Unite the West Island {Part 1}

Baie d’Urfe, quintessential Old West Island – unknown author

This post has a lot to do with the West Island, as you might suspect from the title, but the West Island is fundamentally an important component of metropolitan Montreal, and thus I feel it has a place here. In my opinion, in order for the West Island to become all it can be and provide for itself long-term, it must unite into a single amalgamated city. It is beginning to mature in such a fashion that a discernible local character and culture has developed here, largely as the result of the development of common goals and aspirations for the people who live there. The people who live here have common needs which have heretofore largely been the responsibility of either the City of Montréal or the Province of Québec; otherwise, the West Island today is merely a collection of small municipalities with little mutually beneficial long-range planning. This must change if we want to increase our standard of living, together. This must change if we truly want solutions to the myriad problems and difficulties that we’ve all become acutely aware of over the last few years. Problems with traffic gridlock, declining population, lack of local investment capital, over-crowded hospitals and lack of public transit access – all of this can be better dealt with by a new, united West Island city.

Ask yourself, what can a city of 235,000 people do for itself? How quickly can it double its population? What opportunities can it provide for its citizens? What resources could it share and benefit from, and what could we guarantee for to promote our unique society and culture? Finally, what can 235,000 people do to increase property and house values and median income across the entire West Island, simultaneously?

There is a lot more to the West Island than residential housing projects and strip malls, though you might not know it to first look at it. In too many ways the West Island is the defective prototypical North American sprawl mega-suburb. But it has a unique character nonetheless and I would dare say the makings of at least its own identifiable sub-culture within the larger subgroups of Montréal culture and the Québecois middle-class. We are distinct as a whole in many ways, but we refuse to see our points of commonality, and thus our community remains an ineffective collection of cities without much common planning. Our bondage is our lack of cooperation. Moreover, we have unique needs with regards to education, healthcare, public works & transit and emergency services, yet we are overly reliant on outside forces to supply these services. As long as this is the case we can’t do much to improve the bare essentials of our shared services, and further have very little hope to collect the investment capital needed to fund our own improvement programs.

So why not unite?

If the eight de-merged municipalities were to combine with the four merged communities along the north-western edge of the island (which would be advantageous for the City of Montréal, but I’ll address that later), we could quickly form a new community of roughly 235,000 people, a community of roughly equal size to other Canadian cities like Kitchener, Burnaby, Regina or Windsor. All of those cities manage to provide their own public transit and emergency services, not to mention universities, museums, performance venues and sports stadiums. Ultimately, this is not about limiting the individual sovereignty of the constituent West Island communities, but rather about recognizing our common needs as citizens in a suburban conurbation with over 300 years of shared history and inter-related development. Throughout much of the 20th century development was more or less haphazard, driven largely the market trends in post-war suburban housing construction common throughout North America. But this in turn has lead to a large number of people with a common appreciation of shared green spaces and the rustic charm which is emblematic of the region, and a general desire amongst said residents to see what remains of Montreal’s last remaining wilderness (a semi contiguous area of Eastern Great Lakes lowland forest in the Northwest sector) preserved and promoted. In other words, there’s a reason why people live there together; they appreciate many of the same services and aesthetics, and they choose this region as an ideal location to raise a family and develop important middle-class wealth. We think similarly and have broadly similar aspirations, so why do we continue to plan like 17th century hamlets?

If we unite, we can plan on a large scale, limit low-density residential construction while promoting higher-density alternatives. We could build a new city centre akin to examples you would find in Toronto’s inner-ring suburban areas, like North York. By increasing density we could provide diverse housing styles for new residents, and establish a civic core for the West Island as a whole. Moreover, we could seek to develop new higher-density retail space and commercial office space as well, to attract necessary local services. New capital and investment could be obtained in a far more efficient manner, and provide on a greater scale, through the lobbying efforts of a single new medium sized city.

But we simply cannot do it alone, as individual communities, this must be an achievement for our own societal evolution. We must ask ourselves what our future holds and whether or not we will grow old here, with our children.. If West Island residents want better schools & hospitals, better opportunities and greater options, then we must provide for each-other en masse. If the older generations want their children to raise families here as well, they must be given reasons to stay. Uniting the West Island into a single community could allow us to accomplish many things for each other, not to mention establish a better working relationship with the other major cities of the Montréal Archipelago. We owe it not only to ourselves to put ourselves in a stronger bargaining position with the City and the Province, and we know both Ottawa and Québec City will look favourably towards this new community. We must lead by example, to unite so as to encourage better thinking in the future, better design and a better standard of living, here inasmuch as anywhere else in Canada.

