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The Merger Delusion: An Excerpt

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Peter F. Trent
Peter F. Trent

The Huffington Post Canada is delighted to once again be partnering with the Writers' Trust of Canada Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. In the weeks leading up to the March 6 announcement of this year's prize winner, we have been publishing excerpts from each of the five finalists. The authors have personally chosen the portions they'd like to share, and each excerpt begins with a brief explanation of why that particular passage was chosen. Here is the final excerpt before Wednesday's prize announcement.

A note from author Peter F. Trent:

Just over ten years ago, two hundred municipalities all over Quebec were merged against their will. Some were amalgamated into megacities. The governing Parti Québécois had no mandate to do this; moreover, pleading the "urgency" to act, they refused to consult citizens. Besides, we were told, mergers would save money and redirect suburban taxes to the central city. Mergers were supposedly a world-wide trend and had always been imposed in Quebec. None of those claims was true.

Once the legislation imposing the mergers, Bill 170, was rammed through Quebec's National Assembly, there remained only two strategies available to me in fighting a law that wiped out so many municipalities including my own. We could try to overturn Bill 170 in court; and, failing that, to force the opposition Liberal Party to honour their increasingly flaccid promise of "de-merger." The two strategies were interlinked: pursuing the matter in court kept the public's ire on the boil, long enough for the Liberals possibly to get elected and -- with a little help from me -- to bring about the world's first urban de-merger.

Unlike its U.S. counterpart, the Canadian constitution gives provinces the power of life or death over municipalities. Our only hope to stop mergers in court was to plead that the eradication of Quebec's anglophone cities would be unconstitutional. After all, the closure of Montfort Hospital, the only hospital in Ontario that offered services in French, was declared unconstitutional because it endangered the vitality of the francophone minority there.

Montreal's "new" courthouse is completely out of scale and context among the limestone ashlar walls and cobblestone streets of Old Montreal. And for some unknown reason, all three courthouses have been built within writ-throwing distance of each other; it is as if justice in Montreal can only be dispensed from a small patch of legally hallowed ground.

Going to court is a bit like taking the metro or visiting the hospital: all classes of society commingle. Rich businessmen have to go there as well as criminals -- or, these days, perhaps that's redundant. Each courtroom is insulated by a set of double glass doors that create a kind of airlock from the corridor. Walking by, you can see but can't hear cases involving things as varied as patent infringements, divorce proceedings, rape charges, and constitutional challenges. Our case was heard in the Jules Deschênes auditorium, the biggest with nearly three hundred seats. The indigo broadloom and upholstery muffle every sound. In this dry, echoless chamber, the future of our beleaguered municipalities would be determined.

Our aim in going to court was to nullify the effect of both Bill 170, which created the megacity of Montreal, and Bill 171, which changed the criterion for a bilingual municipality from a majority having to be non-francophone to a majority to having to be mother tongue anglophone, thereby putting the "allophones" on the French side of the ledger. Westmount came armed with seven arguments, but only the "minority rights" had any real chance of success.

We were going to argue that a modern democracy can limit the powers of the legislatures, thanks to the Canadian Charter of Rights and constitutional principles. The declaration that the new megacity of Montreal was officially French speaking had a disproportionate effect on the minority English, and the reorganization of the municipal scene, even if justified, was not important enough to warrant these negative effects.

The municipalities fighting Bill 170 had about twenty lawyers on their side, and the attorney-general of Quebec had about twelve. While listening to this surfeit of legal help, I worked out the cost: twenty lawyers for ten days, ten hours a day, times $250 an hour, equalled half a million dollars. It did give two weeks' employment to about a dozen journalists who were present.

The show began on 22 May 2001. The auditorium was filled with mayors, councillors, and citizens from the nineteen municipalities taking legal action. We had briefed all the citizen groups to refrain from making any comment during the proceedings. The burble of the crowd died down as the judge entered and all rose. Jean Marois led off, a bit tentatively, for Westmount, from 9:30 until 10:45 AM. He embarrassingly dwelt -- as he had to do -- on the anglo-British argument: Westmount was the torch-bearer for the anglo-British community and symbol of that community's prestige. Such a community needed control of its own institutions to survive, and this community was in precipitous decline. Bill 170 would accelerate this decline. (This, of course, was to make Westmount look as similar as possible to the Montfort Hospital situation.) I started to cringe. I could see the judge was not really sold on this argument. Marois plunged on. The existence of anglophone municipalities, he said, served as a kind of "pacte de cloisonnement institutionnel," a sort of linguistic non-aggression pact tacitly agreed to by all. He went on to describe the times that Montreal tried to annex Westmount, notably in 1910 and 1960. This time around, however, the government's stated goal was to francize the whole Island. Then Marois changed gears. Westmount was a common-law corporation created under the seal of the lieutenant-governor in 1874. Such a corporation, Marois maintained, could only be dissolved by the founders or their inheritors. The judge did not buy it, but it was unclear to me as to why not.

Next up, from 11:00 to 12:15 was Julius Grey. He just exuded reasonableness and competence with his professorial manner, leaning on his lectern and delivering his exegesis, rarely referring to his notes. He explained that at one point Parliament was indeed sovereign, that it could even abolish the courts if it wanted to. Then the Constitution slowly began to take precedence. The Charter of Rights transformed the Constitution and put limits even on it. "Democracy is no longer just a question of 50 per cent plus," he said. "Paternalism is no longer possible." He went on to say that the Supreme Court has already ruled that the English minority in Quebec needed protection. One did not have to prove that legislators' intent was to infringe on these rights, only that the effect was precisely that. And, he asked the judge, fiscal equity surely could have been achieved by other means than abolishing the municipalities?

Then, at 12:15 Gérald Tremblay (our lead lawyer, not the mayor of Montreal) got up on his hind legs. At his best before lunch, he was in fine form. As a seasoned litigator, he knew that presentation was everything. He held up his copy of Bill 170 to the judge: "This is Bill 170. Bill 170 has seven annexes, each setting out the charter of the seven new megacities that it creates."

He began reading the first line of each annex. "First annex. Article one. The City of Gatineau is hereby constituted. Blah. Blah," he said. "Next annex. Article one. The City of Longueuil is hereby constituted. Blah, blah."

Speeding up, he read, "The City of Saguenay is hereby constituted. The City of Quebec is hereby constituted. The City of Trois-Rivières is hereby constituted. The City of Sherbrooke is hereby constituted." Then stopping for two beats --

"The City of Montreal is hereby constituted. The City of Montreal is a French-speaking city."

Tremblay stopped, and then squinted quizzically at the judge. "How did that get in there, like a piece of hair falling in a bowl of soup?"

From The Merger Delusion: How Swallowing Its Suburbs Made an Even Bigger Mess of Montreal by Peter F. Trent. Published by McGill-Queen's University Press, 2012.

Peter F. Trent is currently shortlisted for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. The winner will be announced in Ottawa at the Politics and the Pen Gala on March 6.

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