Local Government in Canada: Organization & Basic Institutions

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Nov 29, 2007

Local government plays a significant role in the everyday lives of Canadians. This feature provides an introduction to the organization and institutions of local government. In particular, it offers a general discussion of what local governments are and their relationship to other levels of government in Canada. Moreover, this article also provides a detailed examination of basic political and bureaucratic structures in municipalities, the most common form of local government.

Introduction to Local Government in Canada

What are Local Governments & What Do They Do?

Local Government & Intergovernmental Relations

Relationship Between Local, Provincial & Federal Governments

Comparing Types of Local Government in Canada

Municipalities, Boards, Commissions & Regional Governments

Political Structures in Municipal Government

Municipal Councils, Political Leaders & Elections

Administrative Structures in Municipal Government

Organization & Oversight of Municipal Bureaucracies

Sources & Links to Further Information

List of Article Sources & Links for More on this Topic


Introduction to Local Government in Canada

What are Local Governments & What Do They Do?

Local Government as a Level of Government

In Canada, there are several different levels of government: federal, provincial, territorial, and local government. The federal or national government, which includes institutions such as the Prime Minister and Parliament, is responsible for areas of jurisdiction affecting all Canadians, such as national defence, foreign policy, criminal law, and citizenship. The federal government (also known as the Government of Canada) also has the authority and responsibility of governing the Territories (though it usually delegates this role to elected territorial governments).

At the provincial level, there are provincial governments, such as the governments of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and so forth. This level of government has its own political institutions and leaders, such as provincial premiers and legislatures. Moreover, provincial governments have their own jurisdictions (which are provided for under the Canadian Constitution), such as health care, education, transportation (highways), and property and civil rights.

Finally, there is the local level of government. This level usually has responsibility over policy fields directly related to local communities (see below for more on the jurisdictions of local government). Moreover, like the other levels of government, local governments have their own political leaders and institutions, such as mayors/reeves, councillors/aldermen, directors, agencies, boards, and commissions.

What Do Local Governments Do?

The precise functions of local governments vary significantly from one province to the next, and even between regions within a province (rural local governments, for example, often perform different functions than large urban governments). Generally speaking, however, local governments are usually responsible for the following:

  • Protection of persons and property, which includes the management of local policing and firefighting services
  • Local transportation, such as management of public bus and rail services, as well as municipal roadway construction and maintenance
  • Planning and development, including municipal zoning and industrial/economic development
  • Public utilities, including the management of local sewage systems, water treatment, and electric utilities
  • Local social-welfare services, such as management of local health, library and educational facilities, and social assistance services.
  • Parks, recreation, and culture, including the development and management of local parks and green spaces, public recreation facilities, as well as local art and cultural programs and events.

Local Government & Powers of Taxation

Local governments, like other levels of government, also have the power of taxation. The main form of taxation at the local level is through property or real estate taxes. These are annual or semi-annual taxes paid by community residents and businesses, which are based on the value of privately owned properties (usually places of residence, land holdings, or places of business). Another form of taxation involves fees relating to the issuance of permits and licences, including building permits and business/establishment licences. In some rare cases, local governments are also permitted to collect consumption taxes (taxes levied on the consumption of goods and services, such as a sales tax or gasoline surtax).

Other Forms of Revenue

Taxation, however, is not the only source of revenue. Local governments also collect monies on the public services they provide (such as public transit fares and parks and recreation fees), as well as through the assessment of fines (such as parking tickets). Local governments also receive large funding transfers from other levels of government, in particular their respective provincial government. These come in the form of General Purpose Transfers (which the local government may use for any purpose) or Specific Purpose Transfers (which must be used for specific local services or capital projects).


Local Government & Intergovernmental Relations

Relationship Between Local, Provincial & Federal Governments

Local Government & the Provinces

Canada’s written constitution recognizes federal and provincial governments as relatively independent entities with their own powers and policy jurisdictions (which cannot be altered without their consent). Local governments, by contrast, are simply recognized as creatures of the provinces, and derive their powers from provincial law (usually in the form of a Municipal Act created by the provincial legislature). This means the provinces have the right to alter local governments in their jurisdiction at any time, be it to abolish or amalgamate municipalities, change their financial structures, alter their powers and responsibilities, or change the methods of electing their officials. Moreover, the province may do so without the consent of the local government(s) it is altering.

