Municipalities have very limited powers

Many services may be delivered by municipalities but are actually the responsibility of federal and provincial governments

municipalitiesTORONTO, Ont. July 10, 2016/ Troy Media/ – Next time you have a problem with a municipal issue, you might want to start your protest with your MP or member of the provincial legislature, house or assembly. Chances are you’d be complaining to the right level.

As our founders were writing the BNA Act of 1867, they weren’t thinking of cities, towns or municipalities.

Our Constitution only refers to matters of local interest. Perhaps it was our British heritage, arising out of a unitary state, or the rural nature of our country at the time, but nobody thought in constitutional terms about more than two levels of government – provincial and federal.

Many U.S. cities get their authority from state constitutions and the doctrine of “home rule.” The autonomy may sound great but there have been court cases over division of powers and corruption. There’s so much autonomy that sometimes American cities are as unco-operative with each other as some countries were during the Cold War.

The Canadian Constitution only mentions local matters. But about 100 years ago, municipalities began establishing police, fire and other local services. This was a natural extension of the co-operation our rural ancestors showed when local farmers donated logs to make washboard roads, an acre for the school, billeted teachers and gave some land for the cemetery – early public-private partnerships.

Our municipalities are the creation of the provinces. In law, the “express authority doctrine” has traditionally meant that a municipality can’t do anything that isn’t in a provincial statute. But, after a recent Supreme Court decision, what has evolved is “benevolent construction” – a gradual increase in the power of municipalities. Still, the courts seem to view cities more as administrative agencies than elected, responsible governments.

In your city, the federal government can do pretty much what it wants. It can spend, transfer money and is not subject to Planning Acts. The federal cabinet controls land around airports. If there’s water near your city, the Marine Act may trump your city council. Your city can’t budget for a deficit.

It’s an old study, but a Royal Commission in the 1970s looked at 131 services delivered in the old Metropolitan Toronto and only 30 were really under the control of the municipality. Thirty-eight were under special purpose bodies such as the police; and 33 were under provincial control but administered by the municipality. The 30 the city controlled were really mundane – removing ice and snow, controlling heat in residences, dog licences and nuisance control.

I had the privilege of being executive assistant to one of Canada’s most successful and popular mayors – Mel Lastman of North York. It was the height of his popularity in the 1980s. He’d often get into areas beyond municipal control but when pressed would protest, “We pick up garbage and plow snow.” He took his place in politics and in the Guinness Book of World Records – but also recognized his place in law.

Municipalities are a junior level of government, and while often providing entry-level positions and training ground for politicians with ambitions, have very little power to serve their citizens.

Remember that the next time you decide to hold a protest in front of city hall. You may well be yelling at the wrong people.

Troy Media columnist Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He loves cities and his next book will be titled Safer Cities. Allan is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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