Strong vs Weak Mayors: what does this really mean?

It is often said that Canada has ‘weak mayors’. What does this mean, and is it true?

The term comes from the United States, where ‘strong mayor’ and ‘weak mayor’ are comparative terms used to describe the level of power and authority held by mayors.

In ‘strong mayor’ cities, the mayor is the ‘chief executive officer’, often with unilateral authority to hire and fire senior staff, appoint people to key positions, approve budget expenditures, veto council decisions, and oversee the daily operations of the municipality.

In a ‘weak mayor’ system, political power is concentrated with the council, not with the mayor. The mayor, like every other member of council, has just one vote, and very little power independent of the council.

Now, it’s important to note that these terms are not finite categories; they are more like ends of a continuum. There is considerable variation in what mayors can do even within cities considered to have a ‘strong mayor’ system or a ‘weak mayor’ system (so if you’re imagining that every American mayor is just like Kelsey Grammer in Boss, thankfully that’s not quite the case). And, there is variation in how the terms are used, both in the literature and in practice. As one American City Manager recently told me, “we don’t really say ‘weak mayor’ anymore. Mayors don’t like it. We say ‘strong council’.”

So, does Canada have ‘weak mayors’?

Although on initial impression Canadian mayors may seem more like ‘weak mayors’ than like ‘strong mayors’, I would argue that this description is misleading at best, and inaccurate at worst.

Here’s why.

First, Canadian mayors have several characteristics that would not be considered features of a ‘weak mayor’ system in the United States. For example, in several provinces, our legislation provides that Canadian mayors are indeed the ‘chief executive officer’ of their respective municipalities (although this term has not been well defined – terminology will be the subject of a future blog!). Additionally ‘strong mayors’ in the United States are typically elected by citizens, while ‘weak mayors’ are often elected from within council. Therefore, the term ‘weak mayor’ isn’t a perfect match to describe mayors in Canada.

Second, the terms ‘strong mayor’ and ‘weak mayor’ mean something in the United States because they are comparative, and because they evolved to describe something specific in a specific context. There are at least five defined forms of municipal government in the United States, and they emerged over time for various reasons. Historically, the ‘mayor-council’ system was predominant in large American cities, with political power concentrated in the hands of mayors – powerful political bosses (think: Gangs of New York) prone to corruption and exploitation. The ‘council-manager’ form emerged in the early 1900s by reformers striving to make local government operate in a more ethical, rational and efficient manner, delegating authority to a manager who would make objective, professional decisions and be accountable to all of council. Both of these forms of government have continued to evolve over time, and there are now ‘strong mayor’ and ‘weak mayor’ variants within them. The point is: there is a rich history to the ‘strong mayor’ and ‘weak mayor’ terminology in an American context that doesn’t apply to Canada, so the terms lose some (if not all) of their meaning.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, describing Canada as having a uniformly ‘weak mayor’ system does not capture the variation that exists across Canada’s cities. Just look at the differences in provincial legislation in the powers assigned to mayors (or, hold off and wait, as there is much more to come on this topic in a later blog!). In some provinces, Canadian mayors can suspend employees, temporarily veto council decisions, or make appointments. There are also important institutional differences between cities, such as the presence of political parties and structure of executive committees, which alter the formal powers held by mayors. Saying that Canada has a ‘weak mayor’ system does not adequately capture the variation that exists in our country.

I think we can do better. We’ve borrowed the term ‘weak mayor’ from our American neighbours for long enough. It’s time for us to get our own terms. We need Canadian-made language to understand and describe our mayors, defined to capture what local political leadership looks like in our uniquely Canadian context.


Want to read more on this? Check out this 2017 CPSA paper:

Graham – CPSA Paper – May 2017

Do Canadians think mayors are powerful?

In October 2015, Ipsos Public Affairs surveyed more than 12,000 Canadians about their perceptions of mayoral power in Canada.

Survey respondents were asked whether they agree with the statement, “Canadian mayors have the power to make things happen in their communities.” Responses were measured using a Likert scale (a list of options designed to capture the intensity of a response).

