Water and citizenship

Map | The Montreal Water-Works. | M979.87.440.5

1879 map of Montreal's municipally-owed water-works


If you’re among the 50% of Montrealers who rent their homes, and the 38% of Montrealers who vote in municipal elections, you may have one extra reason to be thankful today on World Water Day. A recently-published essay by by UdeM History prof, Michèle Dagenais, explains how Montreal’s water-works transformed the nature of citizenship and democracy in the 19th century.

At this time, it was believed that stagnant water caused epidemics of cholera, typhus and typhoid fever, so engineering a way for water to continuously flow through the city became a public health priority.

In 1845, the fledgling municipality of Montreal, with permission from the federal government, purchased the privately-owned Montreal Water Works. During it’s 44 years of operation, the water-works company had laid 14 miles of pipes and signed up 1064 paying subscribers. The other 98% of the city’s population fetched their water from source-points scattered throughout the city.

In order to cover the cost of distributing water throughout the city, all property owners and tenants – both residential and commercial – were obliged to connect to the system, and then tax for the service as soon as they were hooked up. Because the water tax was destined to pay for the infrastructure rather than the water itself, the tax was calculated based on property value rather than the quantity of water used (this state of affairs has only recently been re-called into question with the proposal for water-counters). It was also the only public service that tenants payed for directly.

At this time, only property owners had the right to vote in municipal elections (in provincial and federal elections, a minimum income or holding was a condition to vote). But with the water tax, renters became tax-payers, the city had to grant them a say in municipal affairs. As of 1860, tenants could vote in municipal elections on the condition that they paid the water tax.

Dagenais points out that the water-works systematically connected the public sphere to the private sphere in households throughout the city. The water distribution network embodied a new political power, traced the boundaries of its territory and allowed, in turn, for more rapid urbanization.

Dagenais’ essay is one of 14 chapters in a new book called Metropolitan Natures: Environmental Histories of Montreal, edited by Stéphane Castonguay and Michèle Dagenais, and published in 2011 by University of Pittsburgh press.

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