Why special status would work

By Beryl Wajsman on September 25, 2013

There has been considerable public confusion on what special status for Montreal would actually mean ever since last week's release of the CRITIQ commissioned IPSOS poll demonstrated a dramatic 76% support for the idea among francophones and anglophones alike living on the island of Montreal. The most common misconception is that special status is equated with partition or some other form of division from Quebec. That is not the case. Indeed if it was, special status would not work. Special status is an idea whose time may have come precisely because it would be a boon for both the metropolis and the province.

The current concept is the brainchild of respected corporate strategist Michel David. He first started work on the inner workings of it some four years ago. He called it Montreal Cite-Etat. CRITIQ got interested when Montreal hit dead last in economic growth among North American cities of two million people or more early this year. It was the first time this sorry state had occurred. At a CRITIQ board meeting I attended the subject of new solutions was paramount. Attention turned to David's work.

David had used the term city-state to focus attention on his ideas. The details of his plan work just as well in a special status scenario. Part of the confusion over partition/division comes from the use of the city-state terminology. No one wants that and it is not an achievable goal. Apart from the turmoil it would cause within Montreal and Quebec, it would require constitutional acceptance by seven provinces representing at least fifty percent of Canadians for what would essentially be an eleventh province.

But beyond the political problems, it would not achieve any positive result. That is why CRITIQ decided that the question in the poll ask about special status only. The thrust of the idea is to give Montreal the imperatives necessary - for the province to devolve to the city the powers it needs - to get this economic engine of Quebec working again for the benefit of Montreal and consequently for all of Quebec. Montreal needs a special autonomous status.

The secret to the success of special status lies in that word "autonomous." Both "city-state" and "autonomous" are terms of legal art. But whereas there are only three "city-states" in the world - Monaco, Singapore and the Vatican - there are a score of major cities with special autonomous status related to their positions within an existing federal, state or provincial jurisdiction. Buenos Aires, Brussels and Berlin are but three of the most important examples of cities that for reasons of history or necessity have been granted broader autonomy in legislative and fiscal areas while remaining part of a larger political jurisdiction. And that broader autonomy is what Quebec should devolve onto Montreal for the good of all.

The island of Montreal is responsible for some two-thirds of Quebec's GDP and a near equivalent of its revenue collection. But that GDP has been in rapid decline. The engine of Montreal is stalled. If we can't get it moving again, the damage to Quebec will continue to escalate. And to get it moving again, it needs to attract national and international investment. To do that, it must have the autonomy to move Montreal out of the dogmas that have decimated Quebec and have taken it from Canada's richest province in 1976 when the PQ was first elected, to one the poorest today. 

Montreal has to have the right not to apply, on this island, draconian rule and regulation. To withdraw its consent. There is precedent for this. If Montreal can opt out of province-wide "right-on-red" the municipal administration can also be given the right to accomodate investors -corporate and individual - who find some of Quebec's cultural and linguistic legislation to be insurmountable impediments to investment. That is the first pillar of special autonomous status.

The second is revenue-sharing. The muncipal government of Montreal and the provincial government of Quebec must sit down at a "national budgeting conference" (for want of a better term) some months before the provincial budget is brought down. That conference would determine, on an annual basis, revenue sharing apportionment between Montreal and Quebec based on GDP and tax flows with the only exceptions being provisions in case of emergencies or natural disasters. There is precedent for this too. It was the government of Rene Levesque that accepted the historic report entitled "Sovereign Injustice" and put into place special status for the Crees of Quebec with precisely the autonomous exceptions and bi-lateral prioritizing I have outlined here.

The time for this idea may very well have come. Ideas do meet their times. The IPSOS poll found that 90% of Montrealers - again, francophone and anglophone alike - feel Montreal is distinct from Quebec and some 94% felt "drastic measures" were needed to fix Montreal. Special autonomous status is not drastic. It it just good common sense. And as Mathieu Bock-Cote suggested in his column in the Journal de Montreal, the movement for special status is something that Quebec should pay careful heed to. The time for dogmatic government is over. The time for pragmatic governance is here.


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