Wednesday Jan 26

Part 1 Change Begins in Cities, Take Montreal for Example

By Mostafa Henaway, Jason Prince, & Eric Shragge


cities today have a choice between becoming active forces for social change or quietly acquiescing to the whims of global capital” (Benoit Bréville 2020). We are living through a unique experience. The global COVID-19 pandemic has forced large parts of the economy to shut down. Many people are now working from home, with social distancing and masks the norm. When our highways suddenly emptied at the beginning of the pandemic, we also experienced the possibilities of clean air and quiet streets, with huge numbers of people out walking, jogging, and spending time with family. That is, if you were not doing the essential work of caregiving, cleaning, food production, or the sales and distribution of essential goods. Across the world, class, racial, gender, and immigration divides have come into sharp focus during this pandemic. Who stays home? Who works? Who is daily exposed to the virus, and who contracts it because of the injuries of class? All of this plays out dramatically in our city—and in all cities.

The centrality of cities in both the exacerbation and resolution of the consequences of life after 40 years of neoliberal capitalism and ongoing environmental degradation is the core of our analyses, both before and during the pandemic. As the old labor song asks: “Which side are you on?” We ask the same about cities in general, and specifically about our city: Montreal.

This project began because of the urgency of the current context and the possibility that the municipal level of government holds the key to building opposition to the existing formations of economic and political power. At the same time, the city can be the lever to support alternative forms of economic development and the democratic participation of residents. This could lead to greater collective power to counter the dominant economic and related class forces that have shaped cities in the interest of profitability and growth.

We were impressed by a number of municipal governments in the U.S. and Europe that have acted in opposition to private capital and other ‘higher’ levels of government; cities that have pushed various forms of economic and social innovation, both within, but also beyond, their ‘local’ mandates.

Benoit Bréville (2020) discussed the conflict between municipal and national governments across Europe and North America. He notes that some municipal governments have promoted greater transparency, participatory democracy, and sustainability, while central governments have become more nationalist, antiimmigrant, and explicitly pro-business (Bréville 2020).

Some cities have even bypassed central and regional governments to find solutions to contemporary problems. For example, Prague, Budapest, and some U.S. cities have challenged central governments on issues related to immigration, the environment, and the very structure of local economic development. Ironically, cities are now in competition to be the “most innovative, modern and trendy.”

Cities are the centers of population density, wealth creation, tax revenues, and poverty, but everywhere, cities have only very limited means and powers to control their own development.

Cities can play a role if there is pressure from local organizations and social movements pushing against city hall. Local elected officials need to embrace these movements to become levers of change and the megaphone for our current crises, amplifying the voices of these organizations and movements.


Nearly half a million people demonstrated in Montréal to demand climate action. It was one of the largest rallies in the city’s history and believed to be the largest of its kind in Canada

Fight for $15 Protest in Montréal, May 1, 2018. Across cities in North America and here in Montréal, Québec, a new type of labour movement has begun to emerge. Photo by Mostafa Henaway.

Finally, the role of contemporary social movements is entrenched in what are very much urban struggles. Movements that have recently come to the fore, for example, the struggles for Black Lives Matter and defunding the police, are squarely confronting structural racism entrenched in municipal power and politics. Movements of cities’ most precarious workers are fighting for economic justice. Solidarity cities are demanding sanctuary for people without status. We are witnessing the intensifying effects of neoliberal capitalism, reshaping our urban landscape, with financialization and rampant speculation leading to housing precarity. However, movements against gentrification show the dynamism of resistance. The climate crisis has propelled new movements, which have mobilized millions across the globe. These movements, at times linked to progressive municipal governments, have converged. Despite the multitude of crises we face, we are witnessing a convergence of hope and solidarity within and across our cities.


Three Urgent Issues


Here, we briefly present several issues that, although not necessarily within the traditional mandate of municipal governments, shape its agenda. They also allow the city to challenge other levels of government, take initiatives, and support alternatives that have the possibility of doing something concrete about these urgent problems.

The first is the climate disaster. The planet is on fire, and it is no time for half measures. Municipal governments have to play a leadership role, and in the best examples, they are playing this role. Cities are central in creating the problem, and local governments can act on solutions. For example, getting rid of cars, upgrading buildings, eliminating carbon emission sources, and protecting existing carbon sinks. Progressive cities take action on issues within their delegated mandates but also push against these boundaries.

