Municipal government in Canada

Municipal government in Canada

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A municipal government in Canada is a local council authority which provides local services, facilities, safety and infrastructure for communities.[1][2] Canada has three levels 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]



Like many Canadian political institutions, 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 the 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 English 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.[5]

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.[5]

By the early 1900s, 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.[5]

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.[5]

Types of municipal government

Municipal governments are, in effect, 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.[6]


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 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.


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".[7] 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]

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]


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.)

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:

  • Management of the local policing and firefighting stations. Whilst this comes under the jurisdiction of the provincial government in some areas, it is not uncommon to see municipality police and fire stations.
  • Transportation. Whilst municipal governments may not be responsible for large highways, small roads and tracks usually come under their control. Additionally, municipal governments may operate bus and train services.
  • Education management or funding school boards. In many municipalities, the school board is voted in directly by the people and funded by the municipal government itself from the taxes it collects.
  • Planning and development. In order to build an extension on to a house, for example, a municipal government permit or certificate of approval may be required. They are also responsible for administering industrial, residential and commercial zones.
  • Finance and collecting municipality taxes. Most municipalities (with the exception of some rural ones) have the power to collect taxes in order to provide the services mentioned in this list. Almost 10% of the national GDP is spent on municipal government services,[8] and when the government is not funded by the provincial government, taxes need to be imposed.
  • Public utilities and other services. Usually parks are taken care of by the municipal government and occasionally sewerage, water, etc.
  • In Quebec, Ontario and Alberta the range of local government services is broadened to include electricity, telephone and gas services.[4][9][10]

Structure and funding

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 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.

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.[5][11]

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 sales of goods and services and tax transfers from the provincial government.[12]


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 Territory Occurrence Date Last Current Next
Alberta excluding Lloydminster 3 years 3rd Monday in October 2007 2010 2013
British Columbia 3 years 3rd Saturday in November 2005 2008 2011
Manitoba 4 years 4th Wednesday in October 2006 2010 2014
New Brunswick 4 years (3 years prior to 2004) 2nd Monday in May 2004 2008 2012
Newfoundland and Labrador 4 years last Tuesday in September 2005 2009 2013
Northwest Territories taxed communities 3 years 3rd Monday in October 2006 2009 2012
hamlets 2 years 2nd Monday in December 2008 2010 2012
Nova Scotia 4 years 3rd Saturday in October 2004 2008 2012
Nunavut Iqaluit 3 years 3rd Monday in October 2006 2009 2012
hamlets 1 year 1st Monday in December 2009 2010 2011
Ontario 4 years (3 years prior to 2006) 4th Monday in October (since 2010) 2006 2010 2014
Prince Edward Island cities, Cornwall, & Stratford 4 years 1st Monday in November 2006 2010 2014
excluding above 3 years 1st Monday in November 2006 2009 2012
Quebec 4 years 1st Sunday in November 2005 2009 2013
Saskatchewan urban municipalities 3 years 4th Wednesday in October 2006 2009 2012
odd-numbered rural municipalities 2 years 1st Wednesday in November 2008 2010 2012
even-numbered rural municipalities 2 years 1st Wednesday in November 2007 2009 2011
Yukon 3 years 3rd Thursday in October 2006 2009 2012

See also

Can-vote-stub.svg Canadian politics portal


  1. ^ "Municipal Government Act". Office of the Legislative Counsel, Nova Scotia House of Assembly,Crown in right of Nova Scotia. Created .. February 28, 2008. Retrieved 2009-08-22. 
  2. ^ "Municipal governmen". The Canadian Encyclopedia > Government > Government, General > Municipal Government. Historica Foundation of Canada.. 2009. Retrieved 2009-08-22. 
  3. ^ The Constitution Act, 1867 (U.K). Canadian Legal Information Institute. Retrieved May 24, 2009.
  4. ^ a b c Chapter 7 : Special report: local government in Canada. Government of Australia. Retrieved May 24, 2009.
  5. ^ a b c d e Canadian municipal history - Andrew Sancton, Professor, University of Western Ontario. Retrieved May 23, 2009.
  6. ^ Municipal government within New Brunswick. Retrieved May 23, 2009.
  7. ^ "Service Nova Scotia - Municipal Sercices". Province of Nova Scotia. Retrieved 2011-09-29. 
  8. ^ Canada offers its people an array of local governments, Nick Swift. Retrieved May 24, 2009.
  9. ^ Local Government: The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved May 24, 2009.
  10. ^ Local Government in Canada: MapleLeafWeb. Retrieved May 24, 2009.
  11. ^ Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. Example of council structure. Retrieved May 24, 2009.
  12. ^ Local general government revenue and expenditures, by province and territory. Statistics Canada. Retrieved May 24, 2009.

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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