Municipal governments have a significant impact on the lives of most Canadians and represent an important area toward which feminist advocacy efforts can be directed. This module will provide an overview of the structure and powers of municipal governments.
Where do Municipal Governments Get their Powers from?
Municipal governments receive their powers from the provinces that they are located in. For that reason, their duties and powers are often outlined in provincial statutes. Take a look at Ontario’s Municipal Act, 2001 and Alberta’s Municipal Government Act for examples of the types of legislation that govern municipalities. Municipalities that function as provincial or national capitals, like Toronto and Ottawa, may also be governed by their own statutes.
What Services do Municipal Governments Provide?
Municipal governments may be responsible for ambulance services, housing, animal control, police and fire services, childcare, transit, public health, and water treatment and management, among others. These are essential services for most Canadians, which makes feminist advocacy at the local level critically important.
How are Municipal Governments Structured?
The structure of municipal government may vary slightly across Canada. For example, British Columbia has a unique system of local governance that is divided into municipalities and regional districts. Although regional districts may provide services to the municipalities they cover, what makes this form of governance unique is that the member municipalities lend authority to the regional districts rather than being under their authority. A list of powers and services provided by regional districts in British Columbia can be found here.
A similar division is present in Ontario where municipalities may be designated as single tier or two-tier. The cities of Ottawa and Toronto are single tier municipalities, which means that the city is responsible for delivering all services to its residents. By contrast, two-tier municipalities are comprised of an upper tier and a lower tier and may divide service delivery between them. For example, an upper tier municipality, called region or county, may be responsible for providing policing, transit, and waste disposal across several smaller municipalities. The difference between upper and lower tier municipalities is significant, not only in terms of service delivery, but also because upper-tier municipality council members are generally not directly elected by voters. An example of a two-tier municipality is the city of Oshawa (the lower-tier municipality) which is located in Durham Region (the upper-tier municipality). In order to effectively engage in feminist law reform at the municipal level, it is important to know which portion of the municipality is responsible for the issue that is being lobbied for.
City counselors act as policymakers, representatives, and stewards of the municipalities they serve. In Ontario, city councils are required to have a minimum of five members, one of whom functions as the head of the council. City counselors are usually elected at large or by ward by the people who live in the municipality. Elected at large means that all councillors represent the entire municipality and voters select among them. Municipalities that use the ward system elect their counselors by dividing the municipality into wards and having one or two representatives for each ward. Voters in this system are only able to vote among the candidates who are running for election in the ward in which they reside. An example of a municipality that elects its counselors via the ward system is Toronto. Click here to see ward profiles for the City of Toronto.
Some of the duties of a city council are to represent the public and consider the interests and well-being of the municipality, to develop and evaluate policies and programs, and to determine how services are to be provided. City councils pass by-laws, allocate funds, conduct hearings, and engage in strategic planning to determine the municipality’s long-term goals.
Head of City Council
The head of the city council may be called a mayor/reeve (lower or single tier municipalities), or a chair/warden (upper tier municipalities). They act as the chief executive officer of the municipality and preside over council meetings. In Ontario, the head of council for lower tier and single tier municipalities is generally elected at large by all the voters in the municipality. In contrast, a warden or chair may be elected by the lower tier municipality council members. Although the role of mayor is high profile, this does not mean that the mayor has more power than the rest of the council. Generally, decisions must be made by the council as a whole. Therefore, working in coalition with multiple city counselors can be a more effective path to advocacy than directing attention solely at the mayor or reeve.
The Levels of Government
Municipalities in Ontario
Engage & Discuss
Do some research on the municipality that you are currently located in.
- What kind of municipality is it?
- Who is responsible for providing services to its inhabitants?
- How many city counselors are there?
- Who is the mayor or reeve?
- What is their contact information?
Part 2: Benefits of Feminist Advocacy at the Municipal Level
Although municipalities receive their powers from the provinces, they can be particularly effective sites of feminist advocacy. This module will explore some of the ways in which local governments have enacted widespread change as well as some of the limitations of local law reform efforts.
Decriminalization of Controlled Substances
Municipalities are optimally positioned to protect their citizens by decriminalizing the simple possession of controlled substances. Studies have shown that Black and Indigenous communities are disproportionately targeted for policing and penalized under punitive drug laws. Additionally, safe injection sites and harm reduction strategies have been found to be more effective strategies for assisting those with substance use issues. Although the federal government has not enacted a comprehensive decriminalization strategy, it has empowered municipalities to do so. Under section 56 (1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, municipalities may request the federal government to suspend provisions of the act that pertain to the possession of a controlled substance. This request can be made by local medical health officers, municipal boards of health, or via a city council motion; in other words, although the request can be made via a city council motion, such a motion is not a pre-requisite.
Section 56 (1) gives municipalities the following power: “The Minister may, on any terms and conditions that the Minister considers necessary, exempt from the application of all or any of the provisions of this Act or the regulations any person or class of persons or any controlled substance or precursor or any class of either of them if, in the opinion of the Minister, the exemption is necessary for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise in the public interest.”
