Hanes: Cultural weight versus weak political weight is the Montreal paradox

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The road to power therefore passes through the regions. But whoever wins the Quebec elections will not be able to ignore Montreal for long.

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After the first week of the Quebec election campaign, the five main party leaders finally traveled to Montreal on the weekend — but mainly because they were all taking part in a special Radio-Canada program where each was interviewed individually.

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Then they left for the four corners of Quebec.

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Montreal has long been at the heart of a provincial election paradox. It is perhaps the largest city in Quebec, with a quarter of the population living on the island of Montreal and the other half in the surrounding metropolitan area. It is perhaps the only French-speaking metropolis in North America. It is perhaps the economic engine of Quebec. But it only has about a fifth of the seats in the National Assembly – 27 out of 125.

The road to power therefore passes through the regions. The political weight of Montreal, electorally speaking, does not correspond to its cultural, demographic and commercial weight. At campaign time, the city is often an afterthought – and sometimes after the dust settles, too.

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But whoever wins the next election won’t be able to ignore Montreal for long.

When Mayor Valérie Plante shared her wish list for the city ahead of the campaign launch, her top priority was a new fiscal deal that will give Montreal the means to fund all of its programs, services and infrastructure needs.

The “Montreal reflex” negotiated by its predecessor in 2016 must expire in 2024. But a major tax reform is more necessary than ever.

Montreal relies on residential and commercial property tax revenues, which represent 63% of the $6.4 billion operating budget. If the method was expensive and outdated before the COVID-19 pandemic, it is even more so after the closures pushed small businesses to the brink and emptied downtown office towers or the inflation has squeezed homeowners into a tough housing market.

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At the same time, increasingly complex social problems require a vigorous response from the city.

The Plante administration has done what it could with the powers at its disposal. On housing, it adopted a regulation requiring that a certain proportion of social and affordable units be included in any new project that risks financially penalizing promoters. The city is also setting up a rental property registry to track price increases and renovations.

But homelessness is a public health problem that Montreal cannot solve alone. Nor can it single-handedly solve a spasm of gun violence, which requires funding for additional policing and community prevention programs. On these fronts and on so many others, the City is often reduced to moving forward with the provincial or federal governments. Otherwise, Montreal’s ability to act is limited by what it can afford to do.

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A new tax deal for the city will be a significant challenge for the party that forms the next government. But he’s not getting much traction on the campaign trail.

The Quebec Liberal Party, which won 19 of its 31 seats in Montreal in 2018, is proposing a Charter of the Regions. He devotes a section of his manual to trying to stimulate the economic development of the regions and to attract more immigrants from Greater Montreal. But there is no proportionate policy for the metropolis.

After the Coalition Avenir Québec came to power in 2018 with only two seats on the island of Montreal, there was often friction between Premier François Legault and Plante. Legault was more focused on his suburban and regional base. And his priorities for the city (opening up the east and improving transport for suburban commuters) did not necessarily correspond to those of Plante (greening urban areas and developing public transport).

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Once Plante won a resounding second term, they finally learned to work together on pressing matters, like proceeding with a truncated version of the Eastern REM.

But old antagonisms die hard. On his Radio-Canada show on Sunday, Legault accused Montrealers of despising the region’s residents by opposing the controversial “third link” tunnel project between Quebec and Lévis.

The Conservatives have several policies specific to Quebec City, including supporting the Third Link (with a bridge instead of a tunnel) and replacing a proposed streetcar with free bus service. But some of their other proposals, like expanding freeways and banning rent registries, would run counter to Plante’s vision.

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It’s not just about being on the same wavelength as the administration. Montrealers come from diverse cultural, racial, religious and linguistic backgrounds and therefore have varying perspectives, concerns and viewpoints. In this regard, the Québec solidaire platform speaks to Montreal voters by committing to fight systemic racism and promote diversity — while seeking to make Quebec independent. The Canadian Party of Quebec also appealed to the concentration of Anglophones and minorities in Montreal by emphasizing rights and bilingualism.

Without specifically mentioning Montreal or going into details, the Parti Québécois platform promises tax reform to give municipalities more diversified sources of revenue.

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As its name suggests, only the newly created Bloc Montreal party explicitly favors granting the City powers justified by its status.

Chief Balarama Holness, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor last fall, is calling for Montreal to be granted greater autonomy, acknowledging that while Quebec is “distinct within Canada, Montreal is distinct within the Quebec in terms of its multicultural, multiethnic and multilingual heritage”.

The Bloc Montreal is asking for the repatriation of 20% of provincial sales tax revenues, since half of the $22 billion collected annually is generated in the metropolis. That would boost Montreal’s revenue to $8 billion from about $6 billion. It would also reduce funds for non-residents with a $5 congestion charge, the proceeds of which would be funneled back into public transit and infrastructure.

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These may be some of the ideas that will emerge when the City holds its own consultations on tax reform this fall.

But historically, provincial governments have been reluctant to cede more independence to cities, not just in Quebec, but across Canada. Constitutionally, municipalities are “creatures of the province”. And the provinces frankly prefer to keep them on a leash, for both practical and petty reasons.

As the campaign continues, most party leaders are unlikely to promise to make city finances more sustainable or to empower Montreal, justified as that may be.

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  1. Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, left, announced a

    Hanes: In addition to new revenue tools, Montreal deserves respect

  2. Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, left, and Quebec Transport Minister Chantal Rouleau, far right, hold the latest blue line plan for the Montreal metro on March 18, 2022, with the Minister of Canadian Heritage , Pablo Rodriguez, on the right, and the president of the STM, Éric Alan Caldwell.

    Hanes: What Montreal needs from the next Quebec budget

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