Manitoba Historical Society
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Local Government Reorganization

by Murray Fisher

MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1960-61 Season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The title of this paper was chosen deliberately, because I did not wish to be confined to details of the early history of local government in this Province, and because I wished to comment on its future development, which I realize is probably not a proper subject for a historical society.

Some knowledge of the past is useful, almost essential, if we are to understand why local government is what it is today, but local government like civilization, is never static, and unless it is willing to adapt itself to changed conditions, it will deteriorate.

Any consideration of local government in Manitoba seems logically to fall into four periods; (1) the period prior to 1870, (2) the period 1870 to 1886, (3) the period 1886 to the present, and (4) the period of the future.

The first government functioning in what is now Manitoba, was a Governor and Council, appointed by the London Committee of the Hudson's Bay Company. It exercised full authority in legislative, judicial and administrative capacities, and functioned in all the spheres now occupied by our present three levels of government, federal, provincial and municipal. The law administered was the law of England as it existed in 1670 and its jurisdiction extended to all the lands drained by rivers flowing into Hudson Bay.

In 1810, Lord Selkirk obtained a grant of about 116,000 square miles of land from the Hudson's Bay Company, to which he brought settlers from the Old Country and Eastern Canada. The colony was first ruled by a Governor appointed by Lord Selkirk. In 1834, the Hudson's Bay Company bought back from the Selkirk estate the lands which had previously been granted to Lord Selkirk and the Hudson's Bay Company again took over control of the area. In 1835, Hudson's Bay Company officials met at Fort Garry with representatives of the Church, the local inhabitants and Sheriff Alexander Ross of Assiniboia. The meeting was presided over by the Chief Factor of the Hudson's Bay Company, Sir George Simpson. The meeting decided to divide the territory into four districts, with a Justice of the Peace in charge of each one. The Justices of the Peace appointed were James Bird, Robert Logan, James Sutherland and Cuthbert Grant. A volunteer police force was also formed composed of sixty men. While the Governor and Council was the object of some criticism, because it failed to represent certain groups in the community, this administration did exhibit many of the qualities of local government.

It is interesting to note, that as far back as 1817, William Bacheler Coltman, His Majesty's Special Commissioner for enquiring into offences committed within the Indian Territories, and as a Justice of the Peace for said Territories, as well as for the Western District of Upper Canada, constituted and appointed Jacob Storgus, Pierre Brusselles, Donald Livingston and Angus Matheson, all of the Colony of Red River, in the said Indian Territories, to be constables for and within the limits of the present settlement of the said Colony, that is to say, beginning at the first of the settlers' lots at the Frog Plain (Kildonan) and continuing up the said Red River to certain Indian tombs, (C.N.R. Station) near half-a-mile above Fort Douglas and extending back to the distance of half-a-mile from the banks, on each side, of the Red River. Evidently the original settlement, which had been burnt down, was east of Main Street to the Red River between what are now Pacific and Market Avenues.

At Portage la Prairie, outside the boundaries of the Municipal District of Assiniboia, another attempt was made to establish a form of local government. While some local regulations were passed, friction developed between the legislative and judicial personnel and, as a result, they requested the area to be included within the Municipal District of Assiniboia. When this was refused in 1854, an abortive attempt was made to establish the Republic of Caledonia, with Thomas Spence as President. The British Government refused to recognize the new administration and declared any attempt to establish an independent government in Assiniboia, even for municipal purposes, without reference to the Crown or to the Hudson's Bay Company, was illegal.

This attempt evidenced a growing political unrest, the population was becoming politically self-conscious and there were demands, not only for wider representation in the district government of Assiniboia, but for revision of the institutions established in the area.

The next phase in government development involves the Red River Insurrection and the Provisional Government of 1869-1870. Following the seizure of Fort Garry by the Métis there was great confusion. What authority was to be recognized, the Council of Assiniboia, or the Provisional Government? Members of the Provisional Government were elected and it was therefore both responsible and representative in character, and so the new Provisional Government enjoyed greater public confidence than the preceding Council of Assiniboia.

Following the suppression of the Insurrection, there was organized in the fall of 1870, a mounted police force to police the Red River Settlement. It consisted of twenty men, under the command of Captain Villiers, a former officer of Lord Wolseley's army. The area patrolled by this force extended south to the American border, west along the old Assiniboine trail and included other outlying districts. This force was maintained until the incorporation of the City of Winnipeg. While Captain Villiers' force was policing the settlement, the Hudson's Bay Company maintained but one constable, the last one being James Mulligan, of whom we shall hear more later on.

Up to the time of union in 1870, no definite pattern of formal municipal institutions had emerged in Manitoba. Once having eliminated the more or less arbitrary company rule, it was inconceivable that any formal system of local government would be acceptable on any but a representative basis.