Cities also need to play the role of critic: publicly and vocally challenging other levels of government, exposing their half-measures and backsliding on climate change, educating and mobilizing the public, and actively supporting oppositional movements and alternatives. The city is not the only level of government that can play such a role, but—especially in light of this vast political divide—local government is critical.

Second, we are witnessing the seemingly unstoppable concentration of wealth and economic polarization. This is played out mainly in cities. Cities have become sites for the investment of surplus capital, and one of the central contestations is around land usage.

Any useful land is being gobbled up by the few for their profit. Is urban land to be used for growth and profit or for the social needs of the majority? Needs such as housing, green spaces, or efficient collective transport. What land is still owned publicly by federal, provincial, or municipal governments or by public institutions like universities and churches? What role can cities play in protecting these assets? Can cities redistribute public wealth to benefit the majority—and not just land but also its spending power— through decisions on land use, distribution of public services, increased wages, and collective economic and social alternatives?

Third, related to the second issue, there is enormous pressure on cities to follow the dictates of the free market. Tax revenues in cities are based on land value. Property taxes are the primary source of revenue for cities— which is acutely the case in Montreal. As such, investments that increase property taxes are valued, despite the resulting gentrification and the displacement of working-class and lowerincome people. This perversity—this conflict of interest between the City of Montreal and most of its residents—is of fundamental importance.

In contrast, as Gonsalvez argues (2017), cities should use their financial resources, programs, and land use policies as a means of redistribution from the wealthy to the majority as part of a strategy to challenge inequality. He argues that the progressive city should not cede to developers against the interests of their residents but rather defend them with the powers they have, with clear and explicit policies, zoning, and budgets (Gonsalvez 2017).


Dawson (2017) uses the concept of the extreme city to discuss the dual and intertwined challenges of climate chaos and structured economic and social inequality, both of which are concentrated in cities. He argues that the extreme city is a product of global capitalism run amok and harbors concentrated assets of the world’s wealthiest in a physical form (Dawson 2017)

Thousands of demonstrators wind through downtown Montreal’s major streets after a rally at Place Émilie-Gamelin. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Extreme cities are the location where climate chaos will have its most potent and devastating impacts—with disparities of class determining one’s chances of surviving. He writes: 

efforts to challenge environmental injustice… hinge on the most basic questions of survival … [And we must] focus struggles for climate justice on the scale of the city, where progressives can hope to win meaningful victories in a period of reaction. …cities are responsible for the lion’s share of carbon emissions globally. … we are fighting for the city as it may be rather than the extreme city of the present (Dawson 2017, 295 [our emphasis]).

As this project came closer to completion, we began to see it more than simply a guide to politics in the city, but more as a roadmap for us as residents, regardless of our status, to take the city. “Prenons la ville!” As this project unfolded, it became clear that there was an essential and urgent need to see the city as a place to bring together progressive forces under a common vision, identifying the root causes of injustice in our city.

The pieces are all there. The struggle to protect our green spaces. The fights for decent and affordable housing. The call for more public transit, fewer cars, and more bike paths. The crying need for wages that allow us to live decent lives. The common call for a just and democratic society.

The thread that allows us to see clearly, we argue, is the ongoing commodification of our city in all these ways: the city—our city—as a manifestation and realization of global and local capital in the endless pursuit of profit. The solution is to stop that and to find another path into the 21st century.

This reflection and urgency became clear in assembling the rich contemporary and historical analysis of activists, writers, and people directly involved in the most pressing issues facing Montreal. It was an impossible task to be as comprehensive as we would want to be. The issues sketched out in the following pages attempt to lay out the primary issues, examples, and organizing that are key to understanding our city.


Power and The City


As an example, we present a framework for analyzing the forces that shape Montreal, and the counter-forces that contest them. These forces are unequal. The dominant ones are shaped by large-scale capital and business interests, often with allies in all levels of government. However, these forces have historically been challenged by unions, neighborhood organizations, and social movements.

The question of power is fundamental. Our underlying assumption is that counter-power is necessary to challenge, limit, and overcome the power of capital as well as the governments that support a view of urban development that prioritizes profit and growth over the environment and social and economic equality.

Conflict is central to understanding any city. Relations of power shape urban life, not only municipal politics. The city must be understood as the place that brings together the most critical competing and contesting forces in capitalist societies; these forces are played out in urban life. The dominant force is capital, including traditional ‘productive’ capital driving manufacturing industries in transportation, engineering, and agri-business in Montreal. But more important for our current time is the power of speculative real estate and finance capital, looking for ways to shape cities for the profit of their investors.