The overall finding was that Canadians, generally, believe that our mayors have the power to make things happen in our communities.

In fact, nearly three in four people (72%) agreed with the statement while about one in five disagreed (22%).

  • Strongly agree – 17.0%
  • Somewhat agree – 55.1%
  • Somewhat disagree – 17.1%
  • Strongly disagree – 4.9%
  • Don’t know / not sure – 5.9%

The survey found a few interesting patterns. Certain groups tend to view mayors to be more powerful, such as women, younger people and recent immigrants. Perceptions about mayoral power considerably vary by province, with the most affirmative responses in Alberta and PEI and the lowest in Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador. These findings are interesting because they do not line up with how much power mayors hold based on their respective provincial legislation (spoiler alert: this will be the topic of a future blog!).

Some variables seem to have little relationship with perceptions of mayoral power, including income, employment status, education, union membership, visible minority status, marital status and sexual orientation.

Perhaps the most interesting finding is with respect to cities. People living in Canada’s largest cities are more likely to believe that their mayors have the power to make things happen than those living outside of major urban centres. Why is this? Do big city mayors actually have more power, or is it just a perception because they tend to be more well known public figures? The honest answer is that we do not know.

Unfortunately, there is lots we don’t know about what Canadians think about mayors. We don’t know how powerful people view mayors to be are compared to other types of political leaders. We don’t really know what “things” Canadians expect their mayors to “make happen” in our communities. While there is data about how Canadians feel about individual mayors (polling data, election results), we have little information about the perceptions and expectations Canadians hold for the role itself.

Sometimes having more questions than answers is a great place to start.

The Ipsos survey finds that Canadians generally believe that our mayors hold power. What this means, and how it varies across the country, is a big part of what this project is all about.

Why study mayors?

As a student of Canadian politics, I was taught that Canada is a constitutional monarchy. We have three levels of government. Our leaders are called Prime Ministers, Premiers and Mayors. We use a Westminster-style parliamentary system. And so on and so forth.

What I wasn’t taught is that one of these levels of government is not like the others. In fact, one of them – local government – is a different system of government, with a distinct history and source of power, and it works in a rather different way.

And, I wasn’t taught that that there was anything particularly unique about local leaders, like mayors.

I believe this is a serious and increasingly unforgivable oversight in how we teach young Canadians about their governments. For too long, local government has been the forgotten sibling in Canadian politics, overshadowed by the study of federal and provincial governments. The traditional view of local government has been as a ‘creature of the province’ responsible for administering basic services without any notable role in the democratic life of Canadians. Even today, look at most political science departments at Canadian universities and count the number of scholars focused on international, federal or provincial politics compared to those focused on urban politics or local government. I rest my case.

The fact of the matter is that local government is not just a smaller-scale version of what we have at the federal and provincial level. It’s a different animal. In most cases, there are no political parties at the local level (and even where there are, they are dissimilar from federal and provincial parties in several important respects). There is usually no ‘government’ and ‘official opposition’, so decision-making occurs through a rather different process. Importantly, there is no presence of the Crown at the local level (I’ll save the longer version of this one for my dissertation, but it’s a fundamental distinction with practical implications). Municipalities are not considered Westminster systems. There is no concept of ‘ministerial responsibility’ at the local level and interactions between politicians and the bureaucracy tends to be much more informal. The requirements for openness and transparency are considerably higher for local governments. It’s older, with the earliest municipality in Canada dating back to at least 1647 (more than 200 years before Canada became a country!) and modeled more closely after a corporation than a government. I could go on.

The point is that local government is a unique level of government in Canada.  And, it’s unique in how people interact with it. It’s often said that local government is ‘closer to the people’, and there are many arguments to be made for how this is true. The types of services provided by local governments have (arguably) a greater impact on the day to day lives of Canadians. Access to participation and decision-making tends to be greater at the local level. And, surveys show that Canadians tend to trust local government the most, and find it to be the level of government that is most responsive to their needs (as an example, check out this 2014 survey by the Environics Institute).