The provinces also often play a large role in the day-to-day operation of local governments. Many local by-laws, for example, require provincial approval before they can be formally implemented, and it is often the case that local planning decisions can be appealed to the provincial government. Customarily, the provinces also control municipal borrowing for capital projects; either directly through provincial ministries of municipal affairs or indirectly through provincially appointed municipal boards. Finally, local governments are dependent upon provincial transfers for a large portion of their revenues. Moreover, these transfers often come with restrictions concerning how, and where, the municipality may spend the monies.

Local Government & the Federal Government

Local governments also have a significant relationship with the federal level of government. The federal government often provides direct funding to communities for infrastructure projects, local events, or the development and implementation of social-welfare programs. Additionally, the federal government participates in local politics through the exercise of its own powers and jurisdictions. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Agency, for example, is a federal agency that works closely with municipalities in the area of housing policy. Similarly, Transport Canada (the federal department of transport) works with local governments in the development of airports, harbours, and railroads, which have a critical impact on the economic life of communities. One of the clearest examples of federal-local relations is the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, a federal policing agency that operates in many small and rural communities across Canada.

Relationships Between Local Governments

Finally, local governments also have close relationships with one another. Most municipalities in Canada belong to provincial and federal associations, such as the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. The purpose of these associations is to promote cooperation and assistance amongst member municipalities, in addition to providing a unified voice in municipal relations with other levels of government. In addition to provincial- and federal-based associations, there are also international municipal organizations, which promote the sharing of knowledge and cooperation between municipalities in different countries (such as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives).


Comparing Different Types of Local Government in Canada

Municipalities, Boards, Commissions & Regional Governments

There are several different types of local government, ranging from municipalities, to regional governments, to specialized agencies, boards and commissions. This section offers a general overview of each, with the qualification that their precise nature can differ from province to province.

Municipal Governments

The most common types of local government are municipalities, which include such entities as cities, towns, villages, and parishes. The particular classification of a municipality is usually based on its population size. Cities, for example, are municipalities with large populations, while towns have medium-sized populations, and villages and parishes have only a minimal number of residents.

All municipalities have a local council, which has responsibility for overseeing the day-to-day operation of the municipality. This council is usually comprised of elected members, known as councillors or aldermen, and is headed by a mayor or reeve. In most cases, the council is charged with a wide range of powers and responsibilities, such as taxation, budgeting, municipal planning and development, parks, and the provision of local public services.

Agencies, Boards & Commissions

In some cases, certain powers and responsibilities in local government are delegated to specialized agencies, boards, or commissions. Such bodies tend to enjoy a certain degree of autonomy from municipal councils, and are mandated to carry out a limited number of government-like functions. Common examples of such entities include police commissions (which oversee municipal police forces), school boards (which oversee the local public schools), health boards (which oversee hospital, home care, and ambulance services), parks and recreation boards, and transit authorities (which manage local bus and light-rail services).

Regional Local Governments

Another common type of local government is regional government. These are entities created by provinces in which several municipalities are grouped under a single regional administrative and political structure. The purpose of these regional governments is usually to provide area-wide municipal functions more efficiently, and, in that they encompass several municipalities, to provide a tax base sufficient enough to undertake expensive services or capital projects. In some circumstances, a regional government will have some limited autonomy from their constitutive municipalities, while in other cases municipal leaders will govern the regional government directly.

One of the clearest examples of this type of local government is the Greater Vancouver Regional District (or “GVRD”), which has 21 member municipalities in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. The GVRD is responsible for overseeing essential utilities for these municipalities (such as drinking water, sewage treatment, recycling, and garbage disposal), managing and planning regional growth and development, as well as protecting air quality and green spaces. The GVRD’s board of directions is comprised of mayors and councillors from each member municipality.

Other examples of regional governments are the county systems found in Atlantic Canada, Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta. Like the GVRD, these regional governments group several municipalities (often in rural areas) into a single regional structure for the purpose of providing certain region-wide services.


Political Structures in Municipal Government

Municipal Councils, Political Leaders & Elections

While heavily influenced by the provincial level of government, local governments have their own political officials and structures. This section examines the political organization of one type of local government – municipalities, which include cities, towns, and villages.

Municipal Councils

The most important political structure in any municipality is its council. These councils usually operate according to provincial legislation, which sets out their membership, powers and responsibilities, and methods for electing members.

