Canadian Mayors

THE BACKSTORY

The mayoralty is a global institution, existing on every populated continent and dating back centuries. The term "mayor" derives from the Latin major or magnus meaning great, and has been used since the 12th century to refer to the highest ranking local official. The role of the mayor has evolved over time. Today, it looks a bit different in each country, and sometimes within a country.

In Canada, we've had mayors since before we were a country. A 1793 British statute enabled the appointment of local officials as "a corporation to represent the whole inhabitants of the parish or town." In 1849, the Baldwin Act (the blueprint for local government in Canada today) stated that in cities and towns these local heads would be called mayors. They were to be selected from within council for a one-year period. Their duties were: presiding over meetings, calling special meetings, serving as an ex officio Justice of the Peace, and administering oaths. When Canada became a country a few years later, in 1867, we already had a community of mayors.

Canada's Constitution doesn't recognize a local level of government. Instead, "municipal institutions" are the responsibility of each province. As a result, local government - and the role of the mayor - has evolved somewhat differently in each province. Today, every province has legislation which outlines the role of the mayor. There are important differences. Did you know that in some provinces mayors are technically referenced as the "President" or "CEO" of their city? Or that some mayors have power to oversee employee conduct, temporarily suspend Council decisions, or lead a local political party? True story. The role of the mayor is a bit different in each Canadian city -- and these differences can have big impacts on the dynamics of local governance.

THE CHALLENGE

Because the role of the mayor is a bit different in each place - and because so little research has been done on mayors - we don't really have a good sense of what mayors do, what power they have, or the extent to which they can actually make a difference in their cities. Even some of our most basic underlying assumptions about mayors conflict.

Here's an example.

Canadians tend to believe that their mayors are powerful. A survey of 12,000 Canadians on this topic found that most believe their mayors have the power to change their cities. Mayoral candidates often campaign on big promises: creating jobs, growing the economy, solving major systemic problems like poverty and homelessness - and as voters, we like to believe that they are able to accomplish these things. But if you open a textbook, it would tell you that mayors in Canada are "weak" and mostly ceremonial, with limited ability to actually make things happen. Which is it? Well, the honest answer is that we don't really know. It is relatively easy to argue that Canada does not have weak mayors or a weak mayor system - but articulating exactly what mayoral power looks like, and how it varies across Canada, remains an open question.

How powerful are Canada’s big city mayors? Do mayors have the power to lead in Canada’s cities? What does mayoral power in Canada look like, and what can we learn about Canadian urban politics by examining it? What can we learn about our cities and our country by studying mayors - who they are, what issues they care about, how they frame the agenda of their cities? What is the appropriate role for mayors within Canadian federalism when it comes to making decisions about cities and urban issues?

These are questions worth exploring. That's what the Mayors Project is all about.

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