Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Shaughnessy Cohen Prize Series, with Peter F. Trent

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Peter F. Trent

Tomorrow night will be a career-making evening for one lucky non-fiction writer. The Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing will be announced at Ottawa's premiere social event, Politics & the Pen on March 6, 2013. In addition to the finalists, the event draws hundreds of politicians, staffers, diplomats and philanthropists as well as playing hosts to dozens of respected Canadian authors. The $25,000 prize rewards the year's finest book tackling a political subject of interest to Canadian readers.

We've spoken with four of the five nominees so far, and today we close our interview series with Peter F. Trent, the author of The Merger Delusion: How Swallowing Its Suburbs Made an Even Bigger Mess of Montreal (McGill-Queen's University Press). Peter is uniquely qualified to write this book, having served as the mayor of Montreal for fourteen years.

Peter talks with Open Book about the fallacy of mergers as an answer to urban ills (a subject which will feel familiar to many Torontonians), the role of power in politics and some of his favourite reads from past Shaughnessy Cohen winners and finalists.

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted and how the project came about.

Peter F. Trent:

After lying dormant for decades, the doctrine of mass municipal mergers broke out again in the latter part of the 1990s, becoming all the rage in Eastern Canada where mergers were sold as a panacea for many of our urban ills. This political fad sprang up in Halifax, thence moving on to Ontario, and, finally, it was visited upon Quebec. As a result, the chronic maladministration and corruption of the former City of Montreal became the norm when, the 1st of January 2002, it annexed all the other municipalities on the island of Montreal — including my own.

Although mercifully not its primary purpose, this book did deal with my anger over the way the Parti Québécois government imposed this Montreal megacity. In fact, a total of 212 municipalities were wiped off the Quebec map without any electoral mandate, without any public consultation, and without any critical studies worthy of that name. Pretty much the same thing had happened in Ontario. My anger over forced mergers got sublimated into something I do hope is constructive. For instance, this book presents some ideas for resolving certain metropolitan problems, problems that mass municipal mergers were supposed to solve but in fact exacerbated.

By describing the history of what was promised and what was delivered, I hoped this book also might serve as a kind of prophylactic measure against further outbreaks of municipal merger mania. That said, I decided not to write a straight history: The Merger Delusion has the flavour of a memoir, a sort of war diary of my battles against merger and later for de-merger — together becoming a tragedy of errors in two acts. And, since I show the reader how private events shape public decisions, it is a bit of a glimpse into the life of a politician, albeit a municipal one.

So, while it’s much about ideas, the book is also about people. I tried to examine the political hubris that led to such errors and to present a story of politicians as people, not automatons. Some politicians seem to be driven chiefly by emotions, not logic. And morally, a few politicians are partial to justifying means by invoking ends; whereas morality has much more to do with how you go about doing things and not what you actually succeed in doing. To make things worse, our often irrational political process is abetted by media that find themselves in the entertainment, not the information, business.

In common with many political books, this one was written almost as some events happened. It required a lot of rewriting, especially as the Montreal corruption scandals that erupted in 2009 continued to unfold. I was also vaguely aware of a need to convince the public that not all politicians are corrupt; especially if we are to hope for a new batch of politicians to rise up who are not strangers to scruples.

OB:

In your opinion, what qualities or characteristics signify that a book qualifies as political writing?

PFT:

Politicians are the recipients of a conditionally-given power from citizens: the power to provide for some of their needs and to regulate some of their interactions. Political writing should explore the fairest way to grant and to wield this power. Political writing examines this weighty stewardship: both the people who give it and those who receive it. Ultimately, then, political writing is about the use and abuse of power.

OB:

The prize is presented at an evening event in Ottawa called Politics and the Pen. What are you most looking forward to about P&P? Have you attended before?

PFT:

I am looking forward to my first Politics and the Pen gala: blessed be the black tie that binds, I always say. I am also looking forward to chatting with professional writers, as I have had my fill of politicians of late. (It is untrue, by the way, that the City of Montreal will hold an event called Politics and the Penitentiary.)

OB:

If you were to recommend one past finalist or winner of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize to readers, which title would you choose?

PFT:

That is an impossible task. How does one rate books? Or chose among authors as varied as Ron Graham, Richard Gwyn, Jane Jacobs, or Gwynne Dyer? Then there’s Margo Somerville, a friend whose mind is forever in high gear. I also have respect for the immeasurable courage of General Dallaire. I am struck by the originality and thoroughness of Arrival City by Doug Saunders, a book I am currently reading.

I give up. I’d rather be judged than to judge.

OB:

If you win the prize, how will you celebrate?

PFT:

Politicians are always advised against answering hypothetical questions.

OB:

What can you tell us about your next project?

PFT:

My next project is at least to put up a pretence of running the City of Westmount. But, who knows? It might not be too long from now when my keyboard will start calling me to write another book. After all, I’m now pretty much hooked.


Peter F. Trent is the mayor of the City of Westmount, Quebec. He was first elected as a councillor in 1983, and served as mayor between 1992 and 2001, returning to the position in 2009. He has contributed columns and editorials to the Westmount Examiner and the Gazette (Montreal). The Merger Delusion is his first book.

For more information about The Merger Delusion: How Swallowing Its Suburbs Made an Even Bigger Mess of Montreal please visit the McGill-Queen's University Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

For more information about the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, please visit the Writers' Trust of Canada website.

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