Early in the autumn of 1872, Sir John A. Macdonald, Prime Minister of Canada, suggested to Lieutenant-Governor Morris that a general municipal system for the new province should be considered. With a population of fewer than 12,000 people and a provincial budget of some $81,000.00, the Attorney General was of the opinion that it was inadvisable to organize the province into municipalities. It was, therefore, the responsibility of the provincial government to provide for roads, bridges, judicial and registry offices and all other necessary local services. In 1873, however, legislation was introduced permitting local communities to organize on a township or parish basis. Under this legislation a municipal corporation could be created by letters patent by the Lieutenant-Governor-in-Council, on petition signed by two-thirds of the male freeholders and householders resident in the district. On September 1, 1873, an order-in-council was passed authorizing the issue of letters patent incorporating a municipality, under the name of The Corporation of the Township or Parish of Springfield and Sunnyside, and comprising township eleven in ranges four and five east. At that time, a voter in a municipal election had to be of the male sex, a freeholder, twenty-one years of age, a British subject, and had to give proof that his municipal taxes had been paid ten days before election day. Before becoming law, municipal by-laws had to be approved by the Lieutenant-Governor-in-Council. In 1876, three years after incorporation, Springfield Sunnyside comprised an area forty-two miles long and six miles wide. The highest assessment for a quarter section was $320.00. The taxes on a quarter section were, for municipal purposes 64c, for schools $2.40 and for statute labour $2.00. The total levy for that year amounted to $523.73, of which $329.36 was for education and $194.37 for general purposes.

On November 3, 1873, letters patent issued incorporating the Municipality of Westbourne, comprising township thirteen in range nine west. The Mayor and Council of the City of Winnipeg were incorporated by a special Act of the Legislature on November 8, 1873. These were the beginnings of local government in the Province.

In 1875 and again in 1877, the county system of local government was introduced into Manitoba, copied largely from Ontario. On December 1, 1877, Westbourne was incorporated as the first county municipality, with an area of sixty-six miles by twenty-four miles, or one-eighth of the then provincial area, and with a population of about 800 persons. In 1878, the assessment of the county was $675,000.00 with tax rate of five mills. Portage la Prairie was incorporated as a county in 1879. In that same year, a bill was passed providing for the incorporation of towns. Emerson was incorporated in 1879 and Portage la Prairie in 1880. The charter of the City of Winnipeg was repealed in 1886, and from then until 1902, when the City obtained a new charter, it operated under the provisions of the Municipal Act. In 1874, the City of Winnipeg dispensed with the services of Captain Villiers and his men and formed a city police force, with John S. Ingram as Chief Constable, and assisting him D. B. Murray and William Bruce. When incorporated, Winnipeg had 1869 inhabitants.

Municipal politics were interesting in those early days. Under the charter of the City of Winnipeg, the Mayor was also the Police Magistrate. In the year 1873, Mr. F. E. Cornish, a barrister, (Cornish Avenue and Cornish Library) was running for Mayor. He was successful, and with his supporters proceeded to celebrate the victory, with the result that a number of the supporters of the Mayor's opponent, tied up Constable James Mulligan, the Hudson's Bay Company's constable, arrested the new Mayor and put him in the lockup. At court the following morning, His Worship having been released in the meantime, entered the court room, and walking directly to the prisoners clock, bowed to the vacant bench, and then asked the Clerk to read the charge against Cornish. The charge of being intoxicated) was read, the prisoner pleaded guilty, left the box, and taking his place on the bench as Magistrate, fined the prisoner $3.00 or seven days in gaol and went on to read the prisoner a lecture on the evils of strong drink. He then stated, that as the prisoner was a man of unimpeachable past good character in the community, he would remit the fine. There was loud laughter from those in court who had gathered to see and hear the fun.

During the period from 1870 to 1836, there was a great deal of legislative experimentation with regard to local government. Measures would be introduced in one year and repealed shortly afterwards and changes were constantly being made. The people were trying to find a form of local government that was suited to their needs and to the time.

In 1883, the boundaries of existing municipalities were redefined and the legislation provided for the establishment of eighty-six rural municipalities. In 1882, the county system was reorganized and county municipalities were authorized to carry out intermunicipal public works. This type of county council consisted of the wardens from the municipalities within a given judicial district. In 1883, an attempt was made to introduce a general county system consisting of twenty-six counties. There was opposition to this plan and the legislation was repealed one year after its enactment.

In 1881, for the purpose of judicial administration at the provincial level, Manitoba was divided into three judicial districts. To provide court houses and gaol facilities a judicial board was established in each district. These boards consisted of the Mayors and Wardens of municipalities within the district.

Both the Judicial District Boards and the new County Council system were criticized and the County Council system was abolished in 1884, but the Judicial District Boards continued until 1886.

In 1885 a Commission recommended:

  1. the abolition of Judicial District Boards
  2. the appointment of a member of the government to control the expenses for the maintenance of court houses and gaols and the administration of justice.
  3. the expense of this government office was to be met by the province, while the cost of maintaining court houses, gaols and sheriffs was to be paid by the municipalities.
  4. the assets and liabilities of existing Judical District Boards were to be taken over and administered by the government.

As a result of the recommendations of this Commission, the Department of the Municipal Commissioner was established in 1886. The Judicial District Boards were taken over by the Municipal Commissioner, who by statute was created a body corporate and the formation of composite local authorities was abandoned. The rural unit finally emerged as a blending of the township municipality and the county, with provisions for the incorporation of cities, towns and villages. The first Municipal Commissioner was a member of the civil service, Mr. L. W. Coutlee, the then deputy Attorney General. In 1890, the legislation was amended to provide that a member of the Executive Council was to be the Municipal Commissioner. The first Deputy Municipal Commissioner was Mr. E. M. Wood.

In 1953, the Department of the Municipal Commissioner for the Province of Manitoba, as a body corporate, was abolished and the Department of Municipal Affairs established. The province took over the assets and assumed the existing liabilities of the Municipal Commissioner.

About 1884, there were in this province the following units of local government; 25 Counties, 2 Cities, 12 Towns and 86 rural municipalities. Today, leaving out the area of Metropolitan Winnipeg, there are no counties, 2 Cities, 33 Towns, 36 Villages and 103 Rural Municipalities.

A great many changes have taken place in Manitoba in the last seventy-five years, possibly the most important are in transportation and communications. The motor vehicle, the aeroplane, the telephone, radio and television are perhaps the greatest factors in this evolution. Gone is the ox-train, the horse, the Red River cart and the canoe. Distance is no longer a factor of major importance.

Agriculture has become mechanized, the family farm is passing out of the picture, with resulting movements of population from the rural areas to urban centres.

Automation has come to industry with its effects on labour and employment. The art of the craftsman has been supplanted by the machine. Industry has replaced agriculture as the most important factor in our Manitoba economy.

We live in a society with a very high standard of living, but must compete in international markets with those with a much lower standard.

In our highly competitive society, every group in the community has become organized to protect or further its own interests. Internationally, surging nationalism is on the march and serious conflicts continue to arise between differing political ideologies.

We have made undreamed of progress in the world of the sciences, but I am not sure that we have advanced much in art, religion, culture or ethics. I sometimes think it would help if we were more honest with each other and had better manners; better manners on the highway would substantially reduce the accident toll. We find sensationalism in the press and high pressure techniques in merchandising.

In government we have the welfare state and a society where the state is exercising more and more controls over our daily lives, with resulting paternalism, regimentation and conformity, with its impact on individual initiative, ambition and personal responsibility. We demand security and are evidently prepared to pay a high price for it, both in taxes and in the loss of individual freedom.

Despite these economic and social changes, local government in Manitoba, with the exceptions of the creation of Metropolitan Winnipeg and the establishment of school divisions for secondary education, remains about the same as it was seventy-five years ago.

Senior governments, because of increasing paternalism, have been compelled to do some decentralizing for administrative purposes. In this process, little attempt was made to coordinate the boundaries of these administrative areas with each other, or with the boundaries of local government units, or to streamline and consolidate their respective activities and personnel.

I am convinced that in this changing world, local government in some form must remain. To quote James Bryce, "nothing has contributed more to give strength and flexibility to a national government, or to train the masses of the people to work their democratic institutions, than the existence everywhere of self-governing units of local government, small enough to enlist the personal interest and be subject to the personal watchfulness and control of the ordinary citizen."

The population of this province is a mixture of many nationalities with varying backgrounds and histories. These people welcome the benefits of democratic government, but as yet have not had too much experience or training in their responsibilities as citizens. These people have many admirable qualities and their various cultures will lend colour and variety to our society, but education in democratic objectives and responsibilities requires generations of training and experience.

A rough calculation suggests that in this province we have an elected or appointed government representative for every three or four families. Seems like a lot of government and it costs money.

I venture the suggestion, that before long the Federal Government may insist that the provinces put their respective local houses in order before they request additional help from the federal treasury.

If constructive solutions are not found for the problems of local government, the pressure of events may force solutions that may not be entirely satisfactory to those concerned.

There will doubtless be opposition to change. Some people seem to be constitutionally opposed to change of any kind. There will be criticism arising from local jealousies and opposition from those affected by proposed changes. It is hoped, however, that whatever changes may be proposed, they will tend to strengthen rather than impair the autonomy and efficiency of local government. Everyone realizes that extensive economic and social changes have taken place in our society, and local government, if it is to survive, cannot remain unaffected, but must adapt itself and its activities to these changed conditions.

