Kate Graham researches, writes, speaks, and teaches about politics in Canada's cities.
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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.
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.
The Mayors Project started on a day like any other, in a meeting in a City Hall board room.
Except it wasn't like any other day. The Mayor had resigned that morning, effective immediately. He was facing criminal charges, and opted to step away from his role. The next municipal election was months away. A senior team of staff members met for an emergency meeting to discuss what needed to happen, now that the City had no Mayor.
Someone in the room asked: "Well, let's start with - what does the Mayor do? We'll need to cover off those things."
For a moment, there was silence. The group looked at one another. People started to name the obvious things: chairing council meetings, signing by-laws, sitting on various committees and boards. Less obvious items were raised: a large batch of cheques were being issued by the City, and they included the signature of the now resigned mayor. A plan was developed. Tasks were assigned. Some ideas to be proposed to City Council to name a replacement mayor were discussed. The meeting ended, and everyone went on with their day.
But something didn't sit quite right. The Mayor is the chief executive and official head of, in this case, a billion dollar corporation providing services which hundreds of thousands of people rely on every day. How was the role so undefined, and even unclear? Was the Mayor so inconsequential to a city that the role could be vacant, and work could go on as usual? Was the role of the Mayor really just to chair meetings and sign bylaws, or does the Mayor play a more important role in the life of a city?
That morning, the Mayors Project began.
I'm Kate Graham. I left this meeting and couldn't get these questions out of my head. I started researching the role of mayors in Canada - and found that remarkable little has been written on the topic. The punchline of what had been written was this: the role of a Canadian mayor is “vague” and unclear; and, that mayors are generally viewed to be “weak” and often discounted as having a mostly ceremonial and procedural role, with little in the way of significant political power.
This did not line up to my observations about mayors. I’d worked directly with four mayors and indirectly with dozens more. I’d seen mayors be incredibly powerful at times, and often in unexpected ways. I set out to better understand what exactly “mayoral power” looks like, and the extent to which Canadians mayors can drive change in their cities.
I compared power "on paper" (legislation, bylaws, local arrangements) to power "in practice" informed through interviews with mayors and those who work most closely with them. During the summer of 2016, I traveled to cities in every Canadian province and interviewed mayors, past mayors, councillors, city administrators, media and community members. My dissertation argues for a new model for understanding mayoral power in a Canadian context.
One of the most basic findings of the study was that people don't know very much about Canadian mayors. It's a bit embarrassing, actually. So I built this website. It's a quick and easy resource to learn more about the role of the mayor in Canada, meet people who are mayors, follow mayoral election campaigns, and follow research related to mayors in Canada.
(And, it’s a work in progress. Suggestions welcome!)
After all this, here’s my basic pitch: we don’t have “weak mayors” in Canada, but we do have weak cities. Mayors are uniquely positioned within cities to engage and mobilize others (including political, administrative and community folks). I’m not a fan of the American “strong mayor” model, but I am a big fan of stronger mayors in Canada. Any city in the country can strengthen the role of their own mayor, and there are specific ways they can do this. Cities should have control over their own governance arrangements, but this needs to be an intentional and deliberate discussion. If we want to see stronger and more empowered cities in Canada, empowering our local leaders is a great place to start.
A few pics from my trip across Canada. If you ever need a lesson in how big our country is, I’d recommend taking the train.