It’s hard to think of an issue that is not, in one way or another, a local issue. Local governments today deal with an increasingly complex suite of policies and services that impact the quality of life of all Canadians. Local governments are responsible for the success of our communities, which in turn determines the success of our nation. To overlook the distinctiveness of local government in the teaching and study of Canadian politics is (in my rather biased view!) a most unfortunate omission.

Just as local government is unique, so too are its leaders.

Mayors are unlike any other political leaders in the country. Just consider their path to leadership. To become Prime Minister or a Premier in Canada, one must pass through a series of selection processes including at the riding association level and advancing through the apparatus of a large political party. In most cases, becoming Mayor just involves paying a modest filing fee and running successfully in a general election. These different paths may reward different leadership traits, and perhaps attract different kinds of leaders. Nearly 30 big city mayors in Canada can accurately claim to be directly elected by more Canadians than any other elected official in the country. Once in office, Mayors have different suite of powers with which to govern. In most cases, Mayors have no cabinet, and limited patronage or disciplinary tools to use to advance their agenda. They lead through other forms of power and influence.

To date, there has not been a comprehensive study of mayors in Canada. While the activities of Mayors are chronicled on a near daily basis through popular media, a review of academic literature finds a much smaller volume of work, contained mainly in textbook chapters, a short list of historical and biographical texts, and a few specifically focused academic studies. What is written about Canadian mayors describes the role as “quite unclear”1 and claims that we have a uniformly ‘weak mayor’ system, a term borrowed from the United States where it refers to a system of government (which isn’t exactly a perfect match in the Canadian context – a topic for another blog!).

In a recent article, political scientist Tom Urbaniak describes the challenges of studying mayoral leadership in Canada, including a need to build a literature “almost literally from scratch”2; the contested core concepts of ‘power’, ‘leadership’, and ‘strong / weak mayor’; the numerous variables to be considered including personality, interests, and institutional features; methodological challenges arising from the sheer number of municipalities and variation among them; and, the different approaches engaged in the study of urban politics. Despite these challenges, Urbaniak points to the importance of this endeavor:

These intellectual dilemmas should not discourage the study of municipal leadership, considering the growing political focus on cities and municipalities, and increasing public concern about urban poverty, infrastructure, air quality, finances, public safety, and the conservation of vibrant communities. Cultivating local political leadership—and the conditions for such leadership to be effective and directed to salient purposes—may indeed be one of the most important social and public-policy objectives of our time.3

I couldn’t agree more. Local government is important and unique, and so are its leaders. They ought to be studied in their own right. We need a Canadian-made way to understand and describe political leadership at the local level in Canada. And while no single study can fully address this deficit, this project aims to take a small step forward.

Please join me. Share your insights. Argue back. Let’s start an overdue dialogue about local political leadership in Canada.

What cities are included in this study, and why?

This project examines the role of the mayor in 10 Canadian cities, the largest in each province:

  • Vancouver, British Columbia
  • Calgary, Alberta
  • Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
  • Winnipeg, Manitoba
  • Toronto, Ontario
  • Montreal, Quebec
  • Saint John, New Brunswick
  • Halifax, Nova Scotia
  • Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island
  • St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador


Why were these cities selected?

Case selection is a critical, and often challenging, aspect of any research project. The approach of focusing on the largest city in each province was selected for a few reasons. First, in order to produce a Canada-wide study, it is critical to examine cities in all provinces, particularly as the formal authorities of mayors are primarily assigned through provincial legislation and because municipalities in Canada are creatures of the provinces in which they reside. Second, the sample includes some diversity of city size and scale. The sample represents approximately 20% of the Canadian population, and includes some of the largest cities in Canada with more than a million residents (Toronto, Montreal, Calgary), as well as smaller cities with fewer than one hundred thousand residents (Charlottetown and Saint John). Third, the sample includes five capital cities and five non-capital cities, allowing for an interesting comparison of how this may or may not influence the role of the mayor. Finally, this approach follows an established precedent for case selection in national studies of local government in Canada (such as Martin Horak and Robert Young’s (eds) Sites of Governance: Multilevel Governance and Policy Making in Canada’s Big Cities, 2012).