Precedents exist for reversing the forced amalgamation of Canadian municipalities

Municipalities forced to amalgamate by their provincial governments can reverse the process, given the right set of circumstances, finds a new study released today by the Canadian public policy think-tank Fraser Institute.

“Nearly every province in Canada has gone through some form of municipal restructuring over the past three decades,” said Lydia Miljan, Fraser Institute senior fellow and co-author of De-Amalgamation in Canada: Breaking Up is Hard to Do. “In Ontario, it happened in the late 1990s in the form of provincially mandated amalgamations. The controversial merging of cities, both big and small, hasn’t resulted in the cost savings and efficiencies that its architects predicted, leaving some to ask to question: is de-amalgamation a viable option?”

The study examines two very different cases of de-amalgamation — in Headingley, Manitoba and in Montréal — to evaluate the fiscal and governance implications of reversing a municipal consolidation. Headingley, a rural community in southern Manitoba, was forcibly amalgamated with the City of Winnipeg in 1972. For decades, community residents demanded that they be allowed to secede, arguing that they didn’t have much in common with the larger, more urban sections of the city. Finally, in 1993 the provincial government relented and legislated Headingley’s secession.

Despite some difficult separation negotiations, Headingley has now become a financially healthy community. “The case of Headingley should provide some hope for de-amalgamation advocates in the rural parts of Ontario where the provincial government forced the merger of rural communities with large urban centres. If Headingley can secede based on its relatively few connections to the urban centre, then conceivably so can communities like Flamborough in Hamilton or Osgoode in Ottawa,” Miljan said.

Headingley’s relatively smooth transition, the study notes, was aided by two key factors: Its population base was able to absorb the cost of services transferred to it and its de-amalgamation didn’t necessitate the creation of new and complex governing structures.

Conversely, the de-amalgamation experience in Montréal may persuade some Torontonians — those who want to revert to the old governance model — to take pause.

In 2004, a new provincial government in Québec facilitated referenda offering municipalities the opportunity to reverse the amalgamation forced upon them in 2002. In Montréal , many municipalities opted to stay but some did leave, forcing the creation of yet another level of local government to coordinate local services (ie: property assessments, social housing, transit and public safety) for all communities (amalgamated and de-amalgamated) on the Island of Montréal.

“The key lesson from Montréal’s experience with de-amalgamation is that allowing certain areas to de-amalgamate and others to stay can create a costly, cumbersome and fragmented patchwork of government across the region thus complicating service delivery,” Miljan said. “If de-amalgamation were to be pursued in Toronto, then policy makers would be best advised to avoid the Montréal model.”

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