City Politics

The most obvious difference between city politics and federal or provincial politics in Canada is the absence of the major political parties.

Jean Drapeau, politician
Jean Drapeau oversaw many grand projects as mayor of Montréal, including the Olympic Games and Expo 67 (Canapress).

City Politics

The most obvious difference between city politics and federal or provincial politics in Canada is the absence of the major political parties. Although candidates often rely on partisan connections when building their electoral organizations, they generally present themselves to voters as independents. The spectacle of government and opposition, so familiar in Parliament and provincial legislatures, is usually missing in city politics.

Mayors lack the powers that have enabled Cabinets to dominate Parliaments and split them between supporters and opponents. Instead, city councils seem to work like the legislatures of the 18th century, with every member participating in the business of government and aligning with different people on different occasions. On most issues there is consensus, although this underlying agreement among the councillors is often clouded by heated disputes on particular matters. Since local politicians are free from party discipline, what surfaces are conflicts of personality, ambition, interest and occasionally ideology. The complexity and apparent triviality of these conflicts obscure the structure and significance of local politics.

Many of the important conflicts in city politics concern real property - land and buildings. Municipalities are primarily responsible for regulating the use of urban land and providing physical services, eg, streets and sewers. The city councils obtain most of their own revenues from taxing the land and buildings they are servicing and regulating. Legally, the municipalities are the creatures of the provinces and are subject to a host of legislative, judicial and administrative controls. After the Great Depression and WWII, they became heavily dependent on provincial and federal financial assistance, as public services expanded. More recently, there have been major cutbacks in funding by the senior governments, combined with a "down loading" of responsibilities. The effect has been to create intense pressure for more economical forms of service delivery. There has also been a revival of municipal boosterism: the idea that the city ought to use all of its powers - especially ones related to the regulation and taxation of land - to encourage business investment. .

Civic politicians generally find that their scope for creative action is limited. With few sources of revenue and a heavy responsibility for basic services, municipalities have the most power and freedom of action in land development. Now as ever, they are expected to promote development in the interests of economic growth. Most of the pressure for this has come from business, and businessmen and professionals with REAL ESTATE interests have played a major role in Canadian city politics. On the other hand, business uses of municipal government have always met resistance from ratepayers concerned about rising taxes and homeowners worried about the effects of development on the value of their property and the quality of their lives. Arguably, the clash between business and consumer interests is at the heart of city politics, although the conflict is not always overt (see URBAN CITIZEN MOVEMENTS).

This clash became acute at the end of the long economic boom which followed WWII. Reform politicians, who identified with consumer interests, complained about the effects of rapid urban development that had been encouraged by traditional municipal politicians with close ties to local business (see URBAN REFORM). In a few cities - notably Winnipeg, Toronto and Ottawa - the New Democratic Party (NDP) managed to establish itself as the main organization of the left in municipal politics, but more commonly reformers have organized themselves into a coalition independent of any party.

Coalitions of this sort are in effect municipal parties, but they are loosely organized and weakly disciplined compared to their provincial counterparts. In this respect, the left has followed the example of the right. The most successful local parties have been loose electoral organizations established by conservatives to resist political incursions from the left. The oldest of these, like the Independent Citizens' Election Committee in Winnipeg (1921) and the Civic Non-Partisan Association in Vancouver (1934), originated between the wars. Ironically, one of their aims has been to keep "party politics" out of municipal government.

 Montréal is unusual in that its municipal council has been dominated by disciplined civic parties since the early 1960s. It is unusual for a mayor to dominate a municipal council the way that Jean DRAPEAU and Jean Doré did in Montréal. Power tends to be diffused among council committees, and executive functions are usually divided or assigned to a multimember board on which the mayor has only one vote. Incumbent city councillors normally can rely on their own reputations and organizations in seeking re-election and so remain independent of parties and political leaders. This is especially true of the traditional conservative politicians who hold most of the seats on virtually every municipal council.

Reform politicians are perhaps more inclined to accept party discipline, but they are divided on issues of policy and rooted in community organizations with conflicting demands. In fact the concern of contemporary reformers with making city government more sensitive to the demands of people in particular neighbourhoods has contributed to the continuing fragmentation of city politics, in the face of efforts to organize the forces of the left and right.

Less than half as many voters turn out for municipal elections as for federal and provincial elections, perhaps because of the absence of the major parties, the relative lack of publicity and the seeming unimportance of the issues. Other forms of citizen participation, involving either direct contact between people and their representatives or popular input into public decisions or both, are more feasible and common at the municipal level. For many people, what counts is the sensitivity of councillors to citizen demands between elections. The low rate of voting in municipal elections may actually make politicians more responsive to the demands of small groups or individuals, because margins of victory are smaller.

On the other hand, because city politics are focused on a relatively narrow range of issues, people are discouraged from taking part. Until fairly recently, this franchise was based on property qualifications. Recent upheavals in Canadian city politics have yet to broaden their scope sufficiently to encourage the mass commitment desired by proponents of local self-government.


Further Reading

  • Warren Magnusson and A. Sancton, eds, City Politics in Canada (1983); Michael Keating, Comparative Urban Politics: Power and the City in the United States, Canada, Britain and France (1991); James Lightbody, ed, Canadian Metropolitics: Governing Our Cities (1995).