There’s a lot of ground to cover here, I’m guessing this might be a three-parter. More later. But before I go, if you lived in the West Island or live there now, ask yourself what life would be like if a new combined community suddenly had the capital to construct a sophisticated performing arts venue, a bilingual liberal arts university, a surface tram network or an art museum. What dreams could we realize for the greater good?

10 thoughts on “Unite the West Island {Part 1}”

  1. I think corruption in government is one of our society’s greatest vices, and despicable. Not to mention extremely costly in the long run.

    The fact that in theory it makes practical sense should only make our resolve to see that theory proved correct stronger, broader, personal.

    I would create a West Island City so efficient and incorrupt we could use it to demonstrate we’re the superior choice for investment. A clean city pays its debts quicker and maintains the confidence of the people – it other words, it pays more over a longer duration. Being completely transparent in our business dealings and our use of public money will guarantee future prosperity.

    I mean, if we’re going to create a new city, we must further strive to ensure it is a model, ideal city. Anything less belittles us all, and sews disharmony, which is precisely not the point of this project.

    And while I agree that suburban residential develops can be re-created almost anywhere, the West Island still has an identifiable local character and the roots of its own culture. All residents share in common needs which can’t be met by either the individual community or the City of Montreal. Moreover, because they lack unity, they’re political voice is supremely limited.

    What the West island is needs to be protected and preserved. There are areas in danger of development which must be prevented at all costs. Moreover, there are areas which could benefit substantially, for city, citizen and entrepreneur alike, by increasing their density. This would not apply to the established neighbourhoods, but rather to the low-density commercial and industrial sectors. These areas are prime for higher-density development.

    And finally, because of our proximity to the City, we should work collectively to ensure that people can have rural, rustic-chic suburbia within a quick ride of the city using public transit. A single city could do this far better, not to mention offer WI residents viable alternatives to over-reliance on their cars.

    If I could offer the 235,000 residents of the West Island their own, expansive, transit system, such as a surface tram, which in turn doubled the operational lifespan of their cars and further halved associated maintenance costs, the residents would suddenly have a lot more money in their pockets, not to mention nicer cars.

    I’m not advocating a dramatic change to the West Island, I’m saying let’s unite to solve common problems and ensure further development is as efficient, profitable and ecological as possible. It’s just common sense.

    I’d go a step further, identifying 95 common causes of government corruption, which I’d gladly nail to the door of the National Assembly and then vow never to do myself.

    We can do better, but we let cynicism get the best of us.

  2. You’ve got it backwards. Size does not beget efficiency when it comes to municipal operations.
    Montreal is the shining example of that — but you can look at all the mergers across Quebec where increased size has only increased bureaucracy and frustration.
    It’s something that sounds good in theory, but in practice, leads to more bureaucrats padding other people’s wallets. After all, it’s not *their* money.

    Another reason your whole idea is untenable is because of the geographic nature of Montreal. The only unique feature of the West Island is…. Trudeau Airport.
    Everything else it contains is easily duplicated — and is being duplicated in Laval and points north, and the South Shore communities.

    Earlier I mentioned that people are moving further West to have the same lifestyle. I should have specified that people are also moving north and south. I know plenty of people who grew up in the W.I. who now live in Longueuil, or St. Constant, or Blainville.

    Simply put, nothing is *driving* people away aside from the slightly higher cost of a home compared to other burbs. If people are willing to overlook the extra cost of another 5/10 minutes in a car, or the time to cross a bridge, they’ll move somewhere else.

    Montreal is an island, but once you get over the geographic mindset and are willing to cross a bridge, there’s a LOT of room to move in to get what you’re looking for.

    For the ultimate example, look at Toronto. People have been commuting from fricking Kitchener/Waterloo (a 2 hr highway bus ride) for more than 20 years.
    Why? A perceived difference in quality of life…

    Some people just don’t want to live in a city — and we live on a continent that has spent the past 67 years saying suburbs are where you should be living if you have any sense.

    You are *not* going to convince people who live in the suburbs that all their problems – problems they are not even aware of – will be solved by creating a second supercity on the Island. Especially when they rightly perceive THE big city already on the island as a horrendously run institution.

  3. Higher taxes were part of the package of joining the City of Montreal. Who says it would mean the same for West Island residents?

