In Canada, the federal and provincial governments get their authority from the Crown. What provincial governments and the federal government have jurisdiction over is defined in the Canadian Constitution.
Local governments, on the other hand, are created by acts of provincial legislatures. So while the provincial and federal governments have to respect each other’s authority and jurisdiction, provincial governments can pretty much do what they want to local governments in Canada.
The forced amalgamation of Toronto in the 1990s is a classic example of a provincial government imposing its will onto local government.
BC is a bit different than the rest of the Canada. We have a strong system of local government, and for the most part, the provincial government respects local government autonomy. For example, a forced amalgamation on municipalities would likely never happen in BC.
This respect for local government was codified when the provincial government adopted the Community Charter in 2003. The Charter recognizes municipal governments as “democratically elected, autonomous, responsible and accountable.” It also notes that “the citizens of British Columbia are best served when, in their relationship, municipalities and the Provincial government acknowledge and respect the jurisdiction of each.”
The Community Charter grants municipalities board jurisdiction over:
- municipal services
- public places
- firecrackers, fireworks and explosives
- bows and arrows, knives and other weapons
- cemeteries, crematoriums, columbariums and mausoleums and the interment or other disposition of the dead
- the health, safety or protection of persons or property
- the protection and enhancement of the well-being of its community
- public health
- protection of the natural environment
- buildings and other structures
- the removal of soil and the deposit of soil or other material.
There are some limits to the jurisdiction for some of the powers listed. Generally, if a provincial law and local by-law conflict, the more stringent requirement prevails.
Besides the Community Charter, the Local Government Act also outlines the powers and responsibilities for municipalities. This Act is more prescriptive than the Community Charter with a focus on elections, land-use planning, and heritage conservation.
The Local Government Act also spells out the role Regional Districts and Improvement Districts play in the province.
Because the Local Government Act was heavily amended, it was really hard to read. The act was reformatted, and is now easier to read.
Understanding the roles and responsibilities of local government in BC can be a daunting task. To help, the Union of BC Municipalities created fact sheets which explain how local government works in our province.
While there is tension between the province and local governments, I’m happy that we have a framework and tradition in BC which respects the important role that local government plays in the lives of people.