Opposition forces in cities include engaged citizens, community organizations, and social movements; workingclass organizations, including unions and related groups, may also be included among this opposition. Because of their power and capacity to organize, these working-class organizations should be playing an even more decisive role at the municipal level. Conflict is shaped by contesting the direction of urban development, defined by private interests, versus the need for decent wages, housing, public services, security, and a healthy environment. These social needs are never guaranteed in a private market that prioritizes private development and profit.

First, we begin to examine the question of power and how urban priorities are shaped. In Rebel Cities, David Harvey argues that throughout the history of capitalism, the process of urbanization has been an essential means for absorbing capital and labor surpluses. This process shapes the way that the urban environment evolves. At the same time, it is integral to the accumulation of capital—the production of private wealth. The urbanization process also calls for finance capital, represented by a combination of bankers, developers, and construction companies acting in alliance to shape the “the urban growth machine” with state engagements as fundamental to its functioning (Harvey 2012).

Samuel Stein brings valuable nuance in discussing the role of capital in the urbanization process. As manufacturing capital is no longer the leading force in urban economic development politics, particularly in North American cities following the evacuation of certain manufacturing functions, real estate capital now rules. These two manifestations of capital are no longer incompetition for land use in the city. This has opened up three vacuums in North American cities: a capital vacuum, a political vacuum, and a spatial vacuum. In describing the rise of the ‘real estate’ state, Stein notes:

Real estate’s gargantuan growth manages to overdetermine cities’ economic, political, and demographic futures, pricing out certain actors and industries while encouraging others. In the absence of any major competition, real estate dominates contemporary urban planning (Stein 2019, 34).

Protesters take a knee during a demonstration calling for justice for the death of George Floyd and all victims of police brutality, in Montreal, Sunday, June 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes.

Montreal police use pepper spray, tear gas at George Floyd protest after they say projectiles thrown — The Globe and Mail


Stein also introduces labor and pension fund capital, as well as criminal capital, into his fractional analysis of capital at play in our cities. He cites Vancouver urbanist Andy Yan, who describes the ‘hedge city’ phenomenon as the way that the wealthiest people in the world (the global 1%) have been “transforming urban high-rises from ‘machines for living in’ to machines for money laundering” (Stein 2019, 35). He further describes the current dynamic of real estate as “not a tide that lifts all boats, but a force that feeds off long-standing structural inequalities” (Stein 2019, 36).




One feature of gentrification is that it acts as a “valuecapture strategy” by the rich, capturing the beauty and complexity that emerges from human efforts and in human communities. A hip neighborhood made cool by poor artists who inhabit and breathe new life into a dead (read: cheap rent) part of the city is subsequently invaded by the rich. While displacing the poor and enriching the few, this paradoxically also threatens to kill the emergent beauty of the place that made it attractive in the first place. 

As Jeremiah Moss (2017) in his book on New York City argues, this shift in population from working-class or poor to artists and hipsters, itself, is not gentrification. It is just the drops of blood in the water that attracts the shark, killing the neighborhood and displacing residents with this new investment. The displacement and gentrification are reflected in how property is developed and who benefits from this development. In Montreal, the vast majority of housing built since 2000 is unaffordable to even the average household. As the last remaining available land in our central areas gets developed as high-end condos, supported by our municipal government—despite the modest limits imposed by the Projet Montréal administration—the city is quickly becoming something else.

Indeed, the gentrification process affects not just traditional workingclass areas but all parts of the city. A study completed in 2012 concluded that even in Westmount (a wealthy city in the center of Montreal) , we can find gentrification, defined in that report as a situation where the current owners of the housing could not afford to buy it from themselves. The current occupants of these homes represent Montreal’s upper 10% (CEGEP teachers, professors, engineers, small business owners, etc.), a group who now can only afford to live in NDG or St Henri. They are now being replaced by upper-income households from the local and international 1%. At the same time, speculative and land/property developments have faced opposition in many neighborhoods of the city. Without this opposition, private capital would continue to shape the city unopposed.



Those with wealth and power have largely shaped the development of the city. This goes back to the initial colonization and subsequent displacement of First Nations, through to periods of industrialization, more recent periods of economic redefinition, and increased financial and property speculation. With brief exceptions and some attempts at regulation, these developments have been supported and encouraged by governments at all levels. 

They often rationalized this with notions of trickle-down economics or by the idea that increased property values will increase city revenue—therefore, increasing services. However, power is not absolute, and contesting the direction of urban development—often based on basic needs for housing, collective goods, and green spaces—is central to understanding how the city actually develops.

