Borough Councils: One way to give power back to neighbourhoods

A few months ago, while researching municipal council structures for Better Ballots, I happened to find myself in Montreal the day before their city election. I managed to speak to a handful of activists and volunteers during the day and learned quite a lot about the local voting process.

While Montreal has a few similarities with Toronto (large Canadian city, forced amalgamation), there are some striking differences when it comes to municipal elections. I was specifically interested in their use of political parties and the existence of borough councils. The combination of these two features can lead to some interesting results. In this particular case, the City of Montreal was won by the Union Montreal party (led by Mayor Gérald Tremblay) while the Plateau neighbourhood I was visiting was swept by a new party, Projet Montreal, and elected their own local mayor from that party.

Parties and lower-tier councils both exist in Toronto, but in a much smaller way:

Parties play a role behind the scenes, but are unregulated and don’t have as much influence, visibility or control as they do at Queen’s Park or Ottawa (more on that later this week…).

And we have Community Councils comprised of councillors who represent certain geographic areas (such as the North York Community Council).  But these Councils are not elected separately, do not have their own mayor, and do not have their own budget. Many of their decisions still have to be ratified by the larger City Council.

I asked Montreal-based writer Devin Alfaro to share his thoughts on the benefits and drawbacks of parties and boroughs, as experienced in Montreal. Here is the first post, about boroughs.  Later this week, I’ll post the second part about parties.

Thanks Devin!!

Devin Alfaro is a Montreal activist who is passionate about sustainable, inclusive urbanism. An Urban Studies graduate of McGill University, he is currently working in the community sector and is actively involved in municipal politics. He is a regular contributor with Spacing Montréal, where he comments on Montreal politics and urban issues.

Montreal’s borough system


The municipal governance structure of Montreal is quite different from that of other major cities in Canada and it can provide some interesting ideas to those looking to renew local democracy. One unique feature in Montreal’s municipal government is the presence of boroughs which provide a second, lower tier of municipal governance.

A bit of history…

The creation of strong boroughs in Montreal dates to the municipal mergers of the early 2000’s. The policy of the Parti Québécois provincial government then in power was to merge suburban municipalities across the province with their respective major cities to create megacities that would span metropolitan areas. In the Montreal context this meant merging the 27 independent municipalities on the Island of Montreal into a single new unified City of Montreal. The policy was know as “une île, une ville” (one island, one city).

Boroughs were conceived as a way to retain a certain level of localness within the much larger megacity. While some powers would be centralised, others would stay close to home. In Montreal there was also a linguistic consideration in the creation of boroughs. Many of the western suburban municipalities of Montreal were largely English speaking and were officially bilingual, whereas the City of Montreal has French as its sole official language. The strongest opposition to the controversial mergers came from suburban Anglophones, many of whom where resentful that their English language fiefdoms were going to be absorbed into French only Montreal. Boroughs would be given the option of being officially bilingual and would allow English to continue to be used in more Anglo parts of the city, at least at the most local level.

These mergers were extremely unpopular and they became a major issue in the 2003 Quebec election. The victory of the opposition Quebec Liberal Party meant another round of municipal restructuring, though much less radical than that of the previous government. Most notably, they further strengthened the power of boroughs, and also allowed formerly independent municipalities to hold referenda on regaining autonomy. The new Liberal government also brought about directly elected borough mayors, whereas previously there has been borough presidents who were chosen by each borough council from among their members.  This final round of major changes ended in 2004, and Montreal’s municipal structure has remained more or less the same since.

Elected borough mayors, within the larger City of Montreal, colour coded by municipal party (November 2009 election results)

And now for the mechanics of how the current system works….

The City of Montreal is divided into 19 boroughs ranging in population from 17,500 to 163,000. Each borough has a directly elected mayor and its own council which consists of all the city councillors with districts within the borough. In some boroughs there are also specially elected councillors who sit only on the borough council and not of the main city council (generally smaller boroughs whose populations only warrant one or two councillors on the main city council). Many of the boroughs were once independent municipalities that were joined with Montreal during the municipal mergers of the early 2000’s.

