Skip to main content

A Surete du Quebec police car sits outside the doors of Montreal City Hall during a raid by the province's anti-corruption squad in Montreal, February 19, 2013.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

This is part of a series of interviews with authors nominated for a political-writing prize. Read about the world's best public transit and watch Jeffrey Simpson on how to fix health care.

Montreal is a mess. The point is hardly matter for debate any more.

Most obviously, a corruption inquiry has shown how the public works contracting system was a nest of corruption for much of the past several decades. But Peter F. Trent, the mayor of the wealthy city-within-the-city named Westmount, documents in meticulous detail how a more insidious problem has left the island with a spider's web of cities, boroughs, councillors and mayors, which, at last count, left the city with more than 100 elected officials. Bewildered citizens require a roadmap to understand who is responsible for what.

And the original sin, according to Mr. Trent, was the 2002 amalgamation of hundreds of Quebec cities and towns, including 28 municipalities on the Island of Montreal, all forced by the Parti Québécois government under Lucien Bouchard and his successor, Bernard Landry.

Court battles, debates and referenda over undoing amalgamation (known in Quebec as "demergers") would dominate half a decade of municipal and provincial politics in Montreal, leaving it finally, in 2006, as a hodgepodge of isolated municipalities and layered governance.

Mr. Trent's book The Merger Delusion: How Swallowing its Suburbs Made an Even Bigger Mess of Montreal is nominated for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.

Municipal amalgamation is a complicated and unsexy topic. Congratulations on being nominated for a prize for writing about something that could leave a seasoned city hall reporter in tears.

In a way it's easier to write 700 pages than 400 words. It is a rather complex issue. What I bring out, I hope at least, it's not just a question of mergers, but the way they were done. It brings out important issues about governance in this country. While I make the point that it was an egregious error of public policy, it's not just what was done, but how it was done that upset me and many other people. Quebec was engaged in an abuse of power. The Canadian Constitution gives life and death power over municipalities. We are the constitutional castrati of Canada. Because they can use the power, they do use the power. They did this in Halifax in 1996, in Toronto in 1998, and with us a few years later, with disastrous results.

Why was it a disaster?

Before 212 municipalities across Quebec were merged against their will, we were told mergers would save money, we were told mergers would redirect suburban tax revenue to centre core, we were told mergers were a worldwide trend. We were told mergers always imposed in Quebec. We were told mergers were urgent. None of those things were true. They knew it at the time. They had studies that showed it wasn't true, but they still went ahead.

Why did the province persist if they knew the economic benefits would never be realized?

There are a number of reasons. It was a fad. It was lemming logic. Montreal has always had this rivalry with Toronto. Toronto suddenly became 2.5 million people. Here's sad Montreal with a million people. They needed to bulk it up, so they simply annexed the suburbs.

The second thing was the PQ thought it would lead to some kind of linguistic mixing. Bernard Landry in 2002 or 2003 said it was the most beautiful attempt at cultural integration in history. They thought if they absorbed English communities, it would help to spread French in the island of Montreal. But it wasn't the main goal. There were dozens of municipalities merged that had hardly any anglos. The linguistic side was only a small, but important part.

The linguistic side came to dominate the public debate, in part because you, the mayor of Westmount, that symbol of English domination in Montreal, was leading the fight. Do you have any regrets?

I don't have any regrets, but it was a massive cross I had to bear as an Anglo and mayor of Westmount. It has an iconic power in Quebec. Don't forget, this battle was going to be won and lost in French. The minute I was interviewed on television or radio, the minute the words "Mayor of Westmount" came out of the mouth of the reporter, that was the end of it. Whatever I said was discounted. Nobody listened to what I had to say, it was just about who I was. It was something I really resented and part of the difficulty I had fighting this fight. If I had been Pierre Laframboise, mayor of Verdun, I wouldn't have had that problem. I may have been a lot more effective. During the mergers and the demergers the fact I was mayor of Westmount was a huge handicap.

Where has all of this left Montreal?

I've calculated the megacity costs Montreal about $400-million a year in extra cost, on an operating budget of $5-billion. At its worst, corruption cost the city $100-$150-million a year on the capital budget of $1-billion. The cost of the merger dwarfs the cost of corruption. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying forget corruption. But you have everyone running around getting to the bottom of corruption, but who looks at the fact it costs $400-million a year more to run the city of Montreal. The city is dysfunctional. They can't seem to decide if they want it to be centralized or decentralized. You have to decide which foot you're going to dance on.

This interview has been edited and condensed.