Montreal has a long history of fighting back, which has taken many different forms. Unions, workers organizations, community organizations, and social movements have been the vehicles that contest power. Montreal’s history has seen these movements and organizations contest the power of private capital, both through labor practices and urban development speculation, as well as contesting the policies and practices of all levels of government. Victories have been celebrated, where private sector development has been blocked, where co-operative and social housing has been expanded, and where green spaces have been protected. In addition, even in cases where specific gains are not made, social movements and community organizations have expanded public awareness and altered the programs and policies of both elected governments and parties in opposition.

When they are working at their finest, the potential of these organizations and movements is to form the real opposition to the established powers that shape the city: capital and its allies. Given the challenges of these times and the power of capital and its relentless pursuit of profit at any cost, we argue that our best hope is in building and maintaining alliances of these organizations and movements and using the power of city hall both to push back and stake out our ground on these urgent matters.

Urban social movements and community organizations both have their roots in contesting power. Although the two overlap, the difference between them can be understood by looking at their organizational forms and structures. Social movements tend to be broad and messy, including many different expressions; they mobilize periodically, bringing together the different components. Community organizations are place-based with a fixed structure, almost always registered as nonprofits. These tend to have defined mandates (e.g. housing or anti-poverty) and can be members of coalitions or other structures like local community tables. Community organizations can be explicit in contesting power and making demands, or they may contest more quietly by creating new services and democratic spaces controlled by residents. They are a force for democratizing society and our cities and for building counter-power. Many community organizations do not engage in broader social change processes but provide a specific service to a defined clientele. Service providers do not mobilize or organize but can be part of wider coalitions that demand change. There is a dynamic relationship between broader social movements and community organizations, each supporting the other. None of this is new. There is a long history of organizing and advocacy for urban reform in Montreal and among movements of the working class. 

Montreal has a highly organized community sector. As with other groups across Quebec, it has negotiated a structure of representation and funding with the provincial government. Consequently, the community sector has a far more important relationship with the provincial government because of the wide mandate in sectors where these organizations often function as sub-contracted providers and because their primary source of funding is the province. This highly structured community sector has led to a high level of specialization, whether providing health, housing, women’s services, or other social functions. Because the provincial government is the key funder and provider of these services, when community organizations do mobilize to demand benefits and services for their participants, they tend to target the provincial—and at times also the federal—government.


The main exceptions have been housing groups and environmental groups focused on increasing and improving green spaces and access to bike lanes— whose agendas are obviously “urban”—as well as some neighborhood groups, particularly some community development corporations (CDCs), attempting to control local development.

Another consequence of this highly structured development of the community sector is fragmentation and a silo effect, with greater specialization mirroring the respective departments of government at both the municipal and higher levels of government. The downside is that at the level of the city, there is no coordinated, organized community base that has the capacity to pressure the municipal government in any concerted way. Because of this, local fights remain local, and most of the formal, organized community sector does not engage with the municipal government.



The role of unions and labor remains crucial to understanding power in the city. The power of capital, representing the few, is well organized and has access to extensive resources. For working and poor people in the city, trade unions remain a vital form of opposition. The city can become a space that concentrates working people and their power. In previous periods, trade unions led the fight for improved conditions and wages. The role that trades unions have played in contesting the power of capital and for a more egalitarian society has made them a major vehicle for working-class people to shape their workplace but also their political and social life.

The neoliberal offensive of capital that began reshaping Montreal in the 1980s had a significant impact on the power of trade unions. Deindustrialization led to declining membership. Then unions had to fight to maintain employment by accepting the demands of employers and government demands for investment. The role of workers organizations continues to complement new forms of opposition both inside and outside the unions.

Non-unionized immigrant workers are now leading new campaigns organizing against inequality and racism in our cities, which is a testament to the traditions of workers organizing. The campaigns for the $15 an hour minimum wage, or against abusive practices of agency work in key sectors of the economy of Montreal, show that the question of labor remains vital. The Immigrant Workers Centre (IWC), along with other unions, such as the CSN’s Fédération du commerce (FC-CSN), are organizing this layer of the working poor within the urban context.


The Weak City

There is a fundamental challenge to Montreal controlling its own destiny. The province has constitutional power over the city, and the city faces enormous barriers under this constitutional arrangement. From Quebec’s perspective, Montreal is a mere office-boy gofer to the provincial government—clearing the snow and managing the garbage. The province directly determines the rules concerning municipal revenues, financing of major projects, distribution of resources to cities while also controlling health, social services, and education, among other issues. Despite some measure of municipal democracy, real political power remains outside of the city.

