Which Policy Issues Matter in Canadian Municipalities? A Survey of Municipal Politicians

  • Jack Lucas University of Calgary
  • Alison Smith


Whether it’s a big city or a small town, all Canadian municipalities have core issues that their elected politicians are concerned about. Regardless of size, the daily business of a municipality must be managed and policies determined about such bread-and-butter issues as garbage collection, snow removal, wastewater and sewage, fire protection, economic development and fixing potholes. However, when size increases, so do the layers of issues that engage municipal politicians. This paper examines the results of a cross-Canada survey of more than 1,000 mayors and councillors from communities ranging in population size from 5,000 to more than two million. With an increase in population size, the numbers and complexity of issues creep up as well. Tiny municipalities typically aren’t concerned with issues such as immigrant settlement, homelessness and public transit. Those issues are much more pressing for larger municipalities. A focus on some types of issues, such as public transit, grows right alongside population growth. The physical size of large municipalities means they contain a population whose needs are naturally more diverse than they are in smaller cities, towns and villages, thus shifting politicians’ concerns to such things as homelessness and climate change. However, issues such as relations with Indigenous people and climate change also tend to hold regional, not just municipal, importance. They may be extremely important to a small municipality because of its geographic location and less important in a larger municipality located elsewhere. For example, municipal politicians in British Columbia reflect regional concerns with their emphasis in the survey on the importance of tackling homelessness, affordable housing, climate change and Indigenous relations. Yet, next door in Alberta, Indigenous relations and climate change ranked in the survey as being of low importance, along with climate change, despite the presence of two cities in the province with populations hovering around the million mark. The number one issue for municipalities regardless of size is economic development, since job creation and attracting investment are key for a healthy municipality regardless of its location or size. And nearly every politician surveyed listed planning, water supply and transportation infrastructure (roads, highways and bridges) as being of deep importance to their communities. Of almost equal importance in the survey were a second slate of issues including emergency planning, parks and recreation, public health, solid waste removal and policing. The results of this survey are intended to lay the groundwork for future researchers who want to focus on specific problems in the area of urban policy-making. Those who want to study the bread-and-butter issues can do so among a wide range and size of municipalities, knowing that these issues are vital to all. Those with an interest in homelessness and immigrant populations can focus on the big cities while being assured they are not missing out on key points among smaller communities. This survey will be highly beneficial for researchers in urban policy issues as it will help them to decide where to look and exactly what to look for.

Research Papers