The Development of Local Government in Alberta

The beginnings of urban and rural local governments in Alberta

The first local government election in Alberta was held in 1883 under the Northwest Municipal Ordinance. Rural local government began with herd districts in 1883, fire districts in 1886, and statute districts in 1887, all of which were combined into local improvement districts in 1897. Urban local government began with unincorporated town ordinances in 1888. The village ordinance followed in 1895.

In 1912, separate acts were put in place for towns, villages, rural municipal districts, and improvement districts. Cities were incorporated by special charter. In 1967, the various pieces of municipal legislation were consolidated into the original Municipal Government Act.

In 1994, a major consolidation of municipal legislation took place. The current Municipal Government Act (MGA) gives municipalities greater autonomy in local decision making and is the primary statute governing the affairs of your municipality. The MGA also incorporates the provisions of the former Planning Act. The MGA is subject to change on a continuing basis to meet new needs and demands.

European influences

The form of local government in Alberta today reflects Canada's ties with Britain. Canada was governed as a colony and our early immigrants from England and Scotland brought with them customs and forms of local governance that remain here today. The French system of government tended to have considerable power in the central government, with field administrators supervising local government. All forms of local government - small or large, rural or urban - were treated alike. The British system distinguished between rural and urban. It gave the urban more freedom and power. Elected officials acting as local councils had the power to govern as compared to the strong mayor approach of the French. In the late 1800s, pressure started to build for some form of locally elected councils. It was eventually decided that the responsibility of establishing local governments would best be left to the legislatures that were about to be created in what are now the provinces.

Local government in the North West Territories before 1887

"In Western Canada, the native population related initially to fur traders and a form of administration by the Hudson's Bay Company. When rule by this company passed to the British Crown in 1869 there was already in place a local judicial system tied to eastern Canada. The establishment of an appointed Territorial Council for the west beyond Manitoba in 1875 permitted elected representatives when an area's population reached 1,000 people. The Territorial Council established forms of local government."

The first local government election in Alberta was held in 1883 under the Northwest Municipal Ordinance. "The ordinance was based on Ontario legislation but excluded that province's concept of counties. Initially, the most popular forms of local government in the west were school districts. In 1885 there were 59 school districts but only a handful of municipalities."

A desire for self-government

In 1887, immigration to Canada was in the vicinity of 85,000 people per year. The population of the Territories consisted of 80,000 people, with one-quarter of these being Aboriginal people on reserves. The population of Alberta at this time was 17,000, which included a mainly Metis community at St. Albert of 1000 people. After 1885, Ottawa was "much more sensitive to hopes for local self-determination and in 1888 gave the Territorial Council the right for all its members to be elected."

Outside influences and local activities

"In the early years local governments in Alberta raised funds through taxes on real property, personal property, income and/or a poll tax levied on every person. Farmers could pay off some or all of their taxes by working through general legislation or by special charter, there were a number of small and large (more sparsely populated) local improvement districts established. The effect of increasingly aggressive national immigration policies and settlements of the west was especially felt in Alberta in the 1906-1912 period."

A new Department of Municipal Affairs

In 1912, separate acts were put in place for towns, villages, rural municipal districts, and improvement districts and cities were incorporated by special charter. "Partly as a result of the need to ensure legislation suitable to the times and partly due to the example provided by the Saskatchewan government, Alberta created a department of Municipal Affairs on December 20, 1911. It came into effect at the beginning of 1912 and was required to provide direction to the implementation of new municipal legislation passed early in 1912. The most notable change was the extension of self-government to rural areas in Alberta: 55 rural municipalities came into existence on December 9, 1912. The Department staff (39 full time and 12 part time people as of 1913) was extremely busy that year not only due to the implementation of new legislation but also in the administration of existing Acts including some levying and collection of taxes."

Continuing Growth

"There was a major review of municipal government legislation in 1966 and 1967 leading to the passage in 1968 of the Municipal Government Act and the Municipal Election Act (now known as the Local Authorities Election Act). Several Acts were consolidated and municipalities, except for counties, Improvement Districts, and Special Areas, came under the same Acts." Since the 1960s there have been numerous changes to the MGA. Review and revision of the MGA continually improves the provision of local government in this province.

Source for all quoted passages on pages 23-24: Alberta's Local Governments: People in Communities Seeking Goodness, Walter Walchuk ,1986