Project eyes extent of mayoral power in Canada

Special to Western NewsPolitical Science PhD student Kate Graham is pictured on the train last summer as she took her research on the road for a cross-Canada tour, attending council meetings and doing interviews with mayors (both past and present), councilors, city managers, senior leaders, administrators and community leaders to examine perceptions of mayoral power.

How much political muscle do Canadian mayors flex? That is exactly what Political Science PhD student Kate Graham’s The Mayors Project hopes to find out.

“So often you hear language that we have ‘weak mayors’ in Canada or a ‘weak mayoral system,’ which is language borrowed from the United States where they have strong mayors and a strong mayoral system,” said Graham, who works as the Director, Community & Economic Innovation at the City of London where she is responsible for the city’s government relations, strategic initiatives, culture and economic partnerships.

“I’ve worked in local government for the last 10 years and have worked with quite a few mayors. Although there isn’t a piece of legislation in Canada that would tell us mayors have strong executive authority, I could think of a number of examples where they have been incredibly influential and powerful. I wanted to better understand what mayoral power looked like in a Canadian context.”

For her study, Graham looked at provincial legislation across the country and what the formal powers of mayors are, municipal bylaws where mayors are given appointment power with the ability to sit on committees and at “institutional things” like budget, staffing and legally prescribed influence.

In addition, she traveled last summer to 10 cities across Canada – Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Saint John, Halifax, Charlottetown and St. John’s – and documented her results on a website called The Mayors Project, mayorsproject.ca.

She chose the largest city in each province because municipal government is established through provincial legislation. Provinces have a municipal act or something similar that sets up what the system of local government looks like.

“It was important to have one city in each province and using the largest city in each province gave me a nice cross section,” she said.

In each city, Graham observed mayors, attended council meetings and did interviews with mayors (both past and present), councilors, city managers, senior leaders, administrators and community leaders to look at what mayoral power looked like in each city.

“I went into this study really focused on the role, not the people in the role, but when I got into the interviews, there is a real personal dimension with how people lead in the role.  One of the surprising things, halfway through the interview when people would really start to open up, were people’s honest reflections for what it meant to be a mayor,” she said.

“If you were to become president or CEO of a billion-dollar company (which most of these municipalities are) there would be lots of supports around that person in terms of coaching, mentoring and executive education. It’s not the kind of role where those things are provided, nor is it the kind of role where there is space to ask for that,” she said.

Graham traveled from Charlottetown, with a population of 32,000 people, all the way to Toronto, with a population of 9.2 million. She chose five capitals and five non-capitals which amounted to 20 per cent of the Canadian population in 10 cities.

“There are certainly differences in each city that make the role of mayor unique. Overall, from the interviews, when I talked to people about what their perceptions are about what mayors do, what mayoral power looks like, what does mayoral leadership look like, there were remarkable similarities across the country,” said Graham, who has worked with four mayors and dozens of elected officials during her nearly 10 years working in local government.

She also surveyed 12,000 Canadians to get a sense of what the public thinks about the power of mayors in their city. One of the questions included was, “Do you think your mayor has the power to make things happen in your community?” The responses showed most Canadians believe that mayors do have power to make things happen in their community.

“The public thinks mayors have power and the traditional political science view is that mayors are very weak, so it’s nice to settle my study with. Are mayors powerful or are they not?” she said.

As Graham nears the completion of her dissertation, she is hopeful her research will give a better understanding of what mayoral power looks like in Canada, instead of using American language.

“It hasn’t been given the attention I think it deserves in the field of political science, so our understanding about mayors and what political authority looks like is fairly weak. It’s an underdeveloped area, so I’m hoping to add to it in a small way,” she said.