Municipal Governments

This mini-course on Municipal Governments is meant as a complement to NAWL's core modules on Feminist Law Reform. NAWL is grateful to Amanda Therrien for her invaluable work as the primary author of this mini-course.

This mini-course on Municipal Governments is meant as a complement to NAWL’s core modules on Feminist Law Reform. NAWL is grateful to Amanda Therrien for her invaluable work as the primary author of this mini-course.

Part 1: Introduction to Municipal Governents

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 Part provides an overview of the structure and powers of municipal governments.   

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.

The names and contact information of city councillors can usually be found on the municipality’s website.   


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 Part explores some of the ways in which local governments have enacted widespread change as well as some of the limitations of local law reform efforts.  


The Role of Municipalities in Advancing Women’s Equity in Canada

Meghan Brooks

2018 Reflection paper prepared for the Canadian Commission for UNESCO 

Advancing Equity and inclusion: A Guide for Municipalities

City for All Women Initiative (CAWI)

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

The City of Vancouver

Halton Region and Local Municipalities Support Proposals to Improve Rural Broadband Internet Access

Town of Milton

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 comply 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 how human rights advocates have responded. 


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.

Bylaw Battles: Explaining Municipal-Provincial and Municipal-Federal Win-Rates

Samuel Mosonyi & Dennis Baker

Alcoholism Foundation of Manitoba v Winnipeg (City)

Manitoba Court of Appeal

1990 decision


Ontario Hubs: Bylaw Officers 

Engage & Discuss

Research the by-laws that have been passed in your municipality. Are there any that surprised you? What by-laws would you like to see passed? 

Identify how by-laws can be used as a tool of feminist law reform. What are the benefits of this approach? What are its challenges or limitations?

Part 4: Getting Involved in Municipal Government: Committees and Hearings

Municipal committees and hearings provide opportunities for city councils to solicit feedback from community members and are important avenues for feminist advocacy. This Part presents some of the different committee and hearing types.


My Local Government: It’s for me

City of Toronto

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

Women continue to be underrepresented in local government, particularly Black, Indigenous and racialized women,  2SLGBTQ+ women, 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 Part presents resources on  initiatives that municipalities can adopt to increase gender parity in municipal government. 


Diverse Voices: Tools and Practices to Support all Women

Federation of Canadian Municipalities

Run, Win, Lead: Toward Parity Framework

Federation of Canadian Municipalities

Municipal Elections in Canada: A Guide for Women Candidates

Federation of Canadian Municipalities


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 of 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. 


Shell Canada Products Ltd. v. Vancouver (City)

Supreme Court of Canada

1994 decision

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?