Boroughs are responsible for local issues such as…

  • waste collection
  • culture (libraries, cultural centres)
  • recreation (pools, arenas, etc)
  • local urban planning (e.g. zoning changes for lots)
  • social and community development
  • neighbourhood  parks
  • local roads (and snow clearing)
  • fire prevention

The central city is responsible for more far-reaching issues such as…

  • the City’s Master Plan
  • community, cultural, economic, social, environmental development ;
  • transportation
  • recycling
  • major parks
  • social housing
  • arterial roads
  • water purification
  • police services
  • the municipal court

So how well does this all work in practice?

It’s a relatively new system and it still has some kinks to be worked out. Nevertheless, Montrealers generally appreciate the borough system. It does help bring certain aspects of local governance closer to the citizens. If you think the park down the street needs new play equipment for the children, it’s a lot easier and less intimidating to go to your local borough council meeting at the neighbourhood community centre instead of downtown to City Hall for a full council meeting. Local community groups such as neighbourhood residents’ committees and merchants’ associations  also have an easier time accessing their borough than they would the central city administration.

The borough system also allows for more experimentation and specific, neighbourhood appropriate policies. In my borough, the Plateau Mont-Royal, one concrete example of this is the participatory budget. For the past few years the local borough council has been experimenting with putting in place a participatory budget process for capital expenditures. This was a pilot project that was first possible in the relatively forward-thinking Plateau and which could perhaps serve as a model for elsewhere in the city.

Another thing that boroughs allow for are the creation of counterbalances of power to the central administration. Returning to the context of the Plateau, in the recent elections our borough was swept by the progressive Projet Montréal party. While we may be stuck with Gérald Tremblay as the Mayor of Montreal (he ran a distant third in our borough), we at least have a new, progressive local administration that has promised to bring about major changes, and a local borough mayor whose priorities are more in line with those of the neighbourhood. For the next 4 years our local Projet Montréal administration will have the ability to make our borough a showcase of alternative, more sustainable, development.

Most of the negative comments regarding the borough system have to do with the proliferation of layers and layers of local government. While boroughs can be more accessible, for citizens who don’t have the City Charter memorized, it can be confusing figuring out who is responsible for what. It can also give elected officials more opportunities to pass the blame up or down a level and duck responsibility. Moreover, some believe that borough mayors have too much power and help lead to inconsistent and uncoordinated municipal governance.

Some have also maintained that too many responsibilities have been downloaded to the boroughs, resulting in inefficiencies. An often-cited example is that of snow removal. Montreal has had a tough few winters with wide-scale grumbling about the speed of snow removal. The results also varied widely across boroughs with some providing timely, within budget service, and others having reoccurring delays and overruns. Many believe that the current system had gone too far in decentralising responsibility and that some recentralisation is needed.

While imperfect, boroughs have been a positive addition to Montreal’s political landscape. They are a relatively new institution, and there still are some kinks to be worked out. In particular, the division of jurisdictions needs some fine tuning. As they mature and as citizens get more accustomed to them I think most of these problems will be resolved. Boroughs do help make government more local and I think they are a possible option for other large cities looking to bring municipal government closer to citizens.

Later this week: Parties in Montreal

Join us at a Better Ballots Town Hall meeting (April 20, 26 or 27) to talk about Borough Councils and thirteen other options for electoral reform in Toronto.

What do you think about elected borough Councils? Please share your thoughts below…

6 responses to “Borough Councils: One way to give power back to neighbourhoods

  1. Great article! Hopefully, the first of many from other folks about the issues Better Ballots is raising.

    Keep dispensing the wisdom, Mez.

  2. from what I understand, ottawa (for example) could sorely use a borough-system so that local planning questions such as lansdowne park are not determined (along with pretty near everything else) by the ‘burbs…

  3. This is an excellent short history of a complex set of relationships. I wish I knew this when I first moved to Montreal from Toronto two years ago.

  4. Pingback: Should Toronto fight for the right to Party? « Mez Dispenser

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