Montreal’s Decentralized Powerlessness

Community Organizing International

downtown-montrealMontreal Spring is still an unconfirmed rumor here it turned out, as afternoon winds signaled a front lowering the temperature from a sunny day to what ended up as 15 degrees and a wind chill beneath contempt. Fortunately for Judy Duncan, ACORN Canada’s Head Organizer, and Jill O’Reilly, the head organizer for Ottawa ACORN, we had spent hours during the morning getting a tutorial from two of the preeminent experts – and authors – about the Montreal community organizing experience: Eric Shragg and Jean Panet-Raymond.

In 1986 a watershed in local governance occurred with the creation of “boroughs” as subdivided parts of the municipal government and the regional government on the island of Montreal. The borough’s councilors elected by districts who come from what were usually three “recognized” neighborhoods of various sizes composing the boroughs. Within these groups are various sets of committees, some of which include local community-based organization staff, that deal with various programs like family and children, youth, and so forth. Bottom line being that these municipal functions have been pushed down to the boroughs for handling. If citizens and their community organizations want to make something happen in these areas they have to push the boroughs, councils, and committees. It won’t surprise anyone to hear that this level of bureaucracy is stupefying producing more discouragement and meeting fatigue. Engagement by a few turned out to have been bartered away against the hope of power for the many.

Jean at one point opened up a laptop to show us a organizational chart of sorts for his borough. It occupied a full dense page on a huge Mac I-book screen and thankfully the half-dozen colors kept the eyes from rolling back inside my head, but, wow! The way that government had crushed the dream out of the hopes for decentralization and the edge and excitement out of what had been a the exciting success during the late 1970’s and 1980’s of community based organizations in Montreal, was simply depressing.

More confounding was any quick resolution to this conundrum. The boroughs now have the full legal responsibility for these governmental functions, so citizens and their organizations are stuck in the rat maze here. The city council has relatively little power as well we heard, but the executive committee composed of less than a dozen from both major parties is the real power, but its operations are totally non-transparent. There is no “open meetings” law in Montreal, so business at this level, including handling the always tricky issues of development, is impossible to watch and stop. The mayor as the elected head of the city and the regional government has the big stick, but by this point I was almost to confused to puzzle out how to hold his feet to the fire, since there seemed to be small twigs burning everywhere without enough blaze to generate heat.

Neighbors still felt real and important though even if change was moving in difficult directions. The level of tenancy is dropping for example in the wave of condos. Unemployment is high for minorities despite speaking French.

Montreal felt like a great and exciting city, and a huge challenge for working and moderate income families who are urgently pushing to find – and hold on – to their place in the city.