Handle with Care

Cities don’t just collect our garbage; they help make us who we are

I live in Vancouver. Sort of. I tell people who need to know these things that I live in Mount Pleasant, which cues them that my house is in one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city, part of the ring that is the intertidal zone between Vancouver’s downtown and its more suburban-feeling neighbourhoods.

It has the lively street life (hopping Main Street and its 10,000 coffee bars) and the grittiness (drug needles, break-ins, traffic noise) of the city core, but it still has a semi-suburban tranquillity in certain places and times. My backyard is an oasis of green, where I watch the raccoons and the crows fight it out.

Mount Pleasant feels like a separate principality—I joke sometimes that I won’t travel the ten blocks to the next nearest arterial street, Cambie, because it is just “too far”—but it is not. In fact, I do not even have a city councillor I can call my own because Vancouver, unlike Toronto or Calgary, does not have a ward system. Instead, everyone in the city votes for a roster of ten city-wide councillors.

On the other hand, I am also a citizen of the Greater Vancouver Regional District, which does not just include Mount Pleasant and, by extension, Vancouver, but 21 other municipalities, including the ones where I grew up (North Vancouver), lived while I went to university (Burnaby) and shared a house with a boyfriend in the 1970s (Richmond).

I pay taxes to this regional entity, which is the last of the major unamalgamated municipal federations in Canada, as well as to a regional transportation authority. With my contribution to the region, I get my water from the North Shore mountains, the sewage from my house is dumped in Richmond, my garbage goes to Delta and I benefit from a rapid transit system that swooshes me to Surrey or Coquitlam in minutes.

So what am I a citizen of? My neighbourhood, the place I identify the most closely with at the moment? The specific city whose political boundaries I live within? Or the region, which gives me my most basic services?

Those unspoken questions simmer beneath the Sturm und Drang in Peter Trent’s The Merger Delusion: How Swallowing Its Suburbs Made an Even Bigger Mess of Montreal, a hefty book that describes the great political battles around Quebec’s decision to force municipal amalgamations, or mergers, in 2000 and then the subsequent decision to allow municipalities to hold demerger referenda four years later. There is an awful lot of material in here that only a small-bore politician could love—endless accounts of meetings and analysis of governance structures—but there are also vivid accounts of the real emotional anguish and protests that the proposed merger produced. It ends with a lengthy chapter of evidence on how much more money the megacity has ended up costing everyone.

Trent was the mayor of Westmount, a place with slightly fewer residents—about 20,000—than my Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, before and after the merger spasm. He led the movement to resist it and later successfully campaigned for Westmount to secede from the Montreal megacity. The book recounts all of that in excruciating detail, complete with quotes from his letters, speeches and debates of the time. Even I, a noted urban-policy wonk, was somewhat daunted by an account of merger politics that does not arrive at the actual introduction of merger legislation on November 15, 2000, until page 303 in Chapter 12.

But that is because this book is also only nominally about mergers. Instead, it is partly about the sense of urban identity that never quite matches the political boundaries. It is partly about government bureaucracy run amok. It is a lot about Quebec politics, from language laws to the power of unions to the province’s unshakeable love for its rural regions over its biggest city. And, finally, it is the story of Trent’s political life, the settings it took place in, from his living room to Westmount City Hall, and the characters in it, like “otherworldly” former Montreal mayor Pierre Bourque, “saturnine” former premier Lucien Bouchard, to “icily polite” Louise Harel, the Parti Québécois minister who brought in the merger legislation.

Trent’s book is so steeped in the local that it is hard to draw general lessons from it. He acknowledges that both Nova Scotia and Ontario went through their own love affairs with municipal amalgamation, which resulted in a merged Halifax in 1996 and a merged Toronto in 1998. Trent makes a few scoffing references to the PQ politicians’ assertions that amalgamation is a worldwide trend. But we never hear a word about other Canadian experiences with mergers, including Winnipeg, forcibly amalgamated in 1972, or Vancouver, which has mysteriously escaped the amalgamation winds for decades, or St. John’s, which has expanded through a series of amalgamations over the decades and was considering another round as recently as last year but abandoned it.

