Municipal government in Canada

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In Canada, municipal government is a type of local council authority that provides local services, facilities, safety and infrastructure for communities. [1] [2] Canada has three orders of government: federal, provincial and municipal. According to Section 92(8) of the Constitution Act, 1867 , "In each Province the Legislature may exclusively make Laws in relation to … Municipal Institutions in the Province." [3] There are about 3,700 municipal governments in Canada. [4] Municipal governments are established under provincial/territorial authority. [5]



Like many Canadian political institutions, the municipal government has its roots in the medieval system of government in England. Famously, the city of Winchester was given its charter in 1185, and the granting of freedoms became endorsed in Magna Carta, which was signed in 1215. The first formal municipality in Canada was the city of Saint John in New Brunswick, which received royal approval in 1785. For municipal government, this began an almost 50-year hiatus of receiving approval from the government, ending in the 1830s when the issue was placed on the agenda once again. In 1835, the British parliament passed the Municipal Corporations Act, which specified how municipalities were to function and be elected. The ideas from this law were transferred to Canada by Lord Durham, who submitted a report to then-Governor General, Lord Sydenham. In late 1840 to early 1841, the governments of what was Canada at the time enacted various acts which established municipal government in all areas of the country. [6]

In 1849, the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada approved a Canadian version of the Municipal Corporations Act, often referred to as the Baldwin Act in honour of its creator, Robert Baldwin. It delegated authority to the municipal governments so they could raise taxes and enact by-laws. It also established a hierarchy of types of municipal governments, starting at the top with cities and continued down past towns, villages and finally townships. Changes to the boundaries of these new governments could be made by petitioning the provincial Municipal Board or by requesting a change through the legislature. [6]

By the early 20th century, Canada was deeply involved in a period of municipal reform. An attempt to distinguish municipal government from the provincial legislature occurred, and the municipal governments were compared with a board of directors – this form of government was not for advancing a certain political party's view, it was for sitting down and running it 'like a business'. As such, the idea that a larger municipality should have more councillors was the same as having a large board of directors for a larger company, i.e., not functionally possible. [6]

Between the 1920s and the 1960s, the municipalities received increased funding from their provincial government parents. This was partly due to the Great Depression, but further discussion about reform reared its head in the 1970s. In many cities, the system of having a few very large wards encompassing many different walks of life was replaced with one ward for every area with different demographics; this was to ensure that councillors would not have conflicting interests between the well-off and those not so. The arguments over municipal government reform continue, seen in the recent City of Toronto Act 1997 dispute. [6]

Types of municipal government

Municipal governments are subdivisions of their province. While the municipality has autonomy on most decisions, all by-laws passed by that municipal government are subject to change by the provincial government at any time.

An example of a typical municipal government structure can be found in New Brunswick, which played host to the first municipal government in Canada in 1785 at Saint John. [7] [ dead link ]

Regional municipalities

In some provinces, several municipalities in a particular area are also part of an upper tier of municipal government, which provides more regionally oriented services. Depending on the province, this second tier may be called a county, regional municipality, regional district or regional county municipality.

In Nova Scotia, three municipalities are designated as "regional municipalities". [8] A regional municipality is a single municipal government covering an entire historical county including all formerly incorporated towns and cities within the county.[ citation needed ] Within the three regional municipalities, designations such as "city" and "town" exist only as informal signifiers for historically chartered towns and cities that used to exist prior to the establishment of the regional municipality.[ citation needed ]

Local municipalities

In Canada, the types of municipal government vary between provinces, although they all perform the same functions. The general hierarchy was established in 1849 with the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act. The largest municipalities are usually called cities, and their governments city councils. Smaller governments are commonly called towns, villages, parishes, rural municipalities, townships or hamlets. Some may also be directly designated as municipalities rather than as a particular type of municipality, but this term is still considered inclusive of all local governments regardless of their status.

The term "borough" was previously used in Metropolitan Toronto, Ontario, to denote suburban municipalities. The Borough of East York was the last municipality to hold this status, relinquishing it upon becoming part of the City of Toronto government on January 1, 1998.