Dependence on the province is related to the fact that the city has little authority to raise its own revenues. Nearly 70% of Montreal’s operating budget comes from property taxes, with the remainder primarily from user fees, permits, and fines. A “dirty little secret” is that commercial land use pays considerably more in municipal revenue than housing (Trent 2012). Yet, thanks to “free trade” agreements, the concentration of these commercial and industrial functions in the city have plummeted, leaving them gasping for condo development on these very lands.

There are two key barriers to the city acting as an autonomous force for change. The first is the structural limits, including the power of taxation based on wealth and income, linked to the constitution and structures of government. The second in the present period is the ideology, direction, and political base of the current provincial government. Both have an impact of creating barriers to municipal autonomy.

Given the limits of the city as the weakest level of government, both politically and financially, and given the power of capital, what is possible?

The challenge is to see municipal government as the vehicle to bring about the limited changes it can within its mandate. But it must also become an advocate for the broader changes necessary to address current challenges like climate change, racism, and inequality. The city needs to situate itself as an ally with active community groups and social movements and work in conjunction with them to further their demands. The city should carry them outside of the usual boundaries of the municipal mandate, to pressure higher levels of government, to challenge private capital, and to play a public role in educating the residents of the city on a variety of issues. David Harvey, in his book Rebel Cities, argues: the right to the city has to be construed not as a right to what already exists, but as a right to rebuild and re-create the city as a socialist body politic in a completely different image—one that eradicates poverty and social inequality, and one that heals the wounds of disastrous environmental degradation. For this to happen, the production of the destructive forms of urbanization that facilitate perpetual capital accumulation has to be stopped (Harvey 2012, 138).


The underlying question for us is: can a municipal government ally city hall with other progressive movements and organizations to transform the city? Can this alliance act as a counter-weight to the forces of capital that shape our cities and the wider ecological, social and economic disasters we face? What are the steps necessary to do this? What is the role of local organizing to build opposition and alliances, and what is the role of municipal political parties? Can local movements and community organizations be part of an alliance but also act to push Montreal toward goals that may not be part of its mandate? We do not have easy answers to these questions, but we want to explore the dimensions of this problem and approach.

Critically, we believe the time is short, given the issues described above. To be blunt, they are winning. Without a strong counter-weight, our society’s current dangerous directions will accelerate.

Is it possible to build a counter-power at the municipal level? What are the possibilities and opportunities, and what are the barriers and limits? The City of Montreal represents the level of government least able to bring about these changes. But if we are to face the great challenges of our time, if we aim to bring about the changes described throughout this book, then the municipal level of government has to become part of this counter-power. We must take the city and make the city our vehicle for change and our collective voice for the radical change we need right now. Before it is too late.




Aubin, H. 1977. City for sale. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company.

Aubin, H. 1977. Les vrais propriétaires de Montréal. Montreal: Éditions l’Étincelle.

Lefebvre, H. 1989. “Quand la ville se perd dans une metamorphose planetaire.” Le monde diplomatique, May 1989.

Merrifield, A. 2017. “Fifty years on: the right to the city.” In The right to the city: A Verso report. New York: Verso Books.

Stein, S. 2019. Capital city: Gentrification and the real estate state. New York: Verso Books.

Mostafa Henaway Mostafa Henaway is a community/labour organizer at the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montreal, since 2008. He began his organizing in Toronto with Ontario Coalition Against Poverty organizing taxi drivers. In addition, he has worked in radio at CKUT covering labour issues. He is currently a PhD student at Concordia University in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environmental Studies. He has written extensively on issues of labour and immigration.

Jason Prince Jason Prince is an urban planner with nearly three decades experience in the social economy, working with groups on a range of collective solutions from community housing and daycares, to retail and producer cooperatives, as well as community energy projects. Prince teaches parttime at Concordia University and has edited a couple of books on problems facing the city. Prince has two children aged 13 and 14.

Eric Shragge Eric Shragge, after many years of academic work, retired to do something relevant. He was a founder and is President of the Immigrant Workers Centre and is active as a volunteer there.

Much of this piece is drawn from Montréal: A Citizen’s Guide to City Politics (2021), edited by Mostafa Henaway, Jason Prince and Eric Shragge, published by Black Rose Books, (

Editor’s Note Montreal’s municipal election will be held on November 7, 2021.





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