The Local Autonomy of Canada’s Largest Cities

By Alison Smith (University of Toronto) and Zachary Spicer (University of Toronto)

Canada has become increasingly urbanized through its history, and yet its system of urban governance have changed very little since Confederation in 1867; provincial controls on local governments in Canada remain among the strongest in the world. It is not inevitable that this situation will change, but it is indeed likely. Big city mayors are powerfully arguing for reforms to the structures of urban governance, and at various points in Canadian history there has been an appetite, or at least openness, to this agenda at the provincial and federal levels. Incremental changes have indeed resulted in Canadian cities taking on more policy responsibility, with some cities beginning to venture into social policy and many engaging as full partners with provincial governments on certain issues. Montreal, for example, is in the process of developing the second version of its Action Plan on Homelessness; the City of Vancouver has an affordable housing plan; and Calgary has its own poverty reduction strategy. In all of these cases, cities do not have jurisdiction over these policy areas but have asserted leadership and policy-making capabilities.

Great attention has been paid to these and other reforms, but we do not have a true sense of the local autonomy of large urban cities in Canada today. Without a baseline measure of local autonomy, which we define as the ability to develop and implement policies at the local level, free from provincial institutional constraints, we also lack an ability to measure the effect of future changes to government structures of those cities. To better understand these questions and others, we have to first understand where the biggest cities in the country stand in relation to provincial governments and, of course, to each other.

Our article quantitatively measures and compares the level of local autonomy of big cities across Canada as of 2014. To this end, we develop a made-for-Canada index of local autonomy, which we see as a complement to the existing qualitative work on this subject. We develop our index by drawing on the qualitative work on local autonomy in Canada and the quantitative indices developed to measure local autonomy in the United States and Europe.

We find remarkably similar overall levels of autonomy in Canada (see Table 1), but our conclusions nevertheless demonstrate that there are different legal and regulatory environments in which large Canadian cities operate. While we find that not all big Canadian cities have high levels of local autonomy, some are indeed more autonomous than others. We further demonstrate that local autonomy varies across big cities in Canada when we separate our autonomy measure into three categories: financial, political, and legal-administrative. We argue that the similar level of overall autonomy is largely due to the same (low) score of all ten cities in terms of fiscal autonomy. In other words, cities with more legal-administrative powers are unable to fully use them unless they also have accompanying financial autonomy. Yet there is some variation in terms of legal-administrative and political autonomy.


Low-Low Low-High Med-Low Med-High High-Low High-High


Calgary, Halifax, Charl., Saskatoon, Montreal Saint John, St. John’s Winnipeg, Toronto Vancouver
Fiscal Calgary, Vancouver Winnipeg, Saint John, St. John’s, Halifax, Toronto, Charl., Montreal, Saskatoon
Political Winnipeg, Montreal, Saskatoon Calgary, Saint John, St. John’s, Toronto, Halifax Charl. Vancouver
Overall Saskatoon Calgary, Saint John, St. John’s, Halifax, Toronto, Charl., Montreal




Delving deeper into the results, we see that fiscal autonomy, legal-administrative autonomy and political autonomy are all at the low end of the scale. For fiscal autonomy, we have not seen provincial governments express much interest in loosening regulations in terms of reporting, spending or borrowing. In fact, most provinces still maintain very tight restrictions on local borrowing, which would partially explain the remarkable consistency we find in this category, one of the main takeaways of this study. This can largely be attributed to provincial governments’ concern that they would ultimately be responsible for municipal insolvency.

Another interesting result is that we do not find a meaningful effect from City Charters. Municipal leaders and the general public often receive Charters with much fanfare and excitement. Our results demonstrate that the hopes that Charters would increase autonomy have gone unrealized. This is again likely due to the limited financial framework within which cities operate; Charter cities might have increased legal-administrative or political powers, but without accompanying fiscal autonomy, they are unable to fully exercise their new powers.

In light of international studies on local autonomy, notably in Europe where cities have considerably more autonomy and financial resources, Canada is clearly the laggard in devolving responsibility and autonomy to the local level. Pressures to increase municipal autonomy in Canada are mounting, and as more Canadians are calling big cities their home, we should expect this situation of such tight provincial controls to change. Indeed, recent changes to municipal-provincial relations in Canada confirm the work by urban scholars Sancton and Young (2009) that the general direction of reforms has been towards greater autonomy. Montreal is an example of this. Representation of municipalities at the provincial level in Quebec has historically been weak because it has been divided into two organizations: the Quebec Federation of Municipalities (FQM), made up of small municipalities; and the Union of Quebec Municipalities (UMQ), a small organization made up of most large municipalities. Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre (along with Quebec City mayor Régis Lebaume) announced in 2014 that Montreal and Quebec City would become associate members of the FQM, a first in the organization’s 70-year history. With this addition to the FQM, Quebec municipalities will now be better able to lobby the provincial government and speak with one solid voice, increasing their autonomy.

This evidence of autonomy granting reforms makes the collection of baseline local autonomy scores even more important, as it will allow us to monitor and evaluate the results of future reforms. Non-Canadian audiences will find that Canada is an important case in monitoring trends towards local autonomy around the world, and this index will be a valuable tool in doing so. When others have revisited their indices years later (see Stephens and Wikstrom 2006), they have found that significant state centralization had occurred. With Canada on the precipice of the local autonomy debate, it will be interesting to see which direction the country heads. Our index will provide a helpful method of measurement over time.


Sancton, Andrew, and Robert Young, eds. 2009. Foundations of Governance: Municipal Government in Canada’s Provinces. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Stephens, G. Ross, and Nelson Wikstrom. 2006. American Intergovernmental Relations: A Fragmented Federal Polity. 1 edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Read the article here.

Author Biographies

Alison Smith obtained her PhD in political science from l’Université de Montréal in 2016. Her research interests include the welfare state, social protection, homelessness, and urban governance. She is currently working on a book based on her PhD dissertation, “Filling the Gap: Cities and the Fight against Homelessness in Canada.”

Zachary Spicer is an associate in the Innovation Policy Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. His first book, The Boundary Bargain: Growth, Development and the Future of City–County Separation, was published by McGill-Queen’s Univ. Press in May 2016.


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