Municipal political parties and politicization: the case of the 2013 Gatineau elections.

Author:Chiasson, Guy


This article examines the link between politicization and municipal political parties, using the case of the City of Gatineau. The 2013 municipal election was a novel event for Gatineau due to the arrival of a municipal political party, Action Gatineau. Using a broad definition of politicization, our objective is to study the degree to which this party and Projet Gatineau, the citizen movement that preceded the party, politicized local issues. More specifically, we will analyse four land use planning projects and the election campaign to demonstrate the efforts made towards increasing public participation as a municipal practice.

Keywords: elections, municipalities, politicization, political parties, land use planning, land use management, urban planning, urban development, Gatineau


Cet article interroge le lien entre politisation et partis politiques municipaux en prenant le cas de la Ville de Gatineau. L'election municipale de 2013 est marquee par une nouveaute a Gatineau, l'entree en scene d'un parti politique municipal, Action Gatineau. En faisant appel a une definition large de la politisation, nous cherchons a voir dans quelle mesure ce parti et Projet Gatineau, le mouvement citoyen qui l'a precede, ont contribue a politiser les enjeux locaux. Plus precisement, nous nous penchons sur quatre projets d'amenagement du territoire et sur la campagne electorale pour montrer les efforts faits pour augmenter la place de la parole publique dans la pratique municipale.

Mots cles: elections, municipalites, politisation, partis politiques, amenagement, urbanisme, Gatineau


This document refers to the 2013 Gatineau municipal elections, which brought to power Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin, the leader of the new municipal political party, Action Gatineau. Via this case study, we will examine the links between municipal political parties and municipal politicization. The 2013 electoral event was indeed particular, being the first to include a municipal political party in due form in this city. Using this election and the preceding period (2009-2013), we will analyse the degree to which the emergence of Action Gatineau politicized municipal issues. In this article, we consider politicization to be the establishment of opportunities for citizens as well as elected officials to debate urban issues, including not only traditional municipal issues related to property services, but also issues in other areas, including those related to land use planning, urban development, quality of life, and social justice (Graham, Philips, and Maslove 1998; Lagroye 2003).

The question we pose, namely that of how municipal political parties contribute to the politicization of land use and urban development issues, has already been raised explicitly or more implicitly by several analysts. Sancton (2011, 176) mentions that local issues are generally considered not important enough to remain politicized:

An important student of American urban politics, Paul Peterson, has suggested that political parties that exist solely at the municipal level cannot be sustained because the issues are not sufficiently important. In national political parties [sic] are formed and sustained around major political issues such as war and peace, free trade, and social class. The media pay close attention to what the parties do and individual voters form relatively long-lasting party attachments of varying degrees of intensity. Such factors generally do not exist at the municipal level. According to this view, municipal political parties, because they are not an integral part of large national political parties, could not be long-lasting because they cannot mobilize issues and important political identities. Municipal political parties are thus viewed as short-lived and politically weak organizations.

In Canada, contrary to the United States or many other countries, the large federal and provincial political parties have failed to establish themselves on the municipal level. As recorded by several analysts (Graham, Philips, and Maslove 1998; Tindal et al. 2013), the Liberal Party of Canada and the New Democratic Party (or its predecessor the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation-CCF) attempted in vain to establish themselves as municipal political parties in Toronto and Vancouver. Currently, Canada's large federal or provincial political parties, when they get involved in municipal politics, maintain an indirect role, for example mobilizing their electoral machine to support a specific candidate, but without officially establishing a political affiliation.

In most Canadian provinces, the lack of large federal or provincial parties hindered the emergence of local political parties, and thus the prevailing model is that of the independent elected official. As per Quesnel and Belley (1991, 17), the model existing in most Canadian cities is one of a "non-partisan city, where local elected officials are not backed by any political organization, whether strictly local or affiliated with a national party."' For Collin and Leveillee (2003, 34), the non-partisan model is one in which "municipal issues are considered primarily administrative, rather than as challenges that need to be addressed by using a hierarchical and explicit set of values."

This view of municipal politics associates the lack of municipal political parties with a mainly administrative or technical view of issues. However, although there is a lack of political parties at the local level practically all across Canada, there are two noteworthy exceptions: Quebec and British Columbia. Only these two provinces address the creation of local political parties in their municipal legislation (Sancton 2011: 178). Moreover, municipal political parties have been part of the political scene in the cities of Vancouver, Montreal and Quebec for several decades, which raises the question of the effect they have on politicizing local issues.

Most studies focusing on Quebec, with the exception of that by Mevellec and Tremblay (2013), deal with the case of political parties in the cities of Montreal and Quebec. We therefore know very little about municipal political parties in other cities in Quebec, even though they do in fact exist and have actually been growing in number for a decade (Mevellec 2011). Does the smaller size of these cities and the more recent arrival of political parties make politicization even more important and probable there? Can we find indications there of the new political parties influencing the politicization of the municipal scene?

The objective of our study is to provide some answers to these questions using the case of the City of Gatineau. It is important to state that demographically, Gatineau, with a population of just over 265,000, is the fourth largest city in Quebec, after Montreal, Quebec and Laval. Gatineau has the added benefit of being part of the Ottawa-Gatineau metropolitan area, the fourth largest in Canada (2). The 2013 elections were noteworthy as it was the first time in local history that a municipal political party, Action Gatineau, ran for office. However, and thus our main hypothesis, even if the 2013 elections are an opportune time to evaluate the effects of politicization, we can also state that such politicization is part of a longer process that starts well before the election campaign. In this case, we will trace the beginning of the politicization process back to the 2009 municipal elections, when three candidates affiliated with the citizen movement Projet Gatineau (3) were elected to the municipal council. Noteworthy in this time period were four controversial debates on large urban planning projects--debates which we believe are particularly representative of politicization. We will then analyse the 2013 election campaign and elections to establish Action Gatineau's role, and the degree to which there was indeed "politicization."

Methodologically, the results presented in this article are based on three complementary forms of data collection: a press review covering the period between the last two municipal elections (from November 2009 to November 2013) (4); an analysis of documents created by the municipal political party Action Gatineau and the independent candidates in preparation for the election; and lastly, direct observation of Projet Gatineau public events, Action Gatineau, as well as several events concerning land use management and urban development issues during the period from 2009 to 2013. This information was reviewed within the analytical framework presented in the next section.


Although issues are typically of a non-political character in the Canadian municipal world, it is quite rare for authors to explicitly state the nature of such an apolitical attitude. In a recent article, Bherer and Breux (2012) associate politicization with the presence of a left-right division, which they find to be visibly lacking in the Quebec municipal public arena. Such a division may be one of the possible and major forms of politicization, but we believe that a left-right split is not the sole form. The meaning of the concept of politicization that we propose here is closer to that maintained by Graham, Philips, and Maslove (1998, 93), who criticize the view that Canadian city governments are simply providers of property services. For these authors, besides development issues ("pro-anti development spectrum"), municipal politics also concerns quality of life and social justice issues: "the view that cities are technocratic providers of services is a myopic view of the nature of urban life. In fact, the politics of everyday fife can be the most important arena in which debates about social justice and quality of life are played out" (Graham, Philips, and Maslove 1998, 93). Following the example of these authors, we consider...

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