The Alouettes are going to the Grey Cup for the first time in 13 years. In 2021, the Canadiens reached the Stanley Cup final for the first time in almost 30 years. It was magical, largely because it had been so long — in stark contrast to the 1970s, when Montreal was dubbed the “City of Champions” by radio icon Ted Tevan. During that decade, the Habs won six Stanley Cups and the Als played in six Grey Cup games, winning three, including the 1977 Tony Proudfoot “staples game” in which they trounced Edmonton, which will forever be etched in Montreal sports lore.
Those were the glory days for Montreal, which also hosted Expo 67 and the 1976 Olympics. But things have since gone downhill. The latter part of the 1970s — marked by the election of the separatist Parti Québécois and the introduction of coercive language laws that heightened social tension and upheaval — prompted the departure of head-offices from the Montreal region and hundreds of thousands of taxpayers and consumers, including teachers, doctors, nurses and other professionals. We’ve never been the same since.
Toronto has been the beneficiary, surpassing our city substantially in population, economic wealth and international stature. Not to mention it has pro basketball and Major League Baseball teams, both of which won championships — something we can only dream of.
Toronto still lacks Montreal’s coolness factor, its nightlife, gastronomy, walkability of its downtown, the old city, a mountain park as its epicentre, bilingualism and its French fact and joie de vivre. This makes our relative economic plunge over the past 45 years all the more tragic. And with the recent resumption of nationalist policies, things will likely worsen.
The seat of government in Quebec City seems to be increasingly more distant and out of touch with the demographic reality of a cosmopolitan city that is unlike the rest of Quebec. Policies in immigration, language and access to education and health care continually resist Montreal’s distinctiveness.
Many cities are struggling, but Montreal is faced with this additional impairment, making it less competitive and thus poorer. This week’s municipal budget showed the biggest tax increases since 2010. The city is reeling in the face of a fiscal challenge that seems almost impossible to resolve as it struggles to repair infrastructure, provide adequate services and meet the housing crisis, among other challenges.
A few months ago, my column raised the notion of Montreal as a bilingual “city-state.” It generated more reaction than any other I’ve written in the past three years. City-states are fully independent and autonomous from the shackles of other jurisdictions. There are also cities that are granted special status and powers. Singapore, Monaco and the Vatican are independent city-states, whereas Hong Kong, Macau and Dubai are autonomous cities with their own governments but still part of larger nations.
Renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs has written about “urban secession” as a means for certain cities to thrive. Political differences, anxiety and disillusionment with nationwide policies are key reasons why people start to identify more with their city. That is certainly true for many Montrealers. It will always be important to promote French and retain Montreal’s French character. But government policies that aim to erase English and root out bilingualism are misguided and serve as impediments to the competitiveness of a major city.
Municipalities are creatures of the provincial government, so don’t expect any political acceptance of this concept right now. But we are heading toward a cliff. Taking a page out of the Quebec separatist playbook may be useful. The shock value in increasing debate about Montreal’s independence as a city-state may be the only way to at least force the provincial government to sit up and take notice, and make concessions.
Otherwise, Montreal may never again see its glory days.
Robert Libman is an architect and planning consultant who has served as Equality Party leader and MNA, as mayor of Côte-St-Luc and as a member of the Montreal executive committee. He was a Conservative candidate in the 2015 federal election. twitter.com/robertlibman
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