    If the WI citizens could be convinced to support a pan-West Island merger, then we would have to endeavour to bring about a more balanced residential property taxation system. Where it can be raised, it should, but only by very small increments. In areas where it should be decreased, similarly, it should by very small amounts. The idea here is that the regions of the West Island where middle-class family’s property taxes are far too high must be given a break so that this class can regain their ability to save and stimulate the local economy. These regions transcend haphazard geo-political borders and boundaries.

    W/r/t operational efficiency, again, by stream-lining the community into one city we could establish a single public works, a single bilingual school board, a single local public transit system, a single public utility. We could negotiate better prices for electricity and natural gas, not to mention telecommunications systems. For areas where higher density becomes the new standard, centralized steam-heating may become necessary as well. All of this requires co-operation.

    I don’t think West Island residents know what they like nor precisely why they live in the WI other than the fact that their families live there and that it’s pretty. They talk about it being a good environment to raise their families and that’s typically about it. The reason they may not seem to want more is because a) the communities remain small and inefficient, incapable of planning for large-scale growth and b) because nothing else has been offered, nor presented. Remember, the majority of WI communities are actually less than 50 years old in terms of their contemporary form.

    Population isn’t self-regulating, or at least certain factors will encourage a wide-spread return to the Island over the next 25-50 years. The current ultra-low density of the West Island is untenable and must increase. If population increase is inevitable and the young don’t wish to stay here, then we’re fucking up. We should find out precisely what’s driving West Island youth away and why we can’t encourage a larger population to stay and live here. Again, if we were a city of 235,000, we could provide the cultural and commercial opportunities to encourage more people to stay here.

  4. I don’t think the people who live in the West Island will ever want to unite into another agglomeration. The small(ish) cities work very efficiently and would face higher taxes etc.. by merging. That was one of the reasons the area voted en masse to demerge.

    As for a central commercial/cultural area, I would argue that what exists is enough for most W.I. residents. They *like* Fairview and being close to the other strip malls. They take pleasure in hunting out small and ‘folksy’ stores and restaurants, and if they want stuff you find in a big city they go downtown. But most of them only like downtown for *work* (if even then).

    As for population etc… I think that’s self-regulating. I’ve noticed that people in their twenties/thirties who grew up in the W.I. have either a) rejected that lifestyle and moved to a more urban area, or b) found the WI too pricey for what it offers so they’ve moved to Pincourt/Vaudreuil to enjoy the same lifestyle.

  5. Right, but that federal or provincial funding is based on the what the community manages to raise by itself, what it can put down as a guarantee on new development. We can make ourselves more attractive for gov’t investment by uniting and creating common revenue generators. As an example, suppose a new West Island City were to institute an aggressive campaign to secure direct citizen investment, such as through community bonds and shares. The new city could develop a community co-operative credit union with a focus on micro-finance, city-bonded retirement and group savings plans etc to encourage locals to put full faith in a new citizen-driven suburban city.

    And all this is aside from the tax-revenue of 235,000 people; after about four years putting the city together, we’re bound to begin developing budget surpluses, though we’d have to be very disciplined about spending at first. Residential development projects would have to be geared towards densification and gentrification of certain quarters so as to quickly provide new housing options. Simultaneously, the new community would place a heavy emphasis on attracting as many new residents as possible. This in turn benefits the Tremblay administration, which has been advocating a return to the city, if not the island, so as to limit the negative effects of overly-congested roadways. As long as initial spending is focused on increasing the tax basis and stream-lining public transit access (as a principle draw for said new residents), we should be able to get the new city into the green relatively quickly. That said, we’ll further need the capital of a united city to secure additional corporate and high-finance investment.

    Insult to injury – not at all. This time its voluntary and driven by local interests. The merger was imposed and done in such a fashion so as to seem like a péquiste reaction to the no vote. It was a sting to our collective ego because we had no say in what happened. What I’m advocating is that the WI municipalities unite to increase the collective standard of living and provide better services for all West islanders to benefit from. Our union acts to our benefit first and to the City of Montréal’s benefit second. It can be a win-win situation as long as people’s morale is maintained and they are shown how the benefits negate any rough-patches we may encounter. We can beat the defeatists by giving people something to work towards, and we can do so without stepping on anyone’s toes. I want West Islanders to want this, and work collaboratively to accomplish this goal for the general good.

