Municipal Government

Municipal governments are local authorities created by the provinces and territories to provide services that are best managed under local control.

Municipal governments are local authorities created by the provinces and territories to provide services that are best managed under local control. They raise revenue (largely from property taxes and provincial grants) and impact people’s daily lives in numerous ways, from garbage pick-up and public transit to fire services, policing and programs at community centres, libraries and pools. Municipal governments include cities, towns, villages and rural (county) or metropolitan municipalities.

Municipal Structures

The administration of local government is handled by the municipal public service, made up of officials and employees appointed by an elected council and organized into departments. Council members are politicians who are voted into office in municipal elections, along with 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, setting them apart from federal and provincial politicians.

Municipalities employ large numbers of staff to look after roads, sewers, fire, and police, recycling and garbage programs, transit, parking enforcement, city recreation (parks, pools, 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 contrast to the practice in some American cities, in which duties such as budget formation and appointment of administration officers are the responsibility of the mayor, the significance of this office in Canada does not stem from the assignment of such powers but rather from its high profile — although a mayor with a forceful personality may also be a strong leader.

Variously described as "the chief officer," "the chief executive officer" or "the head of council" in provincial statutes, the mayor may be high profile but, in fact, has little power independent of the municipal council. All provinces provide that the mayor shall be elected at large (meaning that unlike councillors, they do not represent a specific geographic area or "ward" of the municipality). Canadian mayors generally preside at all council meetings, are ex officio members of all committees and can make recommendations to the council.

Canada has had a number of colourful mayors who have made national headlines for various reasons. Toronto's Mel Lastman, a local character who founded Bad Boy furniture, famously called in the army in 1999 to help shovel snow during a big winter storm, making the city the butt of jokes across the country. Toronto's Rob Ford faced allegations in 2013 that he smoked crack cocaine (the allegations were never proven) when alleged images of him circulated on the Internet and in the media. Ottawa's Larry O’Brien, who owned a multi-million dollar high tech company, faced influence peddling charges related to his 2006 election to office, and was acquitted in 2009.

Mayors have also had to deal with major civic emergencies. The 2013 flooding in Calgary put Naheed Nenshi in the national spotlight while he led the city through the disaster. Nenshi was widely praised for his leadership. Mayors also tend to help promote their cities to draw workers, 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, mayor of Winnipeg from 1998 to 2004 (the first openly-gay mayor of a major North American city) later moved to Toronto where he became a Liberal cabinet minister in the Ontario government.

Chief Administrative Officer (CAO)

The CAO may be known as the city administrator, municipal manager or city commissioner, and is largely a modified version of the council-manager system popular in the United States. The position is an attempt to formally separate the functions of policy making and administration by assigning the former to the elected municipal council and the latter to the non-elected municipal manager. Few Canadian cities have attempted the rigid, formal division inherent in the council-manager plan. The CAO, appointed by the council, has responsibility for administration and is accountable to the council. However, he or she can make recommendations to council with respect to policy. In the same way, municipal councils often make suggestions with respect to administration.

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

Board of Commissioners

The board of commissioners arrangement evolved in western Canada, particularly in Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and, for a period, in Vancouver. It was abandoned by Edmonton and Winnipeg and a city manager position was created instead. Under a board of commissioners system, a management group of three or four commissioners is appointed, one of whom becomes the chief commissioner. Each commissioner is responsible for a broad range of interrelated responsibilities including a group of departments. The board is collectively responsible to the council for the entire administration. Variants of these structures also exist. Québec City, for example, has an executive committee with a city manager accountable to it.

Special Purpose Bodies

Municipal governments also include a number of special purpose boards or commissions usually created by provincial governments, although the extent of their use varies considerably. 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, although municipalities must provide a considerable proportion of their funds. Because these bodies fall under the control of both the provincial and municipal governments, it is difficult for the public to know just who is responsible and for what.

Provincial Authority

The relationship between a province and its municipalities is one of superior and subordinates and not of equals. Municipal governments have no constitutionally recognized existence but are creations of provincial legislation, which assigns to them certain duties and responsibilities. Certain areas, such as those involving municipal finance and land-use planning powers, are regulated by the provinces. The relationship between municipalities and the federal government is relatively unimportant. Federal programs that affect municipal government are generally handled through federal-provincial agreements.

Annexation and Amalgamation

The extension of municipal boundaries by the annexation of peripheral rural areas is usually justified on the grounds that urban services such as water, sewerage facilities and roads can be provided more readily by the urban municipality than the rural area. When a major city is encircled by several smaller municipalities, or when two municipalities have developed side by side and share a common boundary, separate municipal jurisdictions complicate the provision of necessary services. This problem is sometimes solved by amalgamation, the consolidation of municipalities into a single municipal entity.

Decisions about annexation or amalgamation can only be made by the provincial government. Because both usually provoke controversy, most provinces have established procedures involving hearings held by administrative tribunals such as the Ontario Municipal Board and the Local Authorities Board in Alberta. In some circumstances, a province may establish a special investigating commission to study the matter and make a recommendation. In large metropolitan areas where several municipal governments operate, amalgamation has been considered difficult if not impossible. Some provinces have established metropolitan governments or regional governments or special districts.

However, some provinces have made significant amalgamation decisions. Manitoba consolidated 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 have remained controversial. One Ottawa councillor who originally 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 local government. Clive Doucet said the city should break up and 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.

Further Reading

  • C. Richard Tindal and Susan Nobes Tindal, Local Government in Canada (4th edition, 1995); T.J. Plunkett, City Management in Canada (1992).