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Alberta, Past and Present, Historical and Biographical
Vol 1 - Chapter X
Review of Municipal Government in North West Territories and Alberta

The first local divisions or townships were made by the federal authority under the Dominion Lands Act of 1872. Though unofficial, local organization had been already iii existence, following out English custom. Thus the Saskatchewan District Board of health to deal with the epidemic of smallpox that had broken out at that time. These townships were not for purposes of government but for survey and settlement. Sites for towns and villages were provided for by the Federal Government. The first territorial authority, the North West Council, dealt with all matters municipal and otherwise coming within its scope until municipal ordinances were passed and municipal organization established.

In 1883 the Governor in Council conferred upon the Lieutenant-Governor and the North West Council the power to enact ordinances respecting municipal institutions, subject of course, to any legislation of the Parliament of Canada. In pursuance of this authority the N. V. Council passed the first comprehensive municipal law of the Territories. The Minister of Justice objected to certain taxing powers of the enactment, viz., a clause that enabled a municipality to tax a person occupying Crown property other than in an official capacity. A new Act embodying the amendments suggested by the Privy Council of Canada was Passed in 1884 and the one of 1883 repealed. The ordinance provided for the incorporation of towns, cities and other municipalities on a petition of two- thirds of the residents (British subjects over twenty-one years of age, freeholders or householders within the municipality for three months) of the proposed municipality. The area of a rural municipality could not be less than 200 square miles, of a town not less than 320 acres and not more than 2,560 acres. When the population of any town exceeded 2,000 it could be erected into a city. The rural municipality was given power to pass by-laws for the local government of the district, such as raising local revenue, roads, bridges, streets, lighting, abatement of nuisances, drainage, public health and any other matter for the order and good government of the municipality. Notice should be taken that the municipalities were given rower to build, own, operate grist mills, elevators and manufacturing establishments. Additional powers were given to towns in order to promote the welfare and good government of these communities.

The ordinance of 1884 was revised and consolidated in 1888, again in 1894 and again in 1897. The revised ordinance of 1897 omitted all reference to cities, leaving them to adopt special legislation suitable to their own circumstances. This principle of municipal organization persists to the present day, although the question of passing a City Charter Act applicable to all cities has engaged the attention of the Alberta Legislature at different times. All the cities of the province are operated under special charters.

The municipalities existing at the time were as follows: Moosomin, Broadview, Wolseley, Indian Head, South Qu'Appelle, Wascana, Moose Jaw, Qu'Appelle, Town of Moose Jaw, Town of Regina, Belle Plain, Pheasant Plains.

The municipal ordinance from this date onward was a subject of frequent legislation, being almost annually repealed and reenacted with amendments to suit the needs of growing communities. By the Ordinance of 1894 rural municipalities of not more than 400 square miles were entitled to elect four councillors and those of more than this area, a reeve and six councillors. The area of towns was limited to 640 acres, but should the population exceed 2,000 then 160 acres might be added to the area for every 1,000 of population over 2,000. If after a census was taken in any town it was found that the population exceeded 5,000 the council might petition the legislature to be erected into a city provided the petition was signed by two-thirds of the resident householders of the town. Increased powers respecting the conduct of elections was granted by this Act.

Assessment and Taxes:

In these ordinances taxes were levied equally upon the whole rateable property, real, personal and income. In 1884 and 1894 the exemption on personal property was $300.00 and in 1897 this exemption was extended to apply to incomes under $600.00. The real estate and personal property of railway companies liable to assessment was considered as property of the ratepayers. The rate by the law of 1894 was limited to 2 cents on the dollar of assessed value of the property. By the same law the principle of the taxation of land values was rendered optional in any municipality on the decision of a two-thirds majority of the members of the Council upon the receipt of a petition of 42 of the ratepayers. The rate in case of the single tax was limited to four cents on the dollar of the actual value of the land without improvements. These features were continued in the new ordinance of 1897 and in the revision of 1905. Both ordinances provided for a poll tax of $2.00 per year on male adults, not on the assessment roll. in villages the poll tax was $1.00. Under certain circumstances employers might pay the income and poll tax of employees, deducting the same from their wages. School rates were assessed by the school boards and collected like the other rates of the municipality. The rate was not to exceed twelve mills on the dollar, the minimum rate being two, per year. Assessment in towns and cities was made yearly. Rural municipalities had the option of making the assessment every three years.

In 1901 the ordinance was amended to provide for the erection of a village into a town, by a two-thirds vote of the ratepayers of the village when the population exceeded 400.

In 1903 provision was made for incorporating towns within the limits of a rural municipality, the area not exceeding 1,280 acres and containing a population of 400. A vote was taken of the ratepayers within the proposed town assessed for $200 or more and if two-thirds voted in favor of incorporation the Lieutenant-Governor had power to proclaim the town. In this year the exemption on income was raised from $600 to $1,000.

Every municipal ordinance contained provisions for guarding against creating too great a debt by borrowing. By the law of 1884 the check upon undue borrowing rested with the Lieutenant-Governor in Council. All by-laws for the creating of a debt not repayable within a year required the assent of the Lieutenant-Governor in Council.

