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.

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.  

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.


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.  

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)

Firearm Regulation 

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.

Sanctuary Cities 

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.

Internet Connectivity 

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

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 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

Samuel Mosonyi & Dennis Baker

Alcoholism Foundation of Manitoba v Winnipeg (City)

Manitoba Court of Appeal

1990 decision


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.


My Local Government: It’s for me, Toronto How to get involved

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 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

Federation of Canadian Municipalities

Run, Win, Lead: Toward Parity Framework

2. 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 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.

Meetings Investigator 

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. 


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?