Beyond Municipal Amalgamations in Ontario

Martin Horak, Department of Political Science, Western University

Relevance of the Practice

As discussed in the introduction to report section 3 on local government structure, in the late 1990s the Ontario provincial government forcibly amalgamated many municipalities, both rural and urban, citing the need to reduce waste and duplication in an era of government cost-cutting. The number of municipalities in Ontario was reduced by nearly 50 per cent in the process. However, since then, the Ontario government has engaged in no significant local government structural reform at all. Instead, the province has moved towards direct regulation and single-issue multilevel governance initiatives to address pressing urban governance issues and has taken little significant action to address rural governance issues. Understanding why this shift has occurred can give LoGov researchers insight into the conditions under which structural reform initiatives may reach their political limits as responses to localized urban and rural challenges.

Description of the Practice

The 1990s amalgamations in Ontario affected both rural and urban municipalities. As noted above, the primary rationale given by the provincial government at the time was that these amalgamations would save money and make local governments more efficient. However, there has been little subsequent evidence that amalgamations resulted in cost savings.[1] On the contrary, amalgamations tended to increase costs, since amalgamated municipalities faced upward pressure on labour costs for municipal employees, and political pressure to harmonize service levels up to those in the most generously serviced pre-amalgamation municipality.

The 1990s amalgamations also had other shortcomings, which manifested differently in urban and rural areas. The most contentious amalgamation – the one that produced the new City of Toronto – created a huge municipality with nearly 3 million people. Given non-partisan local politics and ward-based elections, decision-making has been slow and cumbersome in the new city, and successive mayors and councils have swung wildly in terms of policy priorities. At the same time, the new city cannot address city-regional governance coordination, since it still contains less than half of the population of the urban area, and the outer suburbs continued to be governed by the two-tier regional municipal systems set up in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, outside large cities, amalgamation often fused small and medium sized towns with surrounding rural areas. Experts interviewed for this research disagreed regarding the relative merits of these amalgamations. While some emphasized that amalgamated rural areas had more fiscal capacity to build badly needed infrastructure,[2] others noted that the fusion of towns and countryside has brought the differing policy priorities of pre-existing units into direct conflict, leading to a volatile and contentious local politics.[3] The most notable example here is the amalgamated Municipality of Chatham-Kent, which covers a large land area (2,500 km2) and includes several towns as well as large rural areas of farmland.

The various problems and shortcomings of the 1990s amalgamations have discouraged subsequent Ontario provincial governments from pursuing further structural reform to local government boundaries. In the Toronto area, it appears that a city-regional level of government is no longer a politically viable option. The Toronto area contains more than half of Ontario’s population, meaning that the political reaction to structural reform is an important consideration. Even in the late 1990s, calls for a city-regional authority were ignored because residents in the suburban municipalities, which had helped to elect to provincial government at the time, opposed institutional links to Toronto’s urban core. In addition, a city-regional authority, if established, could constitute a dangerously powerful counterweight to the provincial government itself. As a result, since the early 2000s the provincial government has dealt with growth and governance pressures in the Toronto area in two other ways: 1. By establishing comprehensive growth management legislation for the Toronto region (the ‘Places to Grow Act’ and the ‘Greenbelt Act’, both initially passed in 2005); 2. By establishing and funding issue-specific multilevel governance initiatives, the most prominent of which is Metrolinx, a regional transportation body tasked with constructing and coordinating a higher-order regional transit system.

Meanwhile, in rural areas the experiences of amalgamated municipalities like Chatham-Kent have likewise made further structural reform politically unattractive. However, Ontario’s rural areas and smaller towns lack the decisive population weight that Toronto’s suburbs have in provincial electoral politics. As a result, the provincial government has paid little political attention to the challenges faced by rural local governments. In this context, new governing and policy initiatives have mainly emerged collaboratively in a bottom-up fashion from local governments themselves. they’re succeeding not because of existing structures, but kind of despite them. One example is the SWIFT rural broadband internet initiative, a major project to develop a broadband network throughout rural south-western Ontario. The project has been spearheaded by the Western Ontario Wardens’ Caucus, an association of rural local government officials. Another example is the rapidly spreading practice of service sharing; the vast majority of small and rural municipalities now share a variety of services with each other in order to deal with their individual capacity limitations, and municipal officials meet regularly in a variety of fora to learn from each other and identify new service sharing opportunities. [4]

Assessment of the Practice

What we have discussed above is really a bundle of practices related to issues that have in the past been managed in Ontario through periodic boundary reforms imposed by the provincial government. As we have seen, there is a marked contrast between a new form of provincial interventionism in urban governance and development in the Toronto area, on the one hand; and provincial neglect of rural issues, on the other hand. On growth management and infrastructure development in the Toronto area, the province has achieved some success, with patterns of development densifying in recent years, and new transportation infrastructure being rolled out. However, in a context where there is no authoritative regional governing body, progress on both fronts has been slow, as provincial initiatives have encountered conflicting and changing political priorities in a fragmented local governance system. In terms of local governance and infrastructure capacity in rural areas, one expert interviewed for this project noted a ‘real lack of provincial leadership’,[5] while another emphasized that the increased emphasis in recent years on place-based policy for urban areas has not been matched by the rise of a rural ‘lens’.[6] A long history of neglect, the respondent noted, creates sort of a bit of distrust, so that certain communities that do have the capacity to kind of work around existing [provincial] legislation to get what they want done, in broadband, for example, are pursuing that themselves. They’re succeeding not because of existing structures, but kind of despite them’.[7] While benign provincial neglect has opened up a space for bottom-up collaborative action, the weak fiscal resources of most rural municipalities, as well as tight constraints on human resources (),[8] mean that this collaborative space remains tightly constrained. 

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Horak M, ‘State Rescaling in Practice: Urban Governance Reform in Toronto’ (2013) 6 Urban Research & Practice 311

Miljan LA and Spicer Z, Municipal Amalgamation in Ontario (Fraser Institute 2015)

Spicer Z, ‘Linking Regions, Linking Functions: Inter Municipal Agreements in Ontario’ (Institute on Municipal Finance & Governance, University of Toronto 2013)

Taylor Z, Shaping the Metropolis: Institutions and Urbanization in the United States and Canada (McGill-Queen’s Press 2019) Western Ontario Wardens’ Caucus, ‘Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT)’ (2020) <>

[1] Lydia Anita Miljan and Zachary Spicer, Municipal Amalgamation in Ontario (Fraser Institute 2015).

[2] Interview with local government expert, York University (10 July, 2021).

[3] Interview with local government expert, Rural Ontario Institute (20 July, 2021).

[4] Zachary Spicer, ‘Cooperation and Capacity: Inter-Municipal Agreements in Canada’ (2015) 19 IMFG Papers on Municipal Finance and Governance        <> accessed 26 July 2019.

[5] Interview with local government expert, Rural Ontario Institute (20 July 2021).

[6] Interview with local government expert, Guelph University (28 July 2021).

[7] ibid.

[8] Interviews with local government experts, Toronto (13 June 2021) and Rural Ontario Institute (20 July 2021).