merged. Rather than open a conversation about which services were best suited to regional control and which could benefit from decentralisation, and what form of representation would be most effective in a new democratic metropolis, the debate quickly turned shrill and raucous; the main concern seemed to be whether the tax rates in the soon-to-be-former suburbs would rise or decrease marginally. Many suburbanites resented the heavy-handedness of the forced mergers and worried that they would lose their own democratic and participatory practices in the centralizing hands of the larger city.  For their part, many Montrealers accused the suburbs of not wanting to assume their fair share of metropolitan expenses. Certain predominantly English-speaking suburbs feared losing their language rights under article 1 of the new City’s Charter, which stated, “Montréal is a French-speaking city.”

By the time the dust finally settled after several years, during which a new Liberal provincial government allowed certain suburbs to regain part of their previous autonomy, the idea of municipal government as an agent of progressive social change was a relic of a bygone era.  Bourque abandoned municipal politics in an ill-fated attempt to win a provincial seat for a right-wing populist party, and the new Mayor, former provincial Liberal Cabinet minister Gérald Tremblay presided over a party with little political substance. An odd blend of some MCM veterans, some local political bosses from the former suburbs and many neophytes, the new administration’s achievements (such as long-needed increase in public transit ridership) have been significantly overshadowed by its political ineptitude.  Faced with serious inquiries into corruption in the awarding of large municipal contracts for water meters, with evidence of Executive Committee members receiving benefits from construction contractors, with allegations of improper contributions to party funds, Mayor Tremblay’s stock response is that he was not aware… The Mayor has reacted awkwardly to public ire about the attempted imposition of changes to the name of an important street, and the recent cat-and-mouse accusations of municipal officials spying on civil servants’ (including the City Auditor) and councillors’ e-mail accounts do not attract positive attention from social activists. It is hard for housing organisers to take seriously an administration where an active real estate agent has responsibilities for zoning; nor can minorities or civil libertarians take seriously an administration spokesperson who denies that racial profiling is an issue while City lawyers try to stifle provincial inquiries into the police killing of minority youths.

Curiously, the Tremblay administration pulled the carpet out from under one of its own rare laudable attempts to modify the existing balance of power; one of the boroughs in which Tremblay’s party held a majority, the Plateau-Mont-Royal, undertook to implement a participatory process for determining the borough’s budget. The process included many public discussion meetings, demonstrating more transparency than had been seen on such issues in quite a while. Just before the last election, the borough Mayor was unceremoniously parachuted into another borough and the Mayor’s party promptly lost every seat in that borough to Projet Montreal, a new party originally perceived as a single-issue pro-streetcar lobby.

Ever mindful of the will of the people, Mayor Tremblay proceeded to name some of his losing candidates to important positions, such as the Chair of the Transit Commission, where they earn far more they would have had they won the election (a trick from Mayor Tremblay’s playbook borrowed more recently by  Stephen Harper).

And now..

The last 25 years of Montreal politics has amply demonstrated that if you ignore and frustrate groups fighting for change, you will finish by losing their loyalty, their support and their interest. Projet Montreal is now starting to broaden its appeal by investing energy in a certain number of social and community issues and we shall have to wait and see whether this relatively young party will succeed in renewing interest among social activists in municipal politics as an avenue of social change.

To return to May 2, 2011: the NDP, which has won most of the Montreal seats in Ottawa, faces a challenge similar to that of the MCM. I have no idea how many of the new MPs and the members of their riding associations – if they have any – have ever heard of the Regina Manifesto, or the likes of Tommy Douglas, J.S. Woodsworth, David Lewis or the corporate welfare bums. History has no shortage of politicians with a moustache, a cane and a smile who did not advance the cause of social justice. Getting Quebec voters to opt for orange the next time around requires building trust one vote at a time. That process demands principle and backbone. If the new NDP can attract the support of community activists and work hard to maintain their allegiance – probably the politicians’ hardest task – then social movements in Quebec may come to find some value in federal politics.


An observer of and participant in Montreal politics for over four decades, Sam Boskey was a City Councillor for 16 years (1982-1998), including several stints as Leader of the Opposition.