Locally Grown: A Survey of Municipal Politicians in Canada

January 28, 2021
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Locally Grown: A Survey of Municipal Politicians in Canada
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In Canada, federal and provincial legislators tend to command the spotlight, but local politicians have a major impact on Canadians’ lives. They are responsible for the public services that Canadians experience most directly, and can meaningfully shape attitudes toward, and expectations of, public institutions. Local governments raise 12% of every tax dollar (including user fees) and spend 19% of all government expenditure. Through the COVID-19 pandemic, local leaders have been continuing to provide essential services, working with local public health boards, protecting transit riders, re-deploying staff, and communicating to the public. 

But much less is known about the thousands of municipal politicians who, apart from ensuring potholes are filled and garbage is collected, are designing and redesigning our communities. In 2020, the Samara Centre for Democracy joined the Canadian Municipal Barometer, a partnership of universities and researchers surveying mayors and councillors in the more than 400 municipalities across Canada. From Corner Brook, Newfoundland, to Squamish, British Columbia, over 940 councillors, mayors, reeves, and borough councillors responded to the first annual Canadian Municipal Barometer survey, shedding light on their paths to politics and lives as local politicians. 

Mayors and councillors, newly elected officials and municipal veterans, politicians in urban and rural places—respondents represented a cross section of Canada’s local leaders. Their responses provide a better understanding of who local politicians are, how they experience public life, and what their career paths look like. 

The survey finds:

City council is not a gateway office: High-profile examples of municipal politicians making the leap to provincial or federal politics are the exception, not the rule. Only 5% of respondents said it is very likely they will run for provincial or federal office, even after nearly half said they have been actively recruited. Generally speaking, local politicians do not see themselves as a “farm team” for provincial, territorial, or federal politics. 

Civil society talent pipeline: Only a minority of local politicians take an explicitly political path to office, through advocacy, partisan involvement, or holding other offices. Most (56%) point to involvement in community associations and neighbourhood groups as experiences that helped them prepare for public life. 

Lonely work, hours vary: The survey probes the capacity of councillors and mayors, and asks how they spend their time. The one dimension that makes municipal politics distinct from other orders of government is that the job is still often treated as a part-time commitment, rather than a full-time profession. The result is that half of respondents (49%) are only part-time representatives, and, of those, most (77%) hold other jobs. Three-quarters (76%) of respondents have no staff support. 

Not all roads lead to City Hall: Diversity in representation is pivotal in ensuring all voices can be heard at the decision-making table. The findings of this report confirm that Canadian municipalities have a long way to go in diversifying local government. Only 31% of respondents are women, 91% are white, 70% are 50 years old or older, and white-collar professionals are heavily overrepresented.

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