In the ordinances of 1894 and 1897 the check was given to the ratepayers and the amount of the debt fixed by law. The Council was limited in its borrowing to 10% of the assessed value of assessable property and every by-law for borrowing money not repayable within the financial year required the assent of two-thirds of the ratepayers voting on the same. A further restriction was imposed respecting the bonusing of manufactories, mills, railways or any works of a public nature, or exempting them from taxation for a longer period than one year unless the by-law conferring the same was passed on petition of half the ratepayers and the assent after passing of two-thirds or more of the votes polled upon submission of the same to the electors. A maximum period was fixed for the repayment of such borrowed moneys varying with the nature of the debt created, money for lighting, drainage or water works 30 years; other public works 20 years. In 1897 these restrictions were altered to 20 years for public works except money for subscribing stock in a railway, street railway or bonus to the same, which might run for 40 years.

This was the state of the law when the province of Alberta was formed in 1905 and continued until the legislature of the province began to revise the law in 1911 to meet the growing needs of the municipalities.

Before we continue the subject respecting towns and cities, let us consider the other forms of municipal or local organization met with in the N. W. T. and in our province. The early municipal bodies appear to have been very simple and businesslike in their structure. They were offspring of local conditions rather than copies of older communities. The herd, fire and statute labor districts are good examples. The first form of local organization noticed was the formation of herd districts in 1883. Two-thirds of the male occupants over 21 years of age, resident for 3 months in an area of 144 square miles could, upon application to the Lieutenant-Governor in Council, form that area into a herd district. Provision was made for a pound-keeper. Other examples of local government were the fire districts. These were formed in 1886. By this ordinance the majority of the residents of three months' residence in a locality might by petition have a fire district formed under a fire guardian. The Lieutenant-Governor appointed the fire guardian and each resident had to pay a rate of $4.00 per year which might be commuted by labor. Similar provision was made respecting statute labor districts in 1887. The area was 144 sq. miles containing 50 people. The road overseer was elected by the people. Every resident was assessed one day and each farmer as follows: 2 days for 160 acres; 3 (lays for 160 to 320 acres; 4 days for next 320 acres; 5 days for 1,280 acres; 1 day extra for every additional 640 acres.

The fire and statute labor districts were combined in 1888. Such districts were formed only in unorganized parts of the country. In 1890 every male inhabitant between ages of 18 and 60 was liable for one day under statute labor.

This subject was frequently the occasion for further legislation. In 1893 the law re fire and statute labor districts was revised and consolidated. The area of a district was reduced to a township containing 8 residents. The law was again revised in 1896 and 1897 when provision was made for levying rates in lieu of statute labor days, paying the overseer, collection of fines and making returns to the Commissioner of Public Works. The interesting fact in connection with those institutions is that they evolved in local improvement districts in 1898. These districts suggest a loose comparison with the counties of Eastern Canada.

The district was erected by the Lieutenant Governor in Council where there were at least twelve residents, one resident to three square miles. No district was to comprise more than 72 square miles. The commissioner of Public Works for the Territories supervised in a general way the business of the district,—appointed an auditor, prescribed the form of assessrnent, taxes and work clone. The actual conduct of business, however, was in the hands of an elected council of not more than six and not less than three.

The yearly assessment was as follows:

(1) Every male resident between 18 and 60 years of age not otherwise assessed.
(2) Every owner or occupier of land ------------------$1.25
(a) Parcels not exceeding 160 acres----------------2.50
(b) Every 40 acres over 160 acres ----------------- .62˝

In 1899 provision was made for large local improvement districts of areas greater than 72 square miles. The rate of assessment was:

(a) Parcels not exceeding 160 acres---------------------$2.00
(b) Every 40 acres above 160 acres --------------------.50

The overseer in a large Improvement District paid all the taxes to the Territorial Government which were placed to the credit of the district and spent by the Government for the benefit of the district. In later years the assessment was made by the Local Improvement Branch of the Dept. of Public Works.

In 1903 the whole law re local improvement districts was revised and a new ordinance passed becoming effective Jan. 1st, 1904. The size of a district was changed to comprise not less than 108 and not more than 216 square miles with a population of one resident to three square miles. The ordinance indicates the increased importance of the local improvement district and the larger delegation of municipal powers to the people. It provided for a council of not less than three and not more than six members. The council was empowered to levy the rates limited from 1. cents to 5 cents per acre upon every occupant or owner. This law with incidental amendments continued until 1907 when the Act was again revised by the Alberta legislature. Each year necessary amendments were made. In 1908 the maximum rate was fixed at 31% cents per acre in large L. I. D. and in 1913 lands under Dominion Grazing lease were taxed of a cent per acre. In 1917 power was given to the Council to bonus a medical practitioner to the extent of $500 per year. in 1918 the Local Improvement Act was repealed except as it was applicable to large Local Improvement Districts. In 1919 the rate of assessment was changed to three mills on the dollar.

Unincorporated towns:

The organization of unincorporated towns was effected in 1888 and revised in 1893. By these ordinances an unincorporated town meant any portion of land not within a municipality and not exceeding 320 acres on which not less than 10 dwellings were erected for residence. Upon petition of the majority of the ratepayers of such a place and after certain formal proceedings were taken the Lieutenant-Governor in Council proclaimed the place an unincorporated town. The principal officer of the town was the overseer elected in the usual way. He was entitled to a salary of $50.00 per year and a sum of 2-% on all moneys passing through his hands on account of the district. He was purely an administrative officer and could do nothing which was not authorized by motion passed at a public meeting of the ratepayers and on subjects explicitly stipulated in the ordinance. The assessment could not exceed five mills on the dollar. In 1894 the rate was raised to 10 mills. The overseer could not incur an indebtedness above $100.00. In 1895 this ordinance was repealed and replaced by the village ordinance which maintained the same machinery but extended the subjects that could be legislated upon by the village meeting. The villages in existence at that time were Saltcoats, Grenfell, Gainsboro, Yorkton, Medicine Hat, Wetaskiwin and Red Deer. in 1897 an amendment to the Village Act provided for the organization of a hamlet which meant a place wherein there were five or more occupied dwellings within an area of half a square mile. Increased powers of taxation were given to villages to impose a poll tax of $1.25 on every male person eighteen years not assessed on account of property; also a dog tax of $1 and $2. In several other matters the powers of local self government were extended. A complete revision took place again in 1898. The duties of the overseer were increasing for he was then allowed $100 plus 22% of all moneys passing through his hands. In 1899 the requirement for establishing a village was 15 dwelling houses with an area of 640 acres. In 1900 the single tax principle was optional with all villages. In 1901 the area of a village was enlarged to 1,280 acres. With a minor amendment the ordinance continued in this form until the legislature of Alberta passed a new Village Act in 1907. The area necessary was reduced to 640 acres with 25 dwelling houses. The overseer was replaced by a council of three and large measure of local control was granted to this body. The rate of 10 mills was maintained as the maximum rate of taxation and income from any source was exempt.

The single tax provisions referred to before were dropped from this Act in 1913. A new Act was passed by the legislature in conformity with the important municipal legislation of the previous year and local powers commensurate with conditions as they prevail today were granted to village corporations. By this Act taxes could be levied on land only, assessed at its actual cost value as it would be appraised in payment of a just debt exclusive of the value of the buildings or any other value caused by expenditure of labor or capital thereon. This devotion to single tax idea has not been as successful as the legislature thought it would, nor has such a policy realized the glowing prophecies of the devotees of this method of taxation.

The year 1912 was the beginning of a new era in the history of municipal affairs in Alberta. A special department of the Provincial Government was created to promote municipal organization and superintend municipal administration. The increase in wealth and population of the rural districts, the growing complexity of local affairs and the desire and capability of the people to assume a larger share of local government actuated the government to take this advanced step. Up to this period the municipal machinery for towns and rural districts was provided for in the one Act. Now town organization was to be separated from rural municipal organization. As we have seen, the municipal ordinance of 1897 omitted cities, which from that day to this have been organized by individual charters suited to each. The legislation of 1912 carried the process one step further. Accordingly we have now the Town Act, the Rural Municipal Districts Act, the Village Act and the Improvement Districts Act.

The governing body of a town is the Council of six presided over by a mayor. The single tax method of raising revenue was embodied in this Act as in the case of villages referred to before. Persons qualified to vote are males and females of full age of 21 years who are assessed for $50 or upward and sons and daughters of such persons, if 21 years of age and resident in the municipality. The rural municipalities are 18 miles square and numbered from right to left beginning at the southeast corner of the province. Each of these territorial units can be established into a municipal district or a local improvement district as the electors decide. This necessitated the reorganization of all existing local improvement districts and re-establishment in conformity with the new ordinance. Hamlets included within such an area come under the control of the rural council which consists of six councillors one of whom is chosen as reeve. Taxes in rural municipal districts are levied equally upon all rateable land in the same manner as in towns or villages, that is, actual cash value without improvements, but the council may make the assessment according to acreage. In the first year fifty-five rural municipal districts were organized though in many parts of the province the people were afraid of the new found powers of governing themselves.

The system of levying taxes imposed by the municipal legislation now referred to has been revised several times since 1912. Financial embarrassment overtook practically all towns, rural municipalities and villages. This was due to the war and to the sudden depreciation of land values iii every municipality. The single tax system had been applied too late. Nobody wanted the land now that rising values would not absorb all tax charges. Tax arrearages were reaching embarrassing proportions, consequently amending legislation was passed in 1916 empowering towns and villages to broaden the basis of taxation to include improvements up to 60% of the actual value.

In 1920 the taxing power of towns and villages was extended to include: (a) Tax on all persons carrying on any trade, business or profession. (b) Tax on personal property.

Single tax was a failure under prevailing conditions at least and now looks as if it would be consigned to the scrap-heap of the faddist.


The first city to be incorporated in Alberta was Calgary in 1893. The city was divided into three wards. Taