The term "mayor" derives from the Latin major or magnus meaning "great." The term has been used since the 12th century to refer to the highest ranking local official.
In Canada, sadly, we've given a lot of focus to our mayors who are ... er ... less than great. In fact, you can read an entire book about Canada's Mayors Gone Bad. Sure, it's makes for a good read - but we have some pretty epic mayors too. Get to know our mayors. The vast majority of them more than live up to the meaning of their title.
When students take civics classes in Canada, they generally learn something along these lines: in Canada, we have three levels of government; the leader of the federal government is called the Prime Minister; the leaders of provincial and territorial governments are called Premiers; and, the leaders of local governments are called Mayors.
What this fails to capture is that one of these things is not like the others (let alone that this description also omits Indigenous governments ...).
Mayors have a very different job than do prime ministers and premiers - and this is due in large part to the fact that municipalities are quite different from federal and provincial governments: municipalities generally have no separate legislative and executive branches; there is typically no "government" or official opposition; in most cases, there are no political parties (and even where local political parties are present, they are different from federal and provincial parties); there is no cabinet or similar concept to ministerial responsibility, where individual politicians have executive power over specific government services and policies; there is no separation between a head of state and head of government; there is no presence of the Crown at the local level; the expectations for openness and transparency are much higher.
I could go on.
As a result, the job of a mayor is very unique. The mayor must work with multiple groups - the elected council; officials from other governments with a stake in local issues; the municipal administration; the administration of other local bodies and sometimes community organizations; community groups and individuals; sometimes a local political party - but has no formal, legal power over any of them. As a result, mayors have to rely on other forms of power in order to get things done.
It's a very different kind of job, and requires a different kind of leader.
You've probably heard it said that local governments are "closest to the people," in some sense. This is definitely true when it comes to mayors. Unlike federal and provincial leaders, mayors are directly elected by the communities they serve.
In the largest 28 Canadian cities, the mayor is elected by more citizens than any federal or provincial official in Canada. The Mayor of Toronto is elected by more citizens than any other official, period. In the 2018 election, Mayor John Tory received almost 480,000 votes. That's a *lot* of votes.
While we're on the topic, mayoral campaigns are also unique. In most cases, mayoral candidates run as independents. They don't need to go through political party processes (seeking a nomination, serving as a member, running in and winning a leadership race), and don't run on party stripes. Instead, they run on big ideas. They become the embodiment of those ideas, and represent different potential futures of their cities. To become a mayor, you need to be able to sell ideas that capture the attention and motivate the electorate. It's a different kind of race, attracts a different kind of leader, and gives mayors a different relationship with the people they serve.
It's often said that Canada has "weak" mayors. Technically, this is untrue.
Here's the short version: the term "weak mayor" is borrowed from the United States, where it refers to a very specific governance arrangement. In the US, there are two dominant forms of local government: mayor-council, and council-manager. They differ in a lot of ways, including with respect to the mayor. "Strong mayor" and "weak mayor" are variants of the mayor-council model, depending on the extent of executive authority vested in the mayor.
In Canada, we don't have the mayor-council form. We have the council-manager form. So, we don't have "strong" or "weak" mayors.
If you want to read the long version of this argument, have at it.
Often, people will say they want "strong mayors" without really understanding the term. What they mean is that they want the mayor to have more power. Well, I've got good news for you. See #8.
So, this is a big topic. What is mayoral power, anyway? What kind of power do Canadian mayors have?
It's so big that you can do a PhD dissertation on it. Or, you can read mine.
Here's the short version:
1. Every province and territory in Canada has legislation that lays out the legal power of mayors. Almost all municipalities also have bylaws that prescribe formal power to mayors. And, there are some big differences. Did you know that the Mayor of St. John's has the legal power to "prosecute and punish" negligence? Or that the Mayor of Montreal can suspend employees? Or that the Mayor of Winnipeg can suspend Council decisions for a period of time? Well, it's true. The legal powers of mayors are all a bit different in each province and territory (and sometimes, within them).
2. However, if you were to only look at legal and formal power, you'd think that mayoral power is quite limited. You'd think that mayors basically just chair meetings and sign bylaws. Pick up any newspapers in Canada and you'll see that mayors do a heck of a lot more than that. Turns out, formal/legal powers just aren't that important in practice - and they don't tell us much about whether a mayor can actually get things done in practice. My research compared mayoral power "on paper" (read: legislation and bylaws) and "in practice" (read: perceptions of power, informed by interviews and survey data). Spoiler alert: they don't line up. At all.
3. I believe mayors can, in practice, be very powerful. I define "mayoral power" as being much larger than just formal/legal power. Mayoral power is also relational; it's the extent to which the mayor can influence and mobilize other actors engaged in local government. I argue that mayors are uniquely positioned at the nexus of the network of actors engaged in local government, and have an unparalleled ability to shape the engagement of others. It becomes a question of leadership (more on this in #7). Mayors play a shaping role in the governance of Canadian communities. That, ladies and gentlemen, is mayoral power
Every once in a while, the conversation about empowering mayors comes up. Often, it is targeted to provincial and territorial governments, with a call to give mayors more power.
Personally, I'm not a big fan of this. First, I don't see provincial/territorial legislation as a terribly important source of power for Canada's mayors (see rant here). Second, I think this furthers a paternal pattern of municipal-provincial relations that we need to move past in this country (like, way past).
Local governments are governments. Period. They can make decisions about their own governance arrangements - including how much power the mayor should have.
Newsflash: any council in the country can empower their mayor, if they want to. Want to give the mayor the ability to appoint councillors to committees and boards? Go for it. Want the mayor to have more control over council agendas, or give them the ability to appoint an executive committee with delegated authority to make some decisions? Have at it.
There is a long list of things that Canadian councils can do to empower their mayors. Councils should talk about their own governance model on a periodic basis - including how much power the mayor and others should have, and what kind of resources they need to meet the expectations held of them. Every Fortune 500 company invests time in conversations like this, to define roles, expectations and resource allocations. Why don't councils do this, too? Call me crazy, but I think they should.
Canada's Constitution doesn't recognize a local level of government. Unlike First Ministers, mayors have no empowered collective body through which they make decisions about cities and communities in Canada.
As a result, mayors lobby - collectively and individually - federal and provincial officials to advance the interests of their communities. Although this is being done very effectively in Canada (through the impressive work of FCM and otherwise), the dynamic still reflects the historic power imbalance between orders of government.
If there is one thing I'd like to see change in Canada, in the interest of strengthening Canada's cities and communities, it would be this: empower mayors, collectively, to make decisions about urban and local policy issues. This includes infrastructure funding programs, legislation that affects municipalities, programs targeted to address particular issues. Personally, I'd start with big cities, and empower the mayors of these cities to make decisions about some of the most pressing urban issues in Canada.
Mayors have unique knowledge about the communities they serve. Canada is big, and diverse. Mayors are well positioned to inform federal and provincial programs and policy decisions, and ensure they can accommodate the unique conditions and needs of all of Canada's cities and/or communities.
Empowering mayors, collectively, would be a big step forward.
Kate Graham researches, writes, speaks, and teaches about politics in Canada's cities.
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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 duties: 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 number of significant community events on the horizon. A plan was developed. Tasks were assigned. 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 communities.
I decided to make this the focus of my PhD research. 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, 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 research trip across Canada. If you ever need a lesson in how big our country is, I’d recommend taking the train.
Have you picked up your January edition of Municipal World yet?See all posts
Posted by Kate Graham · January 05, 2019 3:00 PM