Frequently, a reader could get the impression from Trent’s book that Quebec politicians were unique in their love of amalgamation because of certain cultural predispositions. The French (as he calls them) have a different attitude to the state than the English. “The former tends to be top down, the latter bottom up. The English are concerned about individual and minority rights; the French feel it makes sense for the majority, the collectivité, to rule.” Bureaucrats, and their predilection for neatness, principles and running the state more efficiently get a better hearing from politicians in Quebec and France than in the anglo world. “The tension that exists in anglo societies between the bureaucrats and the elected officials is almost non-existent in Quebec.”

We are led to believe that this love of the state and of tidiness were major factors in Quebec’s decision to legislate city amalgamations throughout the province. That would be more plausible if Nova Scotia and Ontario had not just gone through exactly the same upheaval, with many of the same arguments made by the senior politicians in those provinces.

Trent documents the many points brought forward by various Quebec politicians (and their supporting cast, the francophone media) in favour of mergers. There was the perception that “the Island suburbs were … parasitical, living off the City of Montreal.” There was the fretting that having so many little cities must mean a duplication of services and unnecessary expense. There was the sense that, if Montreal wanted to be an urban powerhouse, it needed to become one big city rather than a jumble of villages. There was the assertion that having one giant city would help control suburban sprawl.

As it turns out, the desire to have a big, important city has been a factor for many municipal administrations. Wendell Cox, with the libertarian Frontier Centre for Public Policy, noted in a 2003 paper that New York forced consolidations in 1898 because it was worried that Chicago was getting bigger, and Louisville annexed its neighbouring county in 2000 so it would not be surpassed by Lexington as the largest city in Kentucky.

Western University professor Andrew Sancton, in his own paper in 2003, observed that some analysts explained the trend toward amalgamations as a product of globalization—cities, competing in the international marketplace, needed to bulk up in order to be seen on the world stage. But the statistics do not support that, he decided. There is no general trend toward amalgamations. Instead, amalgamation fever seems to break out only sporadically in disconnected regions and then fade away quickly.

The two other arguments that were part of the Quebec debate also routinely surface in other cities when amalgamation talk comes up. The Conservative government of Mike Harris, determined to reduce the role of government in every way it could, saw amalgamation as a way to have less government. Trent concludes, as have both Cox and Sancton and a number of other analysts, that a larger city ends up costing more than several smaller ones. As all of them point out, municipal salaries in merged cities tend to rise to the level of whichever group was the highest paid among them all. There are very few administrative positions eliminated, because any city manager or planning director dropped is replaced by a new regional assistant city manager or planning director in the new megacity. And no merger can reduce the number of people it takes to pick up a set number of garbage cans or police a set number of roads. Trent elaborates on that in detail, right down to a comparison of firefighter salaries in various jurisdictions, to make his case that “big municipalities cost more than small for at least three reasons: bigger bureaucracies, higher salaries, and uniformity of services.”

And then there is the last big argument that merger proponents make: we in the main city are shelling out for all the big regional services while the rest of you little cities are free riders. Again, that is not restricted to the French. I certainly hear that in Vancouver, as politicians from the City of Vancouver gripe about the high cost of policing or subsidizing civic theatres or selling the city to businesses abroad so that all the municipalities from the region can benefit. (Somehow, they never mention how much more they get in taxes from their downtown businesses where all the suburbanites work, shop, drink and turn out for concerts.)

But I came to conclude that maybe Trent has it right, in a way, by focusing so much on the local fight against mergers in Quebec. Because every amalgamation or secession fight is not, in the end, really about efficiency or fairness or the importance of integrated cities in a globalized world. Instead, the passions they evoke are intensely personal and unique.

So in Montreal, amalgamation is not really about a general trend or a newly discovered management approach. It is about the long history of Westmount as its own little principality, about language laws, about the suspicion that the Parti Québécois government wants to undermine what little power the anglophones have left, about the sense that Quebec politicians have always felt more connected to the rural villages than the big city. Just as in Toronto, the fight ended up really being about the suspicions from City of Toronto urbanites that the province wanted to crush their little bastion of liberalism under the weight of suburban voters.

If anything, Trent’s book demonstrates the strange dual nature of cities. They are, on the one hand, mere service-providing entities that are judged by how quickly and cheaply they sweep the streets and collect the garbage. But they are also our extended identities, our larger families, filled with powerful memories connected to their places and events. Politicians who forget that cities are both of those invite the wrath of their citizens. Some of them write books.