Section 56 (1)
Although allowing municipalities to make laws surrounding the transportation and storage of handguns within their borders is an important step in combatting gun violence, some critics have argued that this may result in a piecemeal approach. This criticism of the proposed bill illustrates the limitations of working strictly at the municipal level and the importance of inter-municipality cooperation and coalition building. Additionally, some provinces, like Saskatchewan and Alberta, have passed legislation to bar municipalities from making their own gun laws, which may limit the effectiveness of this federal bill. More can be read on this debate here.
Another way in which municipalities have engaged in significant reform is by declaring themselves sanctuary cities. A sanctuary city is a city where access to city services is not dependent on proof of immigration status and where information sharing between city service providers and immigration officials is severely limited. Toronto developed such a policy in 2013 with their Access T.O. initiative. Sanctuary city policies can be a means of filling gaps in Canadian immigration policies that marginalize individuals with precarious immigrations statuses. However, the fact that these initiatives are limited by geographic area and may be subject to statutory limitations illustrates that advocacy at the municipal level should be coupled with federal and provincial efforts to ensure that more people are protected.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated, access to reliable internet services is increasingly being recognized as a basic necessity. In addition to allowing children to attend school and allowing women to work remotely, access to affordable and stable internet is of particular importance when it comes to combatting violence against women, as it can reduce the isolation of women experiencing intimate partner violence by connecting them to family, friends, and service providers. Read the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres’ study on Using Technology to Better Support Survivors for more information on the benefits and challenges regarding the role of technology in ending violence against women.
Despite the importance of internet connectivity, many Canadians lack affordable and reliable access. Municipalities can play an important role in facilitating this access for their citizens. The City of Toronto’s ConnectTO initiative is an example of a municipality attempting to ensure that citizens have a better access to internet service. This initiative will see the creation of a city-wide broadband network. The money it generates will be reinvested into the community to further expand access to internet service.
Rural municipalities remain underserved when it comes to internet access, making this an important site of feminist law reform. Click here to read the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ submission to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) on the challenges of bringing broadband internet access to rural municipalities.
The Role of Municipalities in Advancing Women’s Equity in Canada
2018 Reflection paper prepared for the Canadian Commission for UNESCO
Advancing Equity and inclusion: A Guide for Municipalities
CAWI has worked with partners—municipalities, women’s organizations, academics, local and national organizations—from across the country to advance gender equality, equity, and inclusion in the creation of this guide.
Vancouver’s Women Equity Strategy
Halton Region and Local Municipalities Support Proposals to Improve Rural Broadband Internet Access
Engage & Discuss
Examine the sample municipal motion found in the HIV Legal Network’s primer for municipal and provincial governments on decriminalizing people who use drugs. Consider which city councillors and public health organizations in your community you could contact to get such a motion passed.
Does your municipality have an equity and inclusion strategy? If so, what steps has your municipality taken to meet its objectives? If not, what steps can you take to get such a motion adopted?
Does your municipality have reliable and affordable internet access? The government of Ontario has launched the Improving Connectivity for Ontario (ICON) program. Take a look at the website to see what sort of information is required to receive funding for broadband. What steps could your municipality take to access this funding or similar funding programs in your province?
Does your municipality have a climate change action plan? Examine the Federation of Canadian Municipality’s compendium of success stories for the Green Municipal Fund. What strategies could your own municipality adopt to address climate change?
Part 3: Lawmaking at the Municipal Level
Municipalities are empowered by their governing statutes to pass and enforce by-laws as a means of exercising their power. By-laws are community-specific and operate in addition to federal and provincial laws and regulations. By-laws can usually be found listed on the municipality’s homepage and can address such topics as noise, pet licences, zoning, and parking enforcement. Follow this link to see examples of some of the by-laws that have been passed in Ottawa. The procedure for passing a by-law will vary depending on the subject matter under discussion and on the governing provincial statute, but by-laws must generally be passed in open council sessions and usually require a quorum of members in attendance.
Municipalities may hire officers to enforce by-laws or have them enforced by the local police force. City council can order that someone discontinue a by-law contravention or that they undertake work to correct a by-law contravention; it can also carry out work at the person’s expense if they are in default of a work order. Click here for an example of a family having to move their backyard play structure to be compliant with Toronto by-laws.
Municipalities can also impose administrative penalties, but their amount cannot be punitive and cannot exceed the amount reasonably required to promote compliance with the by-law. Although by-laws can be a tool of feminist law reform, they have also been a tool of discrimination. Click here to see how zoning bylaws have been deployed against people with disabilities and some of the actions that human rights advocates have taken.
If a By-Law Enforcement Officer Comes to My Door, Do I have to Let Them In
Municipalities in Ontario can hire law enforcement officers and inspectors to enforce various provincial statutes as well as local by-laws. These officers and inspectors are afforded very broad investigative powers, which can surprise property owners who might otherwise assume that such officers have lesser rights than police officers.
