Montreal, Quebec


What do you call a place with 19 mayors, 7 political parties and 5 layers of government that used to be 27 municipalities and then it became 1 city and then it became 19 municipalities?

You call it Montreal.

Or you call it complicated. Or confusing. Or crazy?

For people who think local government is basically the same across Canada, think again. As (I hope) this blog is demonstrating, there are significant and important differences across provinces, and no where is this more true than in Quebec.

Quebec is Canada’s second largest province, home to 8.2 million people and nearly a quarter of Canada’s population. Quebec has 1,134 municipalities – the most of any province, by a long shot. Most municipalities are governed by the Municipal Code of Quebec. Quebec’s 224 cities and towns are governed by the Cities and Towns Act.

Almost half (47.6%) of the province’s population live in just 10 of these cities, and the largest, of course, is Montreal.

Montreal is an old city. Founded in 1642, it was originally called Ville-Marie (“City of Mary”) and for centuries it was the largest city and unquestioned commercial capital of what would become Canada. In wasn’t until the 1970s that Toronto surpassed Montreal as Canada’s largest city. Today Montreal remains Canada’s second largest city, with more than 1.8 million people.

The official language of Montreal is French, making it the second largest French-speaking city in the world after Paris. The city is well known to Canadians and international travelers alike for its many charms: cobblestone streets in the old city, stunning basilicas and architecture, a thriving nightlife (which, combined with a drinking age of 18, makes it a popular spot for student weekend benders), and delicacies such as crepes, poutine and smoked meat sandwiches. Based on my experience this week, I would add man buns to this list. They. Are. Everywhere. Congratulations to the men of Montreal, you’ve totally mastered this one.

The political structure in Montreal is unlike any other in Canada. I did my homework before this leg of the trip to make sure I understood the basic mechanics, but still I find it a bit perplexing. I told this to one of my Montreal interviewees. He laughed and said, “well, it’s simple really.” And then it took him 15 minutes to explain the structure to me.

Maybe it’s me that’s simple.

So while I’m certainly no expert here, let me try to explain how it works.

On January 1, 2002, the Province of Quebec amalgamated 27 municipalities on the Island of Montreal into one unified city. As has been the case with forced amalgamations elsewhere in Canada, this decision was met with much resistance and created extensive political turmoil – so much so that in 2006, after a series of referendums, the Province allowed an unprecedented de-merger, splitting the unified city back into independent smaller municipalities, called boroughs (or ‘arrondissements’ in French, as they are called in Paris). Although it’s been 10 years since the de-merger took place, it is clearly still an active conversation in Montreal. I heard about it – the good, the bad and the ugly – in almost all of my interviews this week.

Montreal city council is a 65-member body which, to my knowledge, makes it the largest city council in Canada. It includes a mayor (who is also the mayor of the borough of Ville-Marie), 18 borough mayors, and 46 councillors.

To Ontarians, this might sound like what we would call a region – but importantly, it’s not a region. The City of Montreal – together with Laval, Longueille and other neighbouring municipalities – is part of the Montreal Metropolitan Community (Communaute de metropolitaine Montreal, or ‘CMM’). It is this body, the CMM, that provides regional planning and coordinating for services such as public transit, garbage collection, and economic development for metropolitan Montreal.

As you would imagine, based on this unusual structure, the role of the mayor in Montreal is unique. He is simultaneously mayor of the Ville-Marie borough, the City of Montreal, and president of the Montreal Metropolitan Community. He holds key positions, as do other mayors, in the leadership of arms length bodies such as boards and commissions. And if that wasn’t enough, he also plays a pivotal role in one of the defining institutions of Montreal politics: local political parties.

Municipal political parties are a different beast than what exists at the federal and provincial levels. For example, the Liberal Party of Canada is 155 years old, enduring for decades as leaders come and go. In contrast, the longest standing active local political party in Montreal is 12 years old, and they tend to rise and fall with their leaders. On Montreal City Council, the party with the most seats is Equipe Denis Coderre (Team Denis Coderre) named for the current mayor, Denis Coderre. In this way, Montreal mayors play an organizing role in municipal politics not seen elsewhere in Canada.

