Peter Trent’s war for
The “Hands off my city” campaign was a unifying grassroots initiative
By Wayne Larsen
An entire generation has grown up in Westmount with Mayor Peter Trent occupying that big chair at city hall.
Over the past 26 years, email and texting have replaced a lot of postal and telephone communications, and websites are well on their way to replacing newspapers, advertising, and retail stores. “We don’t even have many public information meetings anymore,” Trent pointed out last week, shortly after announcing his resignation after five terms in office. Now, he added, residents can usually weigh in on matters of public interest via the Internet instead of rushing out to Victoria Hall at an appointed time. “They can log on in the middle of the night if they want – it’s a lot more convenient.”
Today’s ultra-convenient technology would have been a great help during what was certainly Westmount’s most tumultuous period – from about 1998 to 2006 – when it went from being an independent city within greater Montreal to a borough in the Montreal mega-city, and back to an independent city, albeit with reduced autonomy.
Through all these changes, one long-held local tradition has remained firmly in place, and has been a conspicuous catchword throughout Trent’s long tenure: No surrender.
In the late 1980s, Trent’s immediate predecessor, the late May Cutler, dug in her heels against overwhelming odds and won David-and-Goliath victories on both a serious provincial taxation issue and the renaming of Dorchester Boulevard for René Lévesque. For his part, Trent’s administration successfully continued in that vein by completing large-scale projects despite the initial protests of residents whose fears ranged from construction traffic to fiscal uncertainty.
As a result, Westmount now has an expanded and refurbished public library, a rejuvenated Victoria Hall with adjoining art gallery, and, more recently, a brand new, largely underground double arena and recreation centre that came in pretty much on budget, contrary to the loud protests of skeptics. The road toward that project was especially fraught with bitter controversy, brought about by a small group of neighbours attempting to block every stage of the development. That fight led to some dramatic scenes at the monthly city council meetings, but the old spirit of no surrender won out and today the Westmount Recreation Centre stands as a source of pride throughout the community. Moreover, many of those who protested against it have quietly withdrawn their complaints.
But Trent’s real battle had less to do with hockey rinks and construction noise; he has always maintained that his proudest feat was the restoration of Westmount’s autonomy following the forced merging of Montreal with its surrounding municipalities in the early 2000s. Starting in 1998, when the first discussions of “One Island, One City” began as whispers circulating among Montreal-area mayors, Trent brought the news to Westmounters through his monthly reports at council meetings and his witty, often sardonic column in the Westmount Examiner.
… he has always maintained that his proudest feat was the restoration of Westmount’s autonomy following the forced merging of Montreal…
His fears were well-founded, of course, and the next few years saw an unprecedented political struggle that rallied citizens behind Trent and the city councillors as they fought a provincial administrative fait accompli that effectively abolished the City of Westmount and raised taxes while reducing municipal services. The “Hands off my city” campaign was a unifying grassroots initiative that sent a clear message to Quebec City, albeit onto deaf ears.
As editor of the Westmount Examiner – the only media in the community at the time and therefore the sole conduit between the City of Westmount and its residents – I found myself at the forefront of the whole Montreal merger-demerger saga, which dragged on for years.
My esteemed predecessor, the late John Sancton, still had a sentimental attachment to The Examiner despite having sold it to a corporation about a decade earlier. He occasionally dropped by our office and repeatedly emphasized to me the profound importance of the issue. “This is by far the biggest news story Westmount has ever seen,” he’d say, and he heartily approved when we promptly stopped running stories on Atom hockey games and cutesy stand-alone photos of children and puppies in favour of devoting more of our very limited weekly newspaper space to covering Trent’s non-stop battle against the mergers. As a result, every week for what turned out to be years, at least one merger story appeared on the front page, often with more coverage inside. Very few readers complained.
From numerous “Hands off my city” rallies and the overwhelmingly decisive Westmount referendum in which nearly 100 per cent of those who voted did so against the merger, Trent kept fighting while many of his fellow mayors eventually gave up and crossed over to the megacity cause — attempting to save their political skins by running as borough mayors in the newly restructured Montreal.
Trent, however, remained firmly dug in. “How can I be part of a system in which I don’t believe?” he repeatedly answered when asked why he refused to run for borough mayor of Westmount.
‘… Trent kept fighting while many of his fellow mayors eventually gave up and crossed over to the megacity cause…’
The upshot was that Trent sat out of official political life throughout the mid-2000s. But he wasn’t idle. Instead of representing Westmount in mega-Montreal, he worked to demerge the former cities through a series of public speaking events and, most significantly, by pressing the Charest Liberals to make good on their election promise to allow the demerging. It wasn’t easy, in fact the provincial government threw just about every conceivable monkey wrench into the demerger forces’ efforts, up to and including an exorbitantly high percentage of voters required to reach an acceptable consensus.
But Westmount voters exceeded those steep numbers and on June 23, 2004, Westmount city hall was turned into party central as victory was declared for the demerger side. There was unbridled pandemonium in the council chamber, and I recall carrying a chair through a thick knot of bodies for Examiner photographer Marty Barry to stand on in order to get that now-iconic shot of Trent hugging councillor Cynthia Lulham. In the background is Borough Mayor Karin Marks, who stepped up to lead Westmount on an interim basis while Trent worked behind the scenes in the role of what he often described as temporary “mayor in exile.”
Trent’s battle to keep Westmount autonomous is chronicled in great detail in his 2012 book The Merger Delusion, which not only tells the story of what happened from an insider’s perspective, but also illustrates why the mega-city model doesn’t work.
Throughout the long merger-demerger struggles, Trent always maintained his characteristic sense of humour, even when things looked bleakest. Whether he was debating megacity advocates, preaching to the choir at demerger rallies, or simply discussing local affairs at the monthly city council meeting, you always knew he had a few witty phrases up his sleeve – or even an outrageous pun ad-libbed on the spot when questioned by a resident. He once answered a resident’s request for the street cleaner to pass along The Boulevard twice instead of just once each week, “So you’re requesting a fuller brush period?”
‘… you always knew he had a few witty phrases up his sleeve – or even an outrageous pun ad-libbed on the spot…’
And of course there was the time he pointed out that legislating the operation of massage parlours in Westmount would “rub people the wrong way.”
Trent’s choice to step down ends what is certainly the most colourful chapter in the Westmount’s history: a time when the spirit of “no surrender” permeated the city and rallied residents together to fight a long, uphill battle – a battle they eventually won.
Feature image: courtesy of the City of Westmount
Other images (unless indicated): courtesy of Wayne Larsen
Peter Trent will be guest speaker at the Westmount Municipal Association’s Annual General Meeting on Wednesday, May 10 at 6:30 pm in the Concert Room at Victoria Hall, 4626 Sherbrooke W.
Reception: 6:30 pm
Meeting: 7 pm
For more information go to wma-amw.org