Municipal Government in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Municipal Government in Canada

Municipal governments are local elected authorities. They include citiestowns and villages, and rural (county) or metropolitan municipalities. They are created by the provinces and territories to provide services that are best managed under local control; from waste disposal and public transit to fire services, policing, community centres and libraries. A municipal government’s revenue is raised largely from property taxes and provincial grants.

Montreal City Hall

Municipal Structures

The administration of local government is handled by the municipal public service. It is made up of officials and employees appointed by an elected council and is organized into departments. Council members are politicians who are voted into office in municipal elections. School trustees and some other local officials are also elected, including parks representatives in cities such as Vancouver. Council members are generally non-partisan and run for office as individuals, rather than as part of a political party. This sets them apart from federal and provincial politicians, who take part in a party system.

Municipalities employ large numbers of staff to look after roads; sewers; fire prevention; police; recycling and waste disposal programs; transit; parking enforcement; city recreation (parks, sports facilities, local paths); public health services; and by-law enforcement. Most municipal councils establish committees to direct and control the public service. Each committee makes recommendations to the municipal council. Committees deal with issues ranging from transportation to policing to finances.


In some American cities, duties such as budget formation and appointment of administrators are the responsibility of the mayor. In Canada, the significance of the office of mayor does not stem from the assignment of such powers; but rather, from its high profile. In provincial statutes, the mayor is variously described as the “chief officer,” “chief executive officer” or “head of council.” The mayor may be high profile; but they have little power independent of the municipal council.

All provinces provide that the mayor shall be elected at large. This means that unlike councillors, they do not represent a specific geographic area or “ward” of the municipality. Canadian mayors generally preside at all council meetings. They are ex officio members of all committees and can make recommendations to the council.

Mayors also act as the point person during major civic emergencies. For example, the 2013 flooding in Calgary put Naheed Nenshi in the national spotlight while he led the city through the crisis. Mayors also help promote their cities to attract workers and tourists, and to promote local business.

Mayors also sometimes rise to higher political office. Ralph Klein, mayor of Calgary from 1980 to 1989, was later the Conservative premier of Alberta from 1992 to 2006. Glen Murray was the first openly gay mayor of a major North American city when he served as mayor of Winnipeg from 1998 to 2004. He later became a Liberal cabinet minister in the Ontario government.

Chief Administrative Officer (CAO)

The Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) may be known as the city administrator, municipal manager or city commissioner. It is a modified version of the council-manager in the United States. The position separates policy making from administration: the former is assigned to the elected municipal council; the latter to the non-elected CAO. The CAO is appointed by and accountable to the council. However, he or she can also make policy recommendations. In the same way, municipal councils often make suggestions with respect to administration.

A clear-cut distinction between policy and administration is not always easy to maintain. In practice, there is some crossover in the activities of council and the CAO. The creation of the position of CAO has allowed some councils to abolish committees. When this occurs, the municipal council usually acts as a committee of the whole; it receives reports from the CAO and other officials. Alternatively, some councils have consolidated and reduced the number of committees to which the CAO must report.

Board of Commissioners

The use of a board of commissioners evolved in Western Canada; particularly in Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and, for a period, in Vancouver. It was dropped by Edmonton and Winnipeg; both cities created a city manager position instead. Under a board of commissioners system, a management group of three or four commissioners is appointed. One of them becomes the chief commissioner. Each commissioner is responsible for a broad range of responsibilities, including a group of departments. The board is responsible to the council for the entire administration. Variants of these structures also exist. Quebec City, for example, has an executive committee with a city manager accountable to it.

Special Purpose Bodies

Municipal governments also include special purpose boards or commissions. These are usually created by provincial governments. However, the extent of their use can vary greatly. They include library boards; water utility commissions; transit authorities; police commissions; parks boards; and conservation authorities. Provincial statutes outline the procedures for the appointment of members.

Most of these groups enjoy varying degrees of independence from municipal jurisdiction. However, municipalities provide most of their funds. These bodies fall under the control of both the provincial and municipal governments. This makes it difficult for the public to know who is responsible and for what.

Provincial Authority

The relationship between a province and its municipalities is one of superior and subordinates; not of equals. (See Municipal-Provincial Relations.) Municipal governments have no constitutionally recognized existence. They are creations of the provinces, which assigns to them certain duties and responsibilities. Some areas are regulated by the provinces. These can include municipal finance and land-use planning powers. The relationship between municipalities and the federal government is relatively unimportant. Federal programs that affect local governments are generally handled through federal-provincial agreements. (See also Federal-Provincial Relations.)

Annexation and Amalgamation

Municipal boundaries are often extended by the annexation of nearby rural areas. This is usually justified on the grounds that urban services such as water treatment, sewage facilities and roads can be provided more readily by the urban municipality than the rural one. When a major city is encircled by several smaller municipalities, separate municipal jurisdictions complicate the provision of necessary services. This is also true when two municipalities have developed side by side and share a common boundary. This problem is sometimes solved by amalgamation; multiple municipalities are merged into a single entity.

Decisions about annexation or amalgamation can only be made by the provincial government. Both options are usually controversial. Most provinces have procedures that involve hearings held by administrative tribunals. Examples of these include the Ontario Municipal Board and the Local Authorities Board in Alberta. In some cases, a province may establish a special investigating commission. It studies the matter and makes a recommendation. In large metropolitan areas where several municipal governments operate, amalgamation has been considered difficult if not impossible. Some provinces have established metropolitan governmentsregional governments or special districts.

However, some provinces have carried out amalgamations. Manitoba merged the city of Winnipeg and nine other municipal governments into the single city of Winnipeg in 1974. Nova Scotia amalgamated the cities of Halifax and Dartmouth, the town of Bedford and part of the county of Halifax in 1996. In 1998, Ontario consolidated the municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, the city of Toronto, the four cities of Scarborough, Etobicoke, North York, and York, and the borough of East York into the single City of Toronto. And in 2001, eleven municipalities — Cumberland, Gloucester, Goulbourn, Kanata, Nepean, Osgoode, Ottawa, Rideau, Rockcliffe Park, Vanier and West Carleton — were amalgamated into the single city of Ottawa.

Amalgamations are controversial. One Ottawa councillor who had supported the amalgamation of his city told the CBC in 2009 that it no longer works to combine the city’s urban and rural needs under one government. Clive Doucet said the city should break up. He told the CBC: “They just have different priorities. Maybe they’re better served not being in the amalgamated city.” He said it gets too complicated when committees deal with transit issues, for example; and rural and urban councillors have vastly different constituents and interests.

See also Local Government; Local Elections; Metropolitan Government; Municipal Finance Regional Government Urban Citizens Movements;  Improvement District.

Further Reading