Ask not what Montreal can do for you…

How to get the metropolis moving again

By Robert Frank

Immigrants built this city. Whether they hailed from warring England and France, were African Americans who escaped slavery here at the end of the Underground Railroad, Eastern Europeans finding freedom from tyranny, Mahgrebi and Middle Easterners fleeing oppression or South Asians seeking opportunity, they have enriched Montreal with their energy and initiative since its founding.

Today, Montreal stands at an important juncture.

Its infrastructure is crumbling. It employs the highest-paid civil servants in North America—yes, they’re even better-remunerated than Quebec government workers. Montreal pays even more again for the pensions of its retired staff than for the city’s entire working payroll.

We’re treated as a special case by the provincial government. That’s not a good thing. Quebec City slaps Montrealers with extra taxes that no one else in the province has to pay. Extra gasoline tax. Higher drivers’ license fees. We can’t even turn right on a red light, like you can everywhere else in North America, save the borough of Manhattan.

The province now sucks so much tax money out of the city, that well over 40 per cent of the tax dollars to Revenu Québec collects comes out of Montrealers pockets. It’s a redistribution program that subsidizes the rest of the province, at Montrealers’ expense.

Long-awaited Montreal infrastructure projects like the Train de l’ouest and the Highway 440 extension, haven’t even started. Since the Parti québécois came to power in 2012, even the few construction projects already underway have slowed or ground to a halt: The city is dotted with bridges to nowhere—most conspicuously at the entrance to the Dorval airport—the province’s busiest aerodrome.

The longtime engine of Quebec’s economy has slowed to a creep, and is at risk of stalling—or worse, sliding into reverse.

The good news is that Montreal hasn’t reached the point of no return—yet.

There’s a growing consensus that Quebec needs to recognize the Montreal reality, and grant the metropolis special status. Anyone who says that Montreal is the same as the rest of the province, hasn’t really inhaled.

While we wait for Quebec City to recognize the obvious, though, there’s plenty that remains within our power to do.

The single-biggest burden on Montreal taxpayers is the billions of dollars that the city’s politicians have long lavished on local community groups. Huge dollops of taxpayers’ earnings have been doled out for the noble aim of supporting various ethnic charities—$5 billion during the last decade alone.

In practice, it detracts from delivering the services that the city is responsible for. Ultimately, it has become an ethnic vote-buying scheme. That has to stop, without delay.

Doubtless, some of the erstwhile beneficiaries of municipal largesse will protest. Some might even tag it as racism. It’s not.

Ultimately, the measure of all the shapes and sizes and colours of the Montreal rainbow will be measured not by what your city can do for you, to paraphrase John F. Kennedey’s inagural speech, 53 years ago, this month.

Rather, it is to ask what you can do for your city.

Newly elected Mayor Denis Coderre, of course, is in a pivotal position to help.

A good start would be to open up the Montreal’s hidebound civil service to the majority of the population. Right now it’s demographics simply don’t come anywhere near a cross-section of the city’s population. City hiring practices are currently tilted heavily against Montreal’s cultural communities.

By doing so, Mayor Coderre will accomplish far more than by perpetuating the patronage stream. He will be sending a strong signal that, in Montreal at least, there is only nous. There is no eux.

It will be a powerful message, one that will be hard to ignore in Quebec City, Ottawa, and abroad, as Montreal reclaims the greatness it once and could again enjoy.

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