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map canadaPopulation: 34,754,312

HDI ranking: 11/187

HDI score: 0.911

As Canada has shifted from a primarily rural to an increasingly urbanized country, the laws governing local institutions have evolved significantly over the last decade to give local bodies greater autonomy. Today, Canada’s municipal government has been adapted by provincial governments to meet these changes (UCLG, 2008).

Local governance at a glance

  • Canada is a federal bicameral parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy. The Canadian constitution devolves power between the federal government and ten provincial governments, however municipalities are not officially recognized in the constitution (CLGF, 2013).
  • The local government system is highly diverse, as legislation for local government units is unique to each province and territory. Legislative Acts within provinces and territories govern local government systems under those jurisdictions (CLGF, 2013).
  • Three provinces have multi-tiered structures with a regional tier and other provinces have a single-tier structure (CLGF, 2013).
  • Provincial and territorial ministers mandated with local government oversight are responsible for local government legislation (CLGF, 2013).
  • In the ten provinces and three territories, there are (CLGF, 2013):
    • 2 supra-regional authorities (Montreal and Quebec;
    • 143 regional authorities; and
    • Over 3,600 local governments.
  • Three provinces have regional authorities. British Columbia has both regional districts and municipalities. In addition to its 160 municipal governments, British Columbia is also composed of 27 regional districts divided into smaller areas called electoral areas. Ontario has single-tier and two-tier municipalities and Quebec uses a two-tier system with regional county municipalities and local municipalities (CLGF, 2013).
  • Urban areas in Ontario except for Waterloo, Niagra, Halton, Peel, York, and Durham are governed by a single-tier municipal government. The Montreal and Quebec city-regions have been administered to some extent by municipal institutions called metropolitan communities, but these bodies have limited functional authority (CLGF, 2013).
  • In Canada’s disorganized territories or unincorporated areas where large areas of land are sparsely populated, some services are provided by provincial or territory authorities and others by a regional body (CLGF, 2013).
  • In most provinces and territories, councils can appoint committees and delegate additional responsibilities to them (CLGF, 2013).
  • The aboriginal peoples of Canada have the right to govern themselves regarding issues internal in their communities, integral to their cultures, identities, traditions, institutions, and languages and with respect to their relationships with natural resources and land (CLGF, 2013).
  • Council representatives in single-tier and lower-tier governments are usually elected in direct first-past-the-post systems. Mayors are directly or indirectly elected, but those who serve in single-tier councils or lower-tier councils are usually directly elected (CLGF, 2013).
  • Representatives in upper-tier local governments are drawn from the mayors of lower-tier councils or appointed from lower-tiers in proportion with the populations of the populations represented by the council. Wardens in rural municipalities are usually elected by council members (CLGF, 2013).

Civil society actors include

  • The Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition is a network of neighborhood groups, program partners, and sponsoring agencies that operates at the community level to meet the needs identified by community members. The groups bring together collective resources to support community members, share information, distribute available funding in a participatory budgeting process and advocate for community issues.
  • CivicInfoBC is in information sharing service for those who work or are interested in British Columbia’s local government. It works to facilitate the free and open exchange of local government information primarily through its website.

Capacity building institutions

  • Each province and territory has at least one local government association if not more with different associations for urban and rural representation (CLGF, 2013).

Fiscal control

  • Real property taxes serve as the main source of revenue for local governments and municipalities have the autonomy to determine their own tax rate (CLGF, 2013).
  • Provincial, territorial and federal government transfers amount to about one-fifth of total revenue through general and specific-purpose funding (CLGF, 2013).
  • In Prince Edward Island, citizens vote to approve the annual operating and capital budgets as well as amendments to these items (CLGF, 2013).
  • Municipal governments receive financial transfers from provincial governments and these are about 80% specific purpose and 20% general transfer (CLGF, 2013).
  • The federal government also provides transfers to local governments and these tend to be evenly divided between specific and general purpose transfers (CLGF, 2013).
  • There are differences across local governments in their use of transfers. Local governments in the territories are very dependent on transfers while in certain provinces, general purpose transfers are more important than specific purpose transfers and in other provinces, the opposite may be the case (CLGF, 2013).
  • Some areas are trying new revenue sources for local governments including transfers of portions of provincial gas tax and revenue sharing of video lottery or casino revenues (CLGF, 2013).

Key initiatives for participatory local governance

  • The Municipal Corporations Act passed in 1849 in Upper Canada and the Loi des Municipalities et des Chemins passed in 1855 for Lower Canada serve as the foundations for the contemporary municipal system (UCLG 2008).
  • Section 92(8) of the Constitution Act of 1867 provides for provinces to make laws in relation to “Municipal Institution in the Province” (CLGF, 2013).
  • Local governance legislation has evolved significantly in the last decade to provide greater autonomy to local councils and give local authorities greater power and general competence to allow them to choose how to deliver services that fulfill their specific responsibilities and needs (CLGF, 2013).
  • In all provinces and territories, council meetings are open to the public except for certain exceptions outlined in legislation when the council meetings may be closed (CLGF, 2013).
  • In 2007, Canada implemented the Gas Tax Fund (GTF) transfer to municipalities as a means to help build communities by providing stable, long-term funding to support infrastructure that contributes to cleaner water, cleaner air, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The tax is used to increase the capacity of communities to conduct long-term planning. Communities report on their use of the funds every year to ensure accountability (CLGF, 2013).
  • In 2013, Canada renewed expiring programs including the Gas Tax Fund from 2007. It also formalized a role for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities as a stakeholder in the design of housing and infrastructure programs. The central government worked with FCM to develop this budget and demonstrates a strong step in building the federal-municipal partnership in the country (CLGF, 2013).
  • Local governments are using technology to provide greater access to services and encourage citizen participation. E-governance has included surveys on municipal budgets and other initiatives (CLGF, 2013).

Challenges for participatory local governance

  • The question of how to create and maintain a coordinated policy framework to guide the municipal-federal relationship remains unanswered. The issue is made more complex by the fact that different municipalities and different provincial governments have a variety of approaches to engaging the federal government. The outdated legal framework for the local government structures and relations to the federal government create jurisdictional silos that hinder federal and provincial cooperation, coordination, and decision-making (FCM, 2013).
  • The shifting urban and economic landscape in Canada has created gaps in the fiscal and institutional capacities of local governments and the demands upon them (FCM, 2013).

Recent posts on this website about this country:


List of sources (in order of citation):

United Nations Development Program, 2012. “International Human Development Indicators: Canada.”

Commonwealth Local Government Forum (CLGF), 2013. “Country Profile: Canada.”

United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), 2008. “Country Profile: Canada.”

Federation of Canadian Municipalities, 2013. “The State of Canada’s Cities and Communities 2013: Opening a New Chapter.”