Effective local government began with Baldwin Act in 1849

A little while ago I was chatting with the editor of this newspaper about the history of municipal elections.

He sug­gested that the sub­ject would make an excellent topic for this history column during the period leading up to this year’s election, and I agreed.

The historical development of municipal institutions seld­om gets a thorough treatment in histories of Ontario, and that neglect extends to the majority of local histories. Many of the latter ignore the subject com­pletely while others will make note of only the first council, and perhaps a photo of the sit­ting council at the time the book was published.

In Ontario, or Upper Can­ada as it was then known, local elected councils were relatively late in appearing, and they were and still are very much the cre­atures and creation of the provincial government. Anoth­er theme, perhaps not unrelated to the first, is that voters sel­dom show much interest in municipal elections. Voter turn­outs of more than 50% are con­sidered exceptional, and parti­cipation at a level of 20% or less is not unusual.

Low turnouts are nothing new: voter interest has risen and fallen several times in cyc­les over the years. Though muni­cipalities control many of the services people take for granted, there is a feeling that they lack significant power.

Local government in what is now Ontario dates back to 1793, when the Upper Canada legislature set up Districts as the basic unit of local govern­ment. Those were large areas, with appointed administrators, who were responsible for prop­erty assessments and taxation to fund local improvements. Appointed magistrates sitting on Courts of Quarter Sessions were responsible for municipal and judicial administration.

That was very much a top-down system of government, out of the hands of local resi­dents. There were two reasons for that policy. Provincial offi­cials, aware of unrest in Eng­land resulting from industriali­zation and rapid economic change, feared the power of the masses should they get a toe-hold on political power of any sort. Closer to home, Upper Canada’s elite were horrified at the American example, which seemingly had empowered the illiterate and uncultured class­es, resulting in something they viewed as bordering on an­archy. Canada, they were deter­mined, would avoid such ex­cesses.

District boundaries changed several times as the population of the province grew. In 1838, the District of Wellington was carved from the old Halton District. It consisted of what would become Waterloo, Well­ington, Grey, and part of Dufferin. After strong cam­paigns from Fergus and Guelph interests, Guelph was named the District town. A.D. For­dyce, of Fergus, was appointed warden by the provincial gov­ernment when the first council session met early in 1842.

There were 11 councillors elected from the constituent townships of Erin, Eramosa, Garafraxa, Nichol, Woolwich, Wilmot, Waterloo, and Guelph. But six  of them failed to meet property or residency qualifi­cations, and the elections had to be rescheduled.

That district council re­mained in place until 1849, when there were represen­tatives of 33 townships. 

A small measure of dem­ocracy came in 1842, when the province authorized elected district councils to supervise property taxes and the com­pletion of local public works, most of which were roads. Vot­ing was far from universal. There were property qualifi­cations to be on the voters list, and voting was done in only one location in each county, making the election a full day chore for those living some distance from the polling place. In addition, voting was by public declaration, rather than secret ballot. That made the sys­tem rife with bribery and inti­midation.

The most significant devel­op­ment in Ontario’s local gov­ernment until the Mike Harris admin­istration of the 1990s was the Baldwin Act of 1849. That legislation set up a system of local government that re­mained largely unchanged for 150 years.

The Baldwin Act estab­lish­ed a two-tier system of municipal government. The Districts were gone, replaced by counties as the senior local level. Counties were composed of various cities, towns, vill­ages and townships, each with its own local council. Those councils were elected by males, resident in the jurisdiction or with property there, initially to the value of $400. The local councils were headed by reev­es, who, as part of their duties, also sat on county council.

When the municipalities achieved certain population thres­holds, they could elect one or two deputy-reeves, who would also sit on county council.

Under the Baldwin Act, there were population thresh­olds for the categories of urban municipalities: villages (1,000 people), towns (3,000) and cities (10,000), with more auth­ority and responsibility for the larger centres. Rural areas were designated as townships. The latter were divided into wards, each electing one township councillor. Reeves and mayors initially were selected by the councillors from among them­selves, rather than by the elec­torate.

Voter participation increas­ed dramatically under the Baldwin Act reforms. Under the old system, perhaps 25% of men qualified to vote due to the property qualifications, and many of them did not vote due to the difficulty of getting to the poll. With the reforms, and the ward system in effect in the townships, local politics be­came extremely local, with intense involvement when con­tentious issues were under consideration.

The ward system, although bringing democracy down to the grassroots level, also produced some problems. It was eventually abolished. As well, reeves began to be elected at-large in 1869, rather than by the councillors. But that anomaly persisted at county council, where, to this day, wardens are selected by the county coun­cillors.

Confederation in 1867 re­sulted in little change for muni­cipalities. The British North America Act confirmed that municipalities were the cre­atur­es of provincial governments. There were some changes in the latter part of the 19th century, most of which expanded the electorate. Prop­erty qualifications were reduc­ed several times. Beginning in 1884, unmarried women and widows could vote in muni­cipal elections, on the same property qualifications as men. For school boards, women who were property owners had the vote as early as 1850.

A major reform came in 1874, when the secret ballot was introduced for municipal elections. Centre Wellington MPP Charles Clarke (a former reeve of Elora) was the champion of that reform.

The secret ballot removed some of the intimidation that sometimes had accompanied municipal elections. It also made bribery of voters less common – there was no way to tell whether a bribed voter car­ried out his end of the bargain.

It appears that the percent­age of electors exercising their votes could vary a great deal in the late 19th century. Controversial issues could pro­duce a large turnout, sometimes over 80%, but it would appear that something in the range of 60% was more typical, and turnouts of 40% were not rare when there were few issues.

Voting was normally sched­uled for the first week of January each year, with a nomination meeting a week or 10 days before that. Beginning in 1904, municipal elections were set by provincial law for January 1, or the day after when New Year’s fell on a Sunday. In most municipalities, the nomination meeting be­came a ritual event in the lull between Christmas and New Years.

Some voters looked to that event to provide a little enter­tainment. For the more serious electors, it was a chance to hear the outgoing council review its activities, and to question members on their spending. Challengers could take issue with office holders, and voters could make statements and introduce new issues. At times, there could be loud arguments that, in rare cases, degenerated into fisticuffs.

Though nomination meet­ings might be noisy, they fre­quently resulted in a consensus, with the council positions filled by acclamation. In perhaps half the years in the 1890s, there were no elections in Wellington County’s municipalities, and poor turnouts when there was a contest. Interest in Wellington’s local governments in the 1890s, was at a cyclical low, but it would pick up again in the early years of the new century. 

Next week: Municipal elections in the 20th century.


Stephen Thorning