In Quebec, there is no legal distinction between cities and towns – although an informal and subjective distinction may be observed by English speakers, legally all "cities" and "towns" in Quebec have the same status of ville .

Sublocal divisions

In Quebec, the term borough is generally used as the English translation of arrondissement, referring to an administrative division of a municipality. Only eight municipalities in Quebec are divided into boroughs. (See List of boroughs in Quebec.)

Unincorporated areas

Some areas in Canada are unincorporated, meaning that they do not have a municipal government at all. Any government services in an unincorporated area are provided either by a local agency, such as a Local services board or local service district, or by the province itself. [4]

Powers and functions

While many municipal governments have different functions to others (urban vs. rural, etc.), and vary from province to province, most of the services and functions they perform are effectively the same. Functions of municipal governments can include:

Structure and funding

Municipal government funding sources, 2005 MunicipalGovernmentFunding.jpg
Municipal government funding sources, 2005

Most local governments are formed by a charter or act granted by the province or territory. Local governments are not mentioned in the Canadian Constitution other than to say they are the responsibility of the provinces. Consequently, municipalities can be created, amalgamated, or disbanded at the whim of the provincial government which controls them. They are also limited in the amount of interaction they have with the federal government because this would infringe upon an area of provincial jurisdiction. The federal government does fund quite a few projects in many cities, like major transit and roads. These funds come from a variety of federal programs like P3 Canada, [12] where a private company/consortia does a percentage of a project, construction, operations, maintenance, financing and designing, the Building Canada Fund, [13] where major projects can receive federal funds for a project. Unlike many US projects and cities, most projects only get approximately a quarter of their funds from the federal government, and they are not obligated [14] to have a certain amount of the work done by Canadians or Canadian companies.

Since each province is responsible for creating local governments in its own territory, the names, functions, and powers of local bodies vary widely across the country. Local governments generally have limited powers, namely creating local by-laws and taxation (property tax).

Typically, a municipal government is made up of one mayor (occasionally reeve or warden) and a set number of councillors (occasionally alderman ). There are usually 10−20 councillors in one council; however, an exception to this is Montreal, with over 50 councillors. The councillors may represent districts called wards. [6] [15]

In Canada, 83% of the municipal government revenue is raised through their own sources, and legally their accounts cannot go into deficit, safeguarding the provinces from unintentionally guaranteeing their municipal governments' debts. The majority of funding for Canadian municipal governments comes from property taxes. Additional funding sources include the sale of goods and services, fines and tax transfers from the provincial government. [16]


Due to the control that the provinces have over their municipal governments, terms that councillors serve vary from province to province. Unlike most provincial elections, municipal elections are usually held on a fixed date.

Dates of elections by province and territory

Province or TerritoryOccurrenceDateLastCurrentNext
Alberta excluding Lloydminster 4 years (3 years prior to 2013)3rd Monday in October 2017 2021 2025
British Columbia 4 years (3 years prior to 2014)3rd Saturday in October (beginning 2018) 2018 2022 2026
Manitoba 4 years4th Wednesday in October 2018 2022 2026
New Brunswick 4 years2nd Monday in May 2016 2021 (moved from 2020)?
Newfoundland and Labrador 4 yearslast Tuesday in September 2017 2021 2025
Northwest Territories taxed communities3 years3rd Monday in October201820212024
hamlets2 years2nd Monday in December201820202022
Nova Scotia 4 years3rd Saturday in October 2016 2020 2024
Nunavut Iqaluit 4 years3rd Monday in October201920232027
hamlets1 year1st Monday in December201920202021
Ontario 4 years (3 years prior to 2006)4th Monday in October (since 2010) 2018 2022 2026
Prince Edward Island 4 years1st Monday in November 2018 2022 2026
Quebec 4 years1st Sunday in November 2017 2021 2025
Saskatchewan urban municipalities
including Alberta portion of Lloydminster
4 years (3 years prior to 2012)4th Wednesday in October 2016 2020 2024
odd-numbered rural municipalities4 years (2 years prior to 2015) [17] 4th Wednesday in October201220142016
even-numbered rural municipalities4 years (2 years prior to 2015) [18] 4th Wednesday in October201320152018
Yukon 3 years3rd Thursday in October201820212024

See also

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