by Eric Hamovitch
Many Canadians live in the comfortable belief that municipalities exist as a distinct level of government. But that’s not what the constitution says. Does a lack of autonomy make municipalities more vulnerable to corrupt practices?
When Canada’s constitution was proclaimed in 1867, most people lived in rural areas. Little thought was given to the task of governing urban entities or to the provision of many services we now take for granted. The British North America Act, as it was called then, recognized two levels of government, federal and provincial, with municipalities existing only as creatures of the provinces. Over the years, the provinces made up the rules as they went along, producing mixed results. Though the constitution has been amended, it still reflects a rural bias, with even the largest municipalities subject to provincial whim and treated “as a bunch of immature children,” in the words of Peter F. Trent, the mayor of the central Montreal municipality of Westmount.
“Yet municipalities have as much democratic legitimacy as provinces,” he says in a recent and highly readable book.1 “While provinces are fixed and arbitrary straight-line divisions drawn by nineteenth-century surveyors, municipalities are organic, evolving, spatially relevant entities that reflect their residents’ needs more faithfully than provinces can ever do.”
Trent gained prominence as an opponent of the forced amalgamation of municipalities on Montreal Island in 2002,