Equipe Denis Coderre was founded for the 2013 municipal election, and today counts 28 of Montreal’s 65 councillors as its members. This group meets before council meetings, in closed session, to review the agenda items and discuss positions. The party has a budget, funded in part by the City of Montreal, and full time staff.

The mayor of Montreal has other power levers not available to other urban mayors in Canada, including the ability to unilaterally appoint an executive committee (which also meets weekly, including in closed session). The mayor selects people for other positions which are unusual in Canada, such as a president of the executive committee (revered by interviewees as a highly influential and powerful role) and a council chair (referred to as a ceremonial appointment because they “have to chair council meetings, so they can’t be as influential” … which made me secret-laugh a bit because in other parts of the country, this is viewed to be a defining part of the mayor’s role).

The mayor also has more formal power than elsewhere in the country. Check out this description from the Cities and Towns Act about the role of the mayor:

The mayor shall exercise the right of superintendence, investigation and control over all the departments and officers or employees of the municipality […] as the executive head of the municipal administration, the mayor shall have the right, at any time, to suspend any officer or employee of the municipality.

Rights of superintendence and control? Suspending any employees? So much for Canada having ‘weak mayors’ (a term I think we should stop using anyway). The legislation goes on to say the mayor must report to council about suspending an officer or employee, and the council can overturn the suspension, but the legislation states that the individual is to receive no salary during this time and it doesn’t require that the council decision take place within a specific period of time.

One of the biggest challenges in conducting a study on the role of the mayor is what to do with the variables associated with personality. Certainly the mayor of Montreal has more formal power – through legislation, through the party structure, through executive committee appointments – but the current mayor, as a person, is also a prolific figure. He’s a former federal cabinet minister and known to have extensive political connections within and beyond Canada’s borders. In the words of one interviewee, “over 35 years in politics, he’s shaken the hand of everyone he’s met.” It was also described to me that “federal and provincial leaders know they are, and always will be, in his shadow in Montreal” (and if you have any doubts about this, you should probably watch this clip of the mayor taking a jackhammer to a federal government installed concrete pad for a community mailbox, later stating “I think I made my point”).

How much of mayoral power is about the person, and how much is the role? It’s difficult to know. This same challenge is faced by people studying American presidents or any other type of leader. In reality, it’s probably a combination of features – legislative, institutional, personal, and more – which shape the power of the role.

(But – if you have a brilliant idea about how to treat the personality variable, EMAIL ME).

The role of the mayor in Montreal is unique, but as we’re learning, it’s unique in every city. I was struck this week by how open people are in talking about the challenges of local government in Montreal – the struggles of amalgamation and de-amalgamation, the notorious history of corruption, the sense that the city has been in a state of decline for several decades – but also the many innovations occurring within local government, including the regional approach to transportation and economic development. Montreal’s unique structure also raises broader questions about the trade offs between openness and transparency and the efficiency of decision making. Montreal certainly is an interesting case, with many lessons for the rest of Canada.

I’m now on the train heading home, marking the half way point of this journey with completed visits in five of Canada’s ten provinces. Already this has experience has provided an education of a lifetime about local government in Canada, and I’m humbled by the many people who have shared their time and insight with me along the way. There are some clear patterns emerging, but I’m trying to keep an open mind and not come to any conclusions until the research is complete. This is proving harder than it sounds.

For now, I’ll enjoy a few days at home. My bag has a (well wrapped) Montreal smoked meat sandwich in it for my husband, which I will try to use as leverage when I ask him to consider growing a man bun (and if you know my husband, you’ll know I probably shouldn’t hold my breath on this one). I’m glad to be taking home a little taste of Montreal after getting a taste of the city’s complicated, confusing (and crazy) politics.




Montreal City Hall.



… and if you thought that was nice, you should see it at night!



My badge of honour. #keener



A delicious dinner at Le Club Chasse & Peche.



La vie est belle.