A Primer on Municipal Law in Alberta

This article was originally published in LawNow


by Ben Throndson

Municipal governments play an important role in shaping Albertans’ daily lives – from taxes to transit, bike lanes to bylaw enforcement, and development permits to dog licenses.

Albertans go to the polls on Monday, October 18, 2021, to elect new municipal councils. With this in mind, this article provides readers with a better understanding of municipal law and government.

What is the legal authority for municipal government?

All authority to make laws in Canada flows from the Constitution. But the Constitution only creates two levels of government: the federal Parliament and the provincial Legislatures.

This raises the question: where do municipalities fit into the picture?

Legally speaking, municipalities are “creatures of the provinces”. Section 92(8) of the Constitution Act, 1867 gives provinces the power to make laws on “Municipal Institutions in the Province”. This means the provinces have the power to – and indeed do – create and regulate municipalities within their borders.

In Alberta, the main piece of municipal legislation is the Municipal Government Act (the MGA). The MGA has over 700 sections. It includes rules on many subjects, including:

  • the scope of municipal powers
  • forming new municipalities
  • municipal council procedure
  • financial administration
  • property assessment and taxation
  • land use planning and zoning

Many other pieces of provincial legislation also impose unique powers and responsibilities on municipalities, including in the areas of transportation, the environment, and privacy.

How are municipalities created and governed?

The MGA says Alberta’s Minister of Municipal Affairs may form a new municipality in three situations:

  1. on the Minister’s own initiative
  2. if an existing council requests the Minister do so, or
  3. in response to a petition signed by at least 30% of the population within the boundaries of the proposed municipality.

Five different types of municipalities may be formed under the MGA:

  1. municipal districts
  2. villages
  3. towns
  4. cities
  5. specialized municipalities

Once formed, a municipality may change its status (for example, from a town to a city) if it meets the requirements set out in the MGA.

Additionally, the MGA sets out processes under which municipalities may change their name, amalgamate (combine) with another municipality, annex land from another municipality (by changing their border), or be dissolved.

Each municipality is governed by an elected municipal council. One member of the council serves as the chief elected official. In most communities, the chief elected official is called either the “Mayor” or the “Reeve”.

What can municipalities regulate?

Because municipalities are “creatures of the province”, they may only use the powers given to them by provincial legislation. With that said, the MGA gives broad authority to municipal councils to make bylaws that a council deems to be in the public interest.

Section 3 of the MGA sets out the purposes of a municipality. These are:

  • to provide good government
  • to foster the well-being of the environment
  • to provide services, facilities, or other things that are, in the council’s opinion, necessary or desirable for the municipality
  • to develop a safe and viable community, and
  • to work collaboratively with neighbouring municipalities.

To fulfill these purposes, section 7 of the MGA says a council may pass bylaws on many general subjects, or “matters”, including:

  • people’s safety, health, and welfare
  • protecting property
  • people, activities, and things in or around public places or places open to the public
  • nuisances, including unsightly property
  • transport and transportation systems
  • businesses, business activities, and persons engaged in business
  • services provided by or on behalf of the municipality
  • public utilities
  • wild and domestic animals and their activities, and
  • bylaw enforcement.

This list is intentionally broad. Section 9 of the MGA says the power to pass bylaws “is stated in general terms” to “give broad authority to councils and to respect their right to govern municipalities in whatever way the councils consider appropriate”. Broad authority also “[enhances] the ability of councils to respond to present and future issues in their municipalities”.

The courts interpret municipal authority generously to allow municipalities to fulfill their purposes. In its 2004 decision in United Taxi Drivers’ Fellowship of Southern Alberta v Calgary, the Supreme Court of Canada decided the city had authority to pass a bylaw freezing the number of taxi plate licenses issued, even though the MGA did not clearly give the city this power. In doing so, the Supreme Court said that legislation empowering municipalities is to be interpreted in a “broad and purposive” manner.

How are municipal governments similar – and different – from other levels of government?

Municipalities have a lot in common with the provincial and federal governments:

  • Citizens elect representatives and pay taxes.
  • Elected representatives meet to debate and enact policies and rules.
  • These governments employ public servants and provide public services.
  • These governments are bound by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

There are also several important differences between municipalities and the provincial and federal governments:

  • Municipalities lack constitutional status. They only exist through the provincial statutes that create and empower them.
  • Instead of electing representatives to Parliament or to the Legislature, Albertans elect municipal councils.
  • Municipal elections in Alberta do not feature political parties.
  • Municipal election dates are fixed. In Alberta, they take place every four years.
  • Albertans vote directly for a chief elected official (e.g. a mayor or a reeve) unless a bylaw provides that the chief elected official will be selected from among members of council. At the provincial and federal levels, citizens do not vote directly for the Premier or Prime Minister.
  • Municipalities pass “bylaws”, not “laws”.

What is municipal “law”?

Municipal law can be thought of as the law that affects how municipalities operate. It is a collection of various types of law. A few examples:

  • Constitutional law affects how municipalities are created, what powers they possess, and places limits on those powers.
  • Municipalities apply planning and development regulations to develop land within their boundaries.
  • Administrative law affects the operation of boards and tribunals within the municipality, such as the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board.
  • Since many municipalities are major employers in the community, employment and labour law govern a municipality’s legal relationships with its employees.
  • Municipalities may enter into contracts and hold property. As such, the law of contract and property are also relevant to the day-to-day operation of municipalities.

As this article shows, municipalities are complex, dynamic, and important organizations.