Law, Autonomy, and Local Government: A Legal History of Municipal Corporations in Canada West/Ontario, 1850-1880
Pelton Stokes, Mary Margaret
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The historiography of local government in mid-nineteenth century Canada West/Ontario is divided on the question of municipal autonomy. The more dominant thesis asserts that the Municipal Corporations (Baldwin) Act of 1849 ushered in a period of freedom for municipalities. The second depicts the Act as oppressive of autonomy in the interests of economic development. Both interpretations are based largely on extrapolation from earlier and later periods; there have been no direct examinations of local governance in Canada West/Ontario for what may be considered its formative period, from 1850 to 1880. In addition, much that has been written has been conceptually anachronistic, conflating local with urban in an era when the province was primarily rural. And, significantly, the legal dimension of the subject has been ignored or relied on uncritically. I begin with an examination of the Act and its consolidations to determine whether it was essentially permissive or mandatory, concluding that it can best be described as a constitution for low governance. I then consider case-law, focussing on enforcement of municipal duties by mandamus, restriction on municipal action by quashing of by-laws, and the imposition of liability for negligence. Next, I consider the communication of official sources of law to local government actors through commercial publications, all of which emphasized the lack of local autonomy. Because counties were the most populous local units, I use the archival records of the United Counties of Leeds and Grenville to scrutinize the activities of one such local government in the shadow of the law. I then discuss the supervision of local government by the old-regime, soft law grand jury, and the new-regime hard law prison inspectorates. I investigate whether the newly created township councils were able to express community norms through the property tax appeal process. Finally, I consider the influence of municipal councils over their legal environment by means of petitions to the provincial legislature. I conclude that local governments in Canada West/Ontario during the years 1850 to 1880, while not without agency, were both too integrated in and too integral to the low governance of the province to be autonomous.