Municipal councils in Canada usually perform both legislative (enacting law) and executive (executing law) functions. In its legislative role, the council is responsible for developing and enacting municipal by-laws that govern local residents. In its executive role, the council is also responsible for administering and executing these by-laws, as well as overseeing the day-to-day operation of local government. This differs from senior levels of government in Canada (such as the federal government and provinces), where the legislative and executive responsibilities are more clearly divided between different political institutions (such as the legislature and the Cabinet respectively).

Finally, councils usually operate under some form of a majority-rule in their legislative and executive decision-making. For a by-law to be enacted, or an executive decision to be executed, it must receive majority support by the members of the municipal council.

Council Membership

Municipal councils consist of political officials, usually called councillors. These are elected office-holders who may either represent a particular geographical area of the municipality, or are elected at large in city-wide elections. In addition to councillors, councils also have a leader or head of council, usually referred to as a mayor. This leader is generally elected city-wide and is given the responsibility of presiding over council meetings. It is important to note that Canadian mayors tend to have very little power independent of their councils. The significance of the office, instead, stems from its high profile in the local community. This serves in sharp contrast to the American experience, where mayors often exercise considerable independent power in local government.

Municipal Elections

Municipal councils in Canada are elected bodies, and are usually selected through one of two types of electoral systems. Smaller communities tend to utilize an at-large electoral system, in which council members are chosen in city-wide votes. Larger cities tend towards a ward- or constituency-based electoral system, in which the city is divided into separate districts, and where each district elects their own councilors. Mayors are usually elected in separate, at-large mayoral elections.

Municipal elections in Canada are generally non-partisan, meaning that candidates usually run as independents and are not affiliated with a political party. In some cases, such as Ontario, provincial legislation explicitly prohibits the formation of political parties for the purpose of fielding candidates in local elections. This is very different from federal and provincial politics in Canada, as well as local politics in the United States, where political parties dominate the electoral and governing process. There are, however, some important exceptions; both Vancouver and Montreal, for example, have histories of political party affiliations in their local politics.

The franchise in Canadian municipal elections has changed greatly over time. Traditionally, the right to vote was reserved only for male property owners. This meant that women and the lower economic classes were generally excluded from municipal elections. Since the mid-1960s, however, the provinces have gradually expanded the franchise. Today, voters in municipal elections are usually only required to be a resident of the community and of a certain age (usually 18).


Administrative Structures in Municipal Government

Organization & Oversight of Municipal Bureaucracies

Municipal government is also characterized by important administrative structures, which are concerned with the municipality’s public service or bureaucracy. These structures vary widely from one municipality to another, due to local/provincial circumstances and choices. In small villages, the bureaucracy might consist of a single person, who acts as municipal clerk, treasurer, tax collector, by-law officer, and otherwise. In large cities, by contrast, the public service may consist of thousands of employees divided into many departments, offices, and agencies. This section highlights some common bureaucratic styles in Canadian municipalities.

Municipal Departments

Bureaucracies in Canadian municipalities are usually organized into various departments, each with specific public policy functions (for example, public works, finance, human resources and payroll, parks and recreation). Each of these departments will consist of public service employees with specific job descriptions and responsibilities. Moreover, there will be a department head or manager, who, depending on the circumstances, will report to a general administrative officer or committee.

Council Committee System

Many municipalities, predominantly those that are small and medium-sized, operate under some form of a Council Committee System, in which the municipal council establishes a series of committees to direct and control all of the municipal departments. The number and nature of these committees depends on the particular circumstances and priorities of a given municipality. Each committee is made up of elected members of the municipal council, who oversee and direct department heads or managers, in addition to making recommendations concerning their respective departments to the municipal council.

Chief Administrative Officer System

An alternative bureaucratic style common in Canada is the Chief Administrative Officer System, in which the municipal council delegates day-to-day oversight of the municipal public service to an appointed senior official (whom usually has strong credentials in city planning and management). This official (referred to as a chief administration officer, city administrator, municipal manager, or city commissioner) will manage all of the municipal departments and their employees, and then provide reports and updates to the municipal council. This type of administrative style is common in most large Canadian municipalities.

Board of Commissioners System

Another form of administrative organization is the Board of Commissioners System, where municipal council appoints a management board (or group) of three or four commissioners (one of whom becomes the chief commissioner). Each member of this management group is responsible for their own set of interrelated public policy fields and departments. The board then, collectively, reports to the municipal council on the administration of the entire municipal bureaucracy.


Sources & Links to Further Information

List of Article Sources & Links for More on this Topic

Article Sources

Links for Further Information