2. Bylaw Battles: Explaining Municipal-Provincial and Municipal-Federal Win-Rates
Alcoholism Foundation of Manitoba v Winnipeg (City)
Ontario Hubs: Bylaw Officers
Part 4: Getting Involved in Municipal Government: Committees and Hearings Introduction
Municipal committees and hearings provide opportunities for city councils to solicit feedback from community members and are important avenues for feminist advocacy. This module will explore some of the different committee and hearing types.
As with House of Commons and Senate standing committees, municipal standing committees are committees that meet regularly with focused mandates to deal with issues that are of ongoing interest or importance. See Burlington’s Environment, Infrastructure and Community Services Committee for an example of a standing committee.
Advisory committees assist municipal councils by providing input on issues that relate to their unique mandates. Advisory committees may consider matters referred to them by the city council, take positions on policy initiatives from other levels of government, work with other advisory bodies, or act as a resource for both the council and the public. The committees may involve a mix of city councillors and the public. See Vancouver’s Women's Advisory Committeefor an example of how such committees operate.
Public hearings provide individuals and organizations with the opportunity to consult and express their opinion on activities undertaken by their local council. Notice and procedural requirements for public hearings will vary based on provincial regulations and based on the matter being discussed. See for example, British Columbia’s notice requirements for public hearings regarding land use.
My Local Government: It’s for me, Toronto How to get involved
Public Consultations, Ottawa’s Engagement Platform
Tips and rules for speaking to Vancouver City Council
Engage & Discuss
- Research upcoming public hearings in your municipality.
- Is there any issue that is particularly relevant to you?
- Prepare an outline for a presentation that you could give to your local city council on this issue.
Part 5: Getting Involved in Municipal Government: Running for Office Introduction
Women continue to be underrepresented in local government, particularly Black, Indigenous and racialized women, 2SLGBTQ+ individuals, and women with disabilities. An important component of feminist law reform at the municipal level involves ensuring that women’s voices and perspectives are represented in government. This module will explore initiatives that municipalities can adopt to increase gender parity in municipal government.
Diverse Voices: Tools and Practices to Support all Women
Run, Win, Lead: Toward Parity Framework
Municipal Elections in Canada: A Guide for Women Candidates
Greater Sudbury Municipal Election 2018: Women in Politics
Engage & Discuss
Examine the gender breakdown of your city council.
- Is it representative of the diversity of your municipality?
- What barriers do marginalized people face in running for municipal government?
- What strategies could your municipality adopt to decrease those barriers?
Research upcoming municipal elections in your community.
- Are there any female candidates?
- Do they support intersectional feminism?
- If so, create an action plan addressing how you can support their campaign.
Create a list potential campaign priorities.
- How would you adopt these measures if you were elected to municipal government?
Part 6: Accountability in Municipal Governments
There are several mechanisms in place to ensure that municipal governments are accountable to their constituents. This module will examine some of these mechanisms and how they can be used to enact feminist law reform.
City council meetings may be either closed or open to the public. However, the Municipal Act, 2001 restricts when meetings can be closed in Ontario.
- The security of the property of the municipality or local board;
- Personal matters about an identifiable individual, including municipal or local board employees;
- A proposed or pending acquisition or disposition of land by the municipality or local board;
- Labour relations or employee negotiations;
- Litigation or potential litigation, including matters before administrative tribunals, affecting the municipality or local board;
- Advice that is subject to solicitor-client privilege, including communications necessary for that purpose;
- A matter in respect of which a council, board, committee or other body may hold a closed meeting under another Act.
Although city councils may have closed meetings, Ontario has mandated that city councils designate a Meetings Investigator who will determine, upon request from the public, whether the closed meeting was appropriate. Click here to see Ottawa’s transparency policy and instructions on how to file a request for a meeting investigation.
Other provinces may not have meeting investigators, but most have municipal investigation mechanisms where municipal misconduct can be reported. Click here to explore some of Manitoba’s Municipal Investigation Reports.
One way to ensure that municipalities remain accountable is to monitor their spending. In order to engage in feminist law reform at the local level, it is important to know how municipal governments are allocating their resources. The fact that most municipalities are funded primarily through property taxes gives residents a direct stake in the way in which municipalities use their funds. Most provinces have an online repository for municipal financial returns. Click here to see the returns filed by municipalities in Ontario.
In Ontario, section 273 of the Municipal Act, 2001 empowers any person to apply to the Superior Court of Justice to quash a by-law in whole or in part for illegality. However, provincial statues have made it difficult to directly sue municipalities other than for gross negligence. Although bringing a civil suit against a municipality is difficult, certain council decisions may be appealed to the courts or to quasi-judicial bodies like the Ontario Land Tribunal or Assessment Review Board. Additionally, municipal decisions can be subjected to judicial review. To bring an order for judicial review in Ontario, the party has to file a notice with the Divisional Court. The Court will then review the decision in question, applying either a reasonableness or correctness standard of review. The court may set aside the decision, order an injunction, make a declaration, or require the decision makers to perform an action.
Shell Canada Products Ltd. v. Vancouver (City)
Engage & Discuss
Locate the financial returns for your municipality.
- How are resources being allocated?
- What were the municipality’s largest expenses?
- Which services would you like to see prioritized?