    And finally, I still can’t imagine a scenario in which this couldn’t be presented as beneficial to the City, the Province and Fed. I wouldn’t give them any reason to say no, and if I can convince enough people that the cause is wholly worthwhile, well, those people represent the kinds of votes a lot of people really care about.

  6. The cities of Windsor, Regina, etc. are not paying for these services, though. I googled a few Kitchener institutions (Grand River Hospital, St. Mary’s General Hospital and the University of Waterloo) and in each case, 80% or more of revenue emanates from the provincial government. I expect the same from any Canadian city of similar size.

    ‘media reaction can be what we want it to be’… I don’t see how you can say this. Proposing to merge the West Island after having vehemently rejected the merger with Montreal would almost inevitably be seen as adding insult to the injury.

    Finally, you say the government can’t shut down the operation, but courts have found cities are entities wholly under the authority of the provincial government. Under these terms, they can certainly halt a West Island merger. They just have to say no.

  7. I’m completely in favour of One Island, One City, and would gladly extend that philosophy to the entire region which is dependent on Montreal is its economic anchor. As far as I’m concerned, Longueuil, Laval and many other North and South Shore communities should be part of the City of Montreal, including the West Island.

    But first things first – the West Island needs to collaborate so as to raise its standard of living before joining the City of Montreal. We need to have something to offer the City, as well as leverage. If we want to be taken seriously and welcomed as equal partners, then we better have something worthwhile.

    W/r/t the political re-organization, it’s all about making the deal as palatable to the province, fed and city as possible. Thus, in order to secure the West Island boroughs, we could offer to handle our own emergency and public transit services, and thus we’d offer the City considerable operational savings. As far as the province is concerned, we could argue effectively that a single city would have the organizational capabilities to allow us to provide greater investment capital for infrastructure and services development. Similarly, we would also be in a stronger position to secure arts and culture funding from the federal government.

    Communities like Windsor, Regina, Saskatoon, Kitchener are all roughly the size of a ‘West Island City’ and they all manage to have their own universities and other post-secondary institutions, not to mention their own emergency services and strategic economic planning. Some even support international airports and have well-developed medium-sized commercial sectors. We could easily build many new social and cultural services if we simply pooled our money together and established a West Island-wide proportional property taxation system.

    Long story short – such a plan could be sold to the citizens and the media reaction can be what we want it to be. It should be a grass-roots movement aimed uniquely to broadly improve the standards of living of the West Island residents, and Charest and or Harper would be wise to support the plan so as to secure their now more important strategic votes.

    At the end of the day – all citizens have the right to organize and push for reform in whichever way they see fit. If the government doesn’t like it, too bad, they can’t shut down the operation. They can make it far more difficult to achieve, but they cannot stop progress.

    Whether its popular amongst the citizens and/or government at first isn’t overly important. Projects like these take time, but the more time you have, the more people you can convince to support you. All I need is time.

  8. I don’t think it’s within the financial means of a city of a few hundred thousands to afford universities or other large infrastructure projects, not the way revenue is collected in Quebec. For an idea of the sums involved, the operating budget of the city of Montreal for 2012 is $4.7b. The cost of the MUHC alone is estimated at $1.5b. I’d imagine an entire university would cost significantly more — not something that can be done without significant investment from the provincial government.

    Also: I doubt the West Island communities could just merge of their own accord. I remember a ruling issued during the demerger saga that stated municipalities were creatures of the provincial government and could be managed as the gov. saw fit.

    This implies the whole thing would have to be politically palatable to the provincial government, and I’m pretty sure agreeing to this would be disastrous for any provincial government. How does one justify voting to demerge from the city of Montreal and later ask to be amalgamated into a new city among themselves? I’m sure you can imagine the headlines.

    Why not advocate for the return to une île, une ville? That might actually be welcomed by a majority in the city as an opportunity to renegotiate how power is shared in a way advantageous to the boroughs vs the ville-centre.

  9. Correct!

    You have identified a problem I listed in the body of the text.

    You will assuredly pass the reading-comprehension portion of your English language arts-exam.


  10. The Waste Island cannot double it’s population, because it revolves around the unsustainable idea of low-density, car-centric single-family home-with-a-big-plot-of-land-around-it, the antithesis of high-density housing.

    Unless it adopts the 2-3 story dwelling philosophy of Montréal, it will be firmly headed towards demographic stagnation.

    And the deteriorating purchasing power of the majority of the population will not help.

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