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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Longevity in municipal politics

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Unlike most cities in North America, Montreal’s municipal politics are organized around formal political parties. One effect that this has is to greatly increase turnover rates on City Council.

In many cities politics are dominated by the same faces for decades. The more established a councillor, the more likely credible challengers will wait for them to retire before running. They generally face token opposition or are sometimes even acclaimed. As a result, incumbent councillors more or less have their districts as personal fiefdoms.

In Montreal this doesn’t happen.  The fact that we have parties running full slates means that there are never any acclamations and that sitting councillors are always challenged. Moreover, as the fortunes of their political party rise and fall even well established councillors get knocked down. Every few election cycles a party will win an lopsided victory that more or less wipes the slate clean.

In 1986 the Montreal Citizens Movement won 55 out of 58 council seats. In 1995 Pierre Bourque and Vision Montreal won a landslide victory, as did Tremblay and Union Montreal in 2005. To a lesser extent, the rise of Projet Montreal in the last election also brought about the defeat of many council veterans in the central city neighbourhoods. Few councillors manage to survive these sweeps, but a select handfull have.

So who wins the title of longest serving city councillor? Depending how you look at it, there are two winners.

Marvin Rotrand


Using the criterion of most terms in office the prize goes to Marvin Rotrand, who is currently serving his eighth mandate as city councillor for Snowdon. Rotrand was first elected in 1982 under the banner of the Montreal Citizens Movement. Every election since he has been reelected by landslide margins. He built a reputation as a hard-working, progressive idealist with a deep commitment to open, democratic city government. He left the MCM in the late ’80s,  disillusioned by the Jean Doré administration which he criticized as undemocratic and lacking transparency. Rotrand eventually ended up in Union Montréal and now serves as the parliamentary leader of that party’s City Council caucus. Informally he often acts as Tremblay’s anglo wingman and attack dog on Council.

Sammy Forcillo


Using the criterion of most years spent in municipal politics, the award goes to Sammy Forcillo, previously of Saint-Jacques but now councillor for Peter-McGill. While Forcillo only has six mandates under his belt, he’s been around even longer than Rotrand, being first elected in 1978 with the Civic Party (i.e. Jean Drapeau’s party). Since then, he’s lost a few elections, but always manages to come back.  In 1994  he crossed over to Vision Montréal and was appointed Vice-president of the Executive Committee.

In 2000 he joined Union Montreal, and under Tremblay he had been on the Executive Committee as responsible for finance and infrastructure. In 2009 after almost 30 years representing the Centre-Sud he ran further west in the downtown Peter-McGill district.  Following allegations of corruption, Tremblay declined to reappoint him to the executive committee, and he’s now back to being an ordinary city councillor.


So what is Rotrand and Forcillo’s secret to longevity in municipal politics? First off, it helps that they have been strongly implanted in their disticts. But more importantly they are people who know how to reinvent and recycle themselves as the political landscape changes.

Rotrand began his career as a progressive idealist intent on correcting the excesses of the Drapeau era and democratizing the city. After many lonely years on the opposition benches he rallied to Tremblay and now has become one of the staunchest defenders of an administration which epitomizes machine politics. Forcillo, on the other hand, began as a Drapeau loyalist. When the Civic Party began to sink, he jumped ship and has always managed to land on his feet and choose a new vehicle with which to keep himself on council.

In a different era they started their careers on opposing sides of the council chambers, but after a number of transformations they are now both Tremblay stalwarts. And both have managed to hold onto City Council seats after many others have bitten the dust.

Historical Montreal municipal election results can be found here on the city’s website.

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  1. Thanks Devin. I’m glad someone’s bringing up the issue of political parties in Montreal city politics. I’m not interested so much in discovering who the longest running city councilor is, as questioning the very premise as to why we need these parties.

    In my opinion the bad far outweighs the good:
    – they introduce ideology and party politics into issues that should simply be decided on merit alone;
    – they force (or at the very least encourage) bloc voting;
    – they are wasteful (as you said, high turnover rate, among other things);
    – they replicate the bluster and idiocy of provincial and federal politics.

    A city should not be run like either a province or a country. It functions less on ideology as on the simple machinations of whether things work or not. Councilors should be responsable to their constituents – that’s it that’s all. Instead, they herd themselves into ideological blocs and break-aways. I really can’t stand that this city is held hostage to all these entrenched as well as fly-by-night political parties. They probably encourage corruption too, though I can’t honestly prove that.

  2. Hey Leila,

    Thanks for your comment. I do agree that political parties can introduce some perverse tendencies into city council, in particular a confrontational dynamic characteristic of parliamentary systems. There is also the fact that most parties (with the exception of Projet Montréal and the MCM historically) in Montreal are very top-down electoral machines, instead of open, member-driven organisations.

    That said, I don’t really think that the introduction of ideology is a problem. Whether they are part of party or not, elected officials’ decisions are always coloured by their own personal worldview. In non-partisan systems the average voter doesn’t do their homework regarding what the positions the various candidates are. They generally vote for the most familiar sounding name; hence the high reelection rates. Under a party system that decision is made simpler by the party identification. If you like public transport you vote for the Projet Montréal candidate, if you like…i dunno… corruption and machine politics you vote for the Union one. It’s not great, but I don’t think that we should overly romanticize the independence and representativeness of non-partisan systems.

    And finally, I think that out system is also made a bit better by the fact that our parties are Montreal specific. In most parts of the world municipal politics are partisan, and the parties are the same as those at higher levels. As you can imagine, this can get really dysfunctional.

    I’ve given this topic a bit of thought and I could ramble on and on. Thanks for bringing this up. I might just write a post about my thoughts on the issue.

