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Home / The Course / Which Government Level? / Municipal Government / Powers and Structure
Powers and Structure

Powers: All municipalities are created by legislation enacted by their province or territory. A clause in the Constitution allows provinces and territories to delegate responsibilities to this government body.

Property taxes are the primary source of revenue for municipalities that must also rely on financing from other levels of government to provide a wide range of services to its citizens.

“New municipal legislation in many provinces across Canada is distinguished from predecessor legislation by adopting such concepts as ‘natural person powers’, broad spheres of jurisdiction, consultation, sometimes mandatory, between the province and municipalities, and the formal recognition of municipalities as an order of government. Such concepts are in contrast to the ‘old style’ legislation, which contained a ‘laundry-list’ of powers. If a power was not listed or necessarily implied, the municipality did not have that power. Therefore, when new social demands emerged, the municipality had to ask its province for special legislation before it could act. This process was slow and cumbersome.

By embedding such concepts into new municipal acts, the provinces concerned have begun to build mutually responsible and co-operative provincial-municipal relationships that enable municipalities to be more responsive to the needs of their citizens and better equipped to face changing realities.

New municipal legislation containing some or all of these concepts has been enacted (or is in the process of being enacted)by the Provinces of Alberta (1994), British Columbia (1996), Manitoba (1996), Newfoundland (1999), Nova Scotia (1998), the Yukon Territory (1998)” and Ontario (2002)."

Excerpt from "Towards a New Relationship with Ontario and Canada". Report prepared by the Chief Administrative Officer, City of Toronto, September 5, 2000."
See More on this Issue for more information.

Structure: The exact structure of a municipal government council depends on its size, its population and whether or not there is more than one level of local government involved.

City governments are headed by a mayor who presides over the Council where councillors from the different wards meet to adopt by-laws, approve budgets and set policies. Committees of Council are struck to pursue policies and monitor projects when the council is not meeting. Each council and committee of council sets its agenda and schedule.

Some rural areas have two-tier governments comprising a federation of local municipalities within the boundaries of a county or region that provides services to residents and businesses over an area that encompasses more than one township. Townships and villages are generally headed by a reeve or mayor, while county or regional governments are headed by a warden. Go to More on this Issue to visit Warden Susan Freeman’s Lanark County site as an example.

Changes: Since the mid-1990s, provincial governments – particularly in Ontario and Quebec – have transformed municipal governments through amalgamation. A number of municipal governments in large urban areas were abolished in order to create a metropolitan governing body with a single mayor and councillors representing both the city centre and all the surrounding suburbs. Similar changes also took place in rural areas as some counties and regional municipalities merged with their constituent local municipalities. For example, during this period in Ontario alone, the number of municipalities was reduced from 815 to 445. For more information on municipal restructuring in Canada and Ontario in particular, see references in More on this Issue.

The method by which councillors are elected varies from one municipality to another. They may be elected at large, or by ward. Mayors are usually elected at large by all the voters in the municipality. In most provinces, the mayor operates under a 'weak-mayor' system, meaning that the mayor has one vote, in common with all other members of Council, and no executive powers.

County councils on the other hand comprise designated elected members from the lower tier municipalities. The warden is selected by the county council from among its members.

For information on the rules and regulations applying to municipal governments in your province or territory, see the appropriate municipal act listed in More on this Issue.

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