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.