  3. Parties at the municipal level aren’t bad or good in themselves. It depends on how they function and what they do.
    Montreal is not Senneville or St Anicet. For a city bigger than several provinces, it requires a consistent vision to make the corporation work.
    Political parties do several things: they allow for a larger view of what the voters can choose from than can independent candidates. No local candidate is going to have a well-though out position on everything a city does. but a party can develop a detailed program so that there will be fewer surprises. Bringing ideology in politics is not a bad thing; how will Leila define merit when it comes to choices on who runs the city: landlords or tenants’; who decides tax policy, urban planning policy, etc. these are all quite ideological issues.

    The second major function of parties is that they can allow/encourage people to get involved and have influence. Young parties often have this; older ones have to fight off sclerosis.

    Getting into power morphs into staying in power. It is one thing to be carried into power on the wave of public participation. It is another to manipulate your way into staying there, absent public participation.

    “In a different era they started their careers on opposing sides of the council chambers, but after a number of transformations they are now both Tremblay stalwarts.” In simple logic, either one or both of these guys has caved in or, more probably, municipal parties don’t mean much any more.

  4. I would love it if you posted more of your thoughts on municipal party politics. I may have strong feelings about it but, as you can see, I’m not really that well informed. I’ve also found that most people have no idea that municipal parties in civic politics are quite rare. Thanks in advance!

  5. The Montreal’s political system works well. (I’m not talking about the way we finance muni politics, as this area needs improvement).

    Compare it to the mess in Toronto… it’s enough to convince you we are doing it the right way. We produce a coherent municipal governement (as long as the mayor’s party holds most seats). Our mayor is extremely powerful, When you meet Montreal’s mayor you take him seriously. In Toronto councilors are governing their little kingdoms. The mayor is one amongst many. Nothing gets done or, rather, the initiative is left to promoters who are destroyring the city.

    The party system forces people to have a vision wider than the ward. It enabled Projet Montreal in this election to come close to winning Montreal’s elections. It forces politicians to be attentive to the opposition or they face a challenge by a coalition of opponent at the next election.

  6. Great article!
    I’ve been having this very debate internally for some time, and this article adds to it a new perspective.

    Just a quick comment on Leila’s intervention:

    Let’s not assume there is no bloc-voting going on in non-partisan councils. We know at least from Toronto that alliances do indeed get formed; and moreover, it very obvious that the federal parties and their provincial sections are very involved in the behind-the-scenes machinations of city council (TO example: Giambrone was the NDP’s guy; Smitherman is QP Liberals’ guy, Tory was supposed to be the PC’s guy and Rossi and Iggy neo-liberal -frankly, i’m still trying to ascertain his exact role -perhaps he’s a agent, but that’d surprise me)

  7. I have never been a big fan of political parties at any level of government (a healthy skepticism is necessary for a healthy democracy), but it is interesting to consider their impact in municipal politics.

    In my opinion, the fact that one can get re-elected to the same political position tends to reduce the ‘quality’ of our democracy. Instead of being concerned with the ‘greater good’ we wind up with politicians who are essentially good at navigating the system and who have little incentive to change anything. Furthermore, longevity encourages the establishment of personal relationships as opposed to professional ones which are based on ‘need’ and ‘ability’.

    All levels of government should have a professional bureaucracy whose role is to assure the continuous smooth-functioning of their authority. The role of the elected officials should be to set the tone of the policies which will be implemented.

  8. One thing about Marvin Rotrand is his constant attention to what is happening in his district. Aside from his principles–which frequently have been very good–this is something I find admirable. Municipal government is about garbage collection, street cleaning and parks as well as development, and concillors who do what they can to solve these supposedly small problems develop loyal constituents.

    It is instructive to compare his political career with another Union Montreal councillor who started out in the MCM–Helen Fotopolus. She wouldn’t have been elected again in the Plateau-Mile End because she stopped listening there. Now that she’s a councillor from NDG-Côte-des-Neiges, it will be interesting to see what happens now.

  9. Another factor that would be interesting to look at is the representational side of parti vs. non-party municipal administrations. For example, there is a lot of pressure on parties to seek out candidates from demographic groups less represented on Council via the application of policies or directives internal to the party. A party that presents a slate of candidates that are all older white men will have a hard time presenting itself as being representative of the population of a modern Canadian City, and or as a progressive, democratically minded party.
    Have you done or read any comparative studies on this question Devin?

  10. @ Mary – Well hello there. I didn’t know that you were a Spacing reader, but I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise! Marvin’s large victories definitely speak to how present he is in his district. That said, I can’t be anything but disappointed in him for having become such an unabashed apologist for the Tremblay administration. I also find his public persona to be extremely arrogant and abrasive, but I admit that that’s highly subjective.

    @ Piper – This is a question that really interests me, but I don’t think that there has been that much formal work done on the topic. There are some stats available on the FCM website about women in municipal government, but I haven’t seen any complete studies comparing partisan v. non-partisan systems. Intuitively it would make sense that parties would help traditionally disadvantaged people get elected by providing ready-made support (and funding) networks. Unfortunately, despite having parties here in Montreal we haven’t been doing so well electing women or ethnic minorities. Anecdotally, it would seem that we do have a better track record electing younger people. In Montreal we have a lot more councillors in their thirties than in many other cities. It would be really cool to compile more solid data about this.

  11. One needs to realize that while municipal politics does have a party system (which yes, does encourage bloc voting), this doesn’t mean there is the party discipline seen in other levels of government. Individuals are party members but are also allowed to vote their conscience. I think Rotrand is a great example of this. He is a staunch supporter of Tremblay, however he has also vocally voted against him (remember the parc avenue fiasco?). In this respect, I believe that the party system works well as individuals can vote freely however the party system helps to speed up the political process as our representatives can get through agenda more quickly.

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