It seems the time has come when someone should take a good hard look at the existing situation and come up with suggestions which will bring about a more logical and efficient organization of local government and the better coordination of its activities with the activities of senior governments.

There was organized last year in Manitoba a Municipal Enquiry Commission, composed of representatives of the Union of Manitoba Municipalities and the Manitoba Urban Association, under the chairmanship of R. M. Fisher, to study and report on the whole question of municipal organization in this province, together with the question of municipal responsibility in the total pattern of government. The Commission does not expect to finish its work until late in 1962 when it will submit its proposals to the above-named municipal organizations.

The four main avenues of enquiry to be explored by the Commission are:

1. Reorganization of local government outside Metro Winnipeg.

  1. Municipalities, rural and urban.
  2. School districts and school divisions.
  3. Local government districts and industrial townsites.

2. Provincial-Municipal relations

3. Municipal finance, and

4. Coordination of the decentralized provincial and federal administrative units with the proposed units of local government.

To indicate the magnitude and complexity of the task undertaken by the Commission, brief reference might be made to some of the problems the Commission will be considering, grouped under the four avenues of enquiry above referred to.

1. Reorganization of local government.

  1. What is the assessment, area and population, under modern conditions, for the efficient operation of a rural municipality?
  2. Are there inter-municipal activities affecting both rural and urban units, which suggest the desirability of creating an authority with limited jurisdiction over an area, including say three or four rural units and the urban centres within their boundaries?
  3. If so, what jurisdiction should this area authority possess?
  4. Can the organization and functioning of local government districts and industrial town sites be improved?
  5. Should existing urban units, that do not possess sufficient assessment to efficiently function, be disorganized?
  6. With regard to the future of school districts and school divisions, there are a number of alternative ideas.
  1. Should all school districts within a municipality be formed into a municipal school district, with boundaries coterminious with the municipal boundary, and union school districts eliminated? Should boundaries of school divisions be coterminious with the boundaries of the area unit?
  2. Should school division boards take over the administration of both elementary and secondary education?
  3. Should the municipal council administer elementary education and the area authority administer secondary education, or the area authority administer both?
  4. Should the provincial government take over the complete responsibility for the total cost, control and administration of education or take over secondary education and leave elementary education to local government?

2. Provincial-Municipal relations.

Should there be a reallocation of the responsibility for services between the provincial government and the municipalities, the former assuming responsibility for all services benefiting persons, such as health, welfare and education, and the latter for all services benefiting land, such as protection of property, highways and public works? Studies will have to be made as to the resulting shifting of costs between the municipalities and the government, because of the reallocation of services and the effect upon the provincial grant structure. If this suggestion is discarded, the provincial grant structure, and possible additional sources of municipal revenue will have to receive careful study. Under this heading there will also be a study made as to future channels of communication between the provincial government and the municipalities. Investigations will also doubtless be made into the activities of the federal government in the province and its relations with the municipalities.

3. Municipal finance.

This will involve a variety of studies such as:

  1. A measurement of the existing burden of municipal taxation on land.
  2. The assessment and taxation of buildings rural and urban.
  3. Other existing tax exemptions.
  4. The taxation of federal, provincial and university land.
  5. Industrial taxation, should it be provincial or local, and if provincial, how will the revenue be distributed among the municipalities?
  6. The question of industrial tax exemption.
  7. Municipal licenses for regulation and for revenue.
  8. Municipal business taxation.
  9. The method of taxation of retail businesses, carried on over large areas by means of motor vehicles.
  10. Suggested sources of additional municipal revenue.
  11. The future of provincial unconditional grants.
  12. Should certain areas be withdrawn from municipal jurisdiction and settlement, such as, forest reserves, Indian reserves, community pastures, and areas of submarginal land?
  13. A formula for the distribution of municipal public works levies between unincorporated village districts and the rural municipality.

4. Cooperation of administrative units.

An attempt will have to be made to coordinate the revised municipal units with decentralized provincial and federal administrative areas. A study should be made as to whether there could be any coordination of the administrative personnel of the local, provincial and federal services.

The Commission has taken on a difficult and complicated task, and it is to be hoped that in its efforts it will receive the cooperation and encouragement of all good citizens.

In this paper I have tried to make three main points:

  1. Local government has an essential function to perform in a democratic society.
  2. Local government, in Manitoba, has not, as yet, adapted itself to cope adequately with our changed economic and social condition.
  3. It is better that those interested in local government should come up with a blue print for reorganization rather than have changes forced on them by senior governments.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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