The 2013 Quebec municipal elections: what is specific to Quebec?/Les elections municipales Quebecoises de 2013: quelle specificite quebecoise?

Author:Chiasson, Guy
Position:Editorial Introduction

This special issue of the Canadian Journal of Urban Research focuses on the 2013 Quebec municipal elections through a compilation of articles dealing with several topics and standpoints. In view of these various articles, the elections give us the opportunity to reflect on an uncharted question in urban and political studies, namely the existence of a Quebec municipal model that differs from the general Canadian municipal model. Our objective in this introduction is to provide some points for reflection on the nature and particularities of municipal politics in Quebec.

We would like to examine to what extent the Quebec municipal experience differs from the traditional Canadian municipal model. Let us focus first on the idea of a Canadian municipal model. The existence of such a model presupposes both an urbi aspect and an orbi aspect. On the one hand, the concept of a model implies that Canadian municipalities share a certain number of characteristics, beyond the local particularities and also beyond the authority of the provinces on which they depend. On the other hand, this model implies it has specific characteristics that clearly differentiate it from other forms of local government in other countries. On this point, several papers on the history and development of the Canadian municipal system stress that it diverged from both the French and British models, and was heavily influenced by the U.S. model following the arrival of the loyalists (Plunkett 1968; Tindal and Tindal 2009).

While this Canadian model may not always be explicitly called out in the literature, certain characteristics are generally mentioned to differentiate the Canadian municipal framework. We grouped these characteristics into two main themes: "historical" provincial relations and the ambiguous forms of municipal politics.

Provincial relations

Municipalities are created by provincial governments. Municipalities have no constitutional recognition. They are historically the result of the provinces' objective of decentralization, to better organize public services. Legally, provinces may decide as they please on the number and nature of municipalities. In fact they have instituted several reforms (voluntary mergers, obligatory mergers, regionalism, etc.). However, they have usually maintained the British principle of an institutional distinction between rural and urban areas.

Following this historical genesis, municipalities' scope of power has been confined for a long time to implementing and maintaining basic infrastructure and other property services (water supply, sewers, snow removal, solid waste management, etc.), leaving the major social issues to the "senior" governments (Andrew 1999; Magnusson 2005). This narrow definition of the role of Canadian municipalities, following Dillon's Rule (1872), must be qualified, however, due to several reforms which also developed services for "citizens" (Letartre 2003).

Lastly, provincial relations concern municipal revenues, which are largely dependent on the property tax field. While there are differences among provinces, property tax wealth represents on average over 50% of municipal revenues (FCM 2006, 22).

Ambiguous forms of municipal politics

This heritage along with these provincial relations contributed to the development of a depoliticized view of Canadian municipalities. A technical view of municipalities came about due to their mere purpose as well as their traditional scope of power (Collin and Leveillee 2003). This apolitical attitude is therefore orthodox, stated both as a standard for municipal elected officials to respect, and as a fact by certain observers of the municipal scene (Bherer and Breux 2012; LeSage and McMillan 2010, 64). The result of this is in part the distancing of political markers found in other political scenes, such as political parties (Tindal andTindal 2009; Smith and Stewart 2009; Quesnel and Belley 1991; Graham, Philips, and Maslove 1998) or even statements of ideological views (Bherer and Breux 2012; Mevellec and Tremblay 2013).

Following this apolitical pretence, the Canadian municipal political staff, basically comprised of "independent" elected officials, is largely considered "amateur" (Mouritzen and Svara 2002). The Canadian municipal democracy would be of leading citizens where candidates get themselves elected based more on their local reputation than on their platform (Abeles 1989; Quesnel and Belley 1991). There is thus an overrepresentation of certain social groups (white males) as well as an underrepresentation of others: Canadian municipal councils average under 25% women (Tremblay and Mevellec 2013), but also very few visible minorities (Simard 2004) or young people. Far from professionalized (Mevellec 2012), municipal elected officials nevertheless have had solid stability during their mandates (Siegel, Kushner, and Stanwick 2001). A final Canadian characteristic is the low turnout rates for municipal elections. The data available, while fragmented, globally indicates averages around 40% (Quebec, Ontario, Alberta) and an equally high proportion of elections with no opposition, particularly in the smaller municipalities.

Lastly, the political-administrative organization of Canadian municipalities is distinguished by the mayor being elected by all citizens, implying a certain presidentialization of municipal politics. Added to this, voting is per district in most Canadian municipalities, to the detriment of at-large elections (Graham, Philips, and Maslove 1998). In terms of administrative organization, there are several models across Canada. However, Plunkett (1992) showed the general use of the CAO (Chief Administrative Officer) model at least in urban municipalities. Canadian municipalities are thus characterized by the juxtaposition of two legitimate leadership spheres: a political one personified by the mayor, and an administrative one personified by the CAO.

Several individuals (Graham, Philips, and Maslove 1998) consider this depoliticized model of municipalities mainly the result of urban reform movements occurring in Canadian cities in the first third of the twentieth century. These movements promoted municipal management, with support from the rational knowledge of experts and the creation of professional bureaucracy, while remaining exempt from the constraints of partisan politics (Dagenais 2000). Moreover, this model proliferated in the postwar period when the provincial and federal welfare states aimed to significantly increase their scope of power (Andrew 1999). It seems legitimate to ask if, given the contemporary context of major federal and provincial government restructuring, the "Canadian municipal model" is not also due for some major changes.

Municipal models that diverge from the Canadian model

In examining the particularities of municipal politics in Canadian provinces, Ontario and Alberta must be made part of the discussion.

In Ontario, since the Harris administration's Local Services Realignment in the late 1990s, Ontarian municipalities have been granted significant jurisdiction by the provincial government in the social services area: land ambulance services, public health, childcare, and even public housing. Ontarian municipalities now have more diversified powers as well as more imposing budgets than their counterparts in other provinces, as duly shown by Siegel (2009). In 2002, a new reform turned municipalities into a "responsible and accountable level of government" with ten new areas of powers.

Along the same lines, with the Municipal Government Act (2007), Alberta also became a new reference regarding the role of municipalities in intergovernmental relations. Since the mid-1990s, a reform of municipal powers has changed the views, eliminating the ultra vires-type legal logic which prevailed until then (LeSage and McMillan 2009). Since then, Albertan municipalities have been able to change the terms of discussion with the provincial government regarding the transfer of powers and the related financial modifications (LeSage and McMillan 2010).

While several provincial practices are changing, we believe however that it is particularly relevant in Quebec to question the sustainability of the traditional Canadian municipal model and its aforementioned characteristics.

A Quebec model undergoing politicization

We hypothesize that several recent tendencies in Quebec municipal politics challenge certain foundations of the traditional Canadian model, in both of the aforementioned categories (provincial relations and ambiguous forms of municipal politics).


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