Local Governments

Manitoba Legislature

The imposing edifice of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly in Winnipeg.

Large as the Canadian federal government may be, it can’t do everything. Because the country is so vast, a lot of political power in Canada is devolved by the Canadian Constitution to other levels of government below the feds, and over the years these sub-levels have become almost as busy, complicated and — in some cases — powerful as the national government itself.

Provincial Governments

As the history chapter explains, Canada was founded in 1867 when several British colonies agreed to join together to form a single powerful and efficient federation. As part of the deal, however, each member colony — now known as a province — was able to remain in charge of certain local matters, while the new federal government tackled larger, more complicated national issues. Section IV of the Constitution of Canada lays out in explicit detail what powers belong exclusively to the provinces. These include the power to regulate:

Natural resources
Education and schools
Health care and hospitals
Public transportation
Liquor laws
Small business

Anything not mentioned in Section VI goes to the federal government by default, including the ability to make laws regulating stuff that didn’t exist back in 1867, such as the Internet and stem cells. Broadly speaking, the main difference between the federal and provincial governments is that the federal government handles criminal law, while the provincial governments handle the administration of public services. You can read more about this in the law chapter.

Legislative Assembly of Alberta

Members listen to a speech heralding the opening session of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, in the provincial parliament building in Edmonton.

Canada’s 10 provincial governments are basically structured as mini-versions of the federal government. Each province has its own parliament (the precise names vary, though they’re often called things like the “provincial legislature” or “provincial assembly”), which follows all the same parliamentary rules as the government in Ottawa. The leader of the political party who wins the most seats in the provincial legislature becomes prime minister of the province, though Canadians usually call these people the “provincial premier” to keep them separate from the prime minister of Canada. The premier is assisted by a provincial cabinet of other members of the legislature, and appoints a slew of provincial bureaucrats, as well.

The average Canadian’s interest in provincial politics is quite a bit lower than federal politics. Because the Canadian parliamentary system does not have fixed election dates, provincial elections are held at random times across Canada, and often have a hard time generating turnout as a result. Likewise, the party system of a province does not always match up perfectly with the national party system, so deciding who to vote for can be a bit confusing — particularly if you’re not terribly interested in the issues to begin with.


Quebec Premier Pauline Marois

Quebec prime minister Pauline Marois (b. 1949) stands before a podium with the popular Quebec slogan masters in our own house. French-speaking Quebec has long demanded greater powers than the other provinces in order to defend its distinct society, a request that has historically caused a lot of tension for Canadian federalism.

The principle of balancing powers between the federal and provincial governments is known as federalism, and upholding this principle in practice remains one of the great ongoing debates of Canadian politics.

In contrast to the United States, which was seen as being something of a failed federation at the time of Canada’s founding due to the country’s then-recent Civil War (1861-1865), Canada was initially intended to have very weak provinces that would be largely subordinate to the federal government, which exclusively controlled criminal law. However, beginning in the mid-20th century, governments began to grow in size and scope, and government-run services like healthcare, education, welfare, and transportation became a larger part of many Canadians’ lives. This in turn led provincial governments, which control such things, to gain increasing relevance, and today Canada has gone full circle from the founders’ intent, and is actually considered to be one of the world’s most decentralized federations, at least in terms of how the majority of government services are provided.

At the same time, there has been much pressure in recent decades for all of Canada’s provincial governments to offer common standards of public services across the country. This has led to the rise of national standards legislation, in which the federal government decrees certain benchmarks for services like health or social assistance, and in turn agrees to provide funding so that such standards can be met regardless of how poor or rich the various provinces are.

Municipal Governments

Canada’s provinces are divided into cities, towns and villages; smaller communities which can vary wildly in population and geographic size. Over five million people live in Canada’s largest city of Toronto, for instance, while there are some villages in rural parts of the country with populations of less than 100. It’s up to the provincial government to determine the borders of cities; in recent years, there has been a strong trend towards creating larger cities through the process of amalgamating, or merging, several smaller ones. Municipal governments run these cities and enjoy only limited powers that have been specifically delegated by the province. Usually these include simple service duties such as maintaining the water, sewage and garbage collection systems, as well as the upkeep of local facilities like fire departments, parks, libraries, community centres and some roads. Larger cities tend to control the local police, as well.

Robert Ford

Canadian mayors wear an official "chain of office" during their term, with each link in the chain being engraved with the name of a mayor who came before. Seen here, Toronto mayor Robert Ford (b. 1969).

Regardless of size, most city governments are structured the same way. A mayor serves as chief executive, while a city council of about dozen or more members acts as the legislature. Both are elected directly by voters on a fixed three- or four-year cycle, and in most provinces all of the province’s municipal elections are held on the same day. Turnout in Canadian municipal elections tends to be extremely low, and mayors and councillors often serve long terms with very high rates of re-election as a result. In the eyes of many Canadians, municipal issues are simply not interesting enough to give much attention to, and changing politicians is rarely worth the effort.

In many provinces, voters also elect various other councils to assist the municipal government in specific areas, such as the school board, library board, hospital board, transportation board or parks board. In other places, these boards may be directly appointed by the city council itself.

Regional Governments

Between the province and the cities are what are known as regional governments, a sort of middle layer that’s usually the most obscure and unknown of the three. A region (also known as a county or district, depending on the province) unifies several cities into one larger community. The primary purpose of regional government is to coordinate activities between the many cities that fall under its jurisdiction, usually stuff like garbage collection and sewage that are more practical to govern at a level higher than the municipal government, but still not quite important enough for the province to handle. Most commonly run by an appointed board of members chosen by the city councils of its member municipalities, regional governments are so obscure they’re rarely taught about in schools or textbooks, and tend to really only be of interest to city workers and municipal bureaucrats.

Links About Canadian Local Government:

Quick Facts:

  • Every province and city in Canada has its own local government.
  • Provincial governments are run according to the parliamentary system and are given specific, exclusive responsibilities by the Canadian Constitution.
  • Municipal governments are the weakest form of government in Canada, and only hold powers that have been delegated to them by the provinces.
  • Compared to federal politics, most Canadians are generally much less interested in their provincial and municipal governments.