The dream of "one island, one city" for Montreal has been transformed into a linguistic divide, some observers say after Sunday night's so-called municipal demerger referendums in Quebec.
Almost all the former cities on the island that chose to return to their old boundaries have a strong number of English-speaking residents and have turned their back on the opportunity to be integrated into a cosmopolitan city, the Parti Québécois said.
"There are cities in the world that have suffered from this type of divide and instead of being integrated have become a sort of mosaic of perpetual tensions," PQ Leader Bernard Landry said yesterday. "It is rather paradoxical that the most federalist premier in modern Quebec history is the one who dismantled Montreal."
Premier Jean Charest's Liberals were elected on a promise to allow referendums on undoing the merger of municipalities.
The leader of Montreal's opposition at city hall, former mayor Pierre Bourque, called the result a serious setback that has amputated a major portion of the city and will accentuate linguistic divisions.
All but one of the 15 boroughs that voted to separate from Montreal are in the western portion of the island. Most have a strong contingent of English-speaking residents who wanted to return the city boundaries to what they were before the forced mergers in 2000. And some have promoted the idea of amalgamating to protect the identity of the western part of the island.
"It is not my choice. It is not my will," Municipal Affairs Minister Jean-Marc Fournier said, although he didn't deny that an amalgamated city could emerge on the West Island one day.
Mr. Fournier said the government promised citizens the right to decide their future, and it delivered. He blamed the PQ mergers for the linguistic tensions and rejected media arguments that Montreal's demerger battle has divided French- and English-speaking residents.
"Is the demerger a choice just for people who speak English? If that's what people are trying to say, that is not true," Mr. Fournier said. "It's not the story of one group against the other; it's people on the island [building]a place for themselves to live."
The results showed that all the anglophone enclaves on the island such as Westmount, Hampstead and Côte-Saint-Luc voted to separate. Even so, Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay also rejected the argument that an ethnic-linguistic divide was the reason.
"Montrealers don't want to relive their past. They deserve a lot better than these kinds of discussions," Mr. Tremblay said yesterday.
With the demergers, Mr. Tremblay has lost an important part of his base of support and could face an uphill battle when he seeks re-election, probably in November, 2005.
Mr. Charest, who lives in Westmount and voted against undoing the amalgamation, has yet to react to the referendum results.
His government acknowledged that the issue was far from being resolved. Some of the boroughs obtained a simple majority to separate, but will remain a part of Montreal because they did not meet the required turnout of 35 per cent of registered voters. Some of those communities are threatening to challenge the referendum result before the courts. Others say they could launch a legal battle to win back all the powers that were taken away as part of the law adopted last December that allowed the demerger referendums.
Transition teams have been set up to pave the way for the de-amalgamation, with municipal elections to be held by November of 2005. However, the mayor of Longueuil faces a major credibility problem after four major boroughs out of seven voted to separate from the megacity. Mr. Fournier said if the transition goes smoothly, municipal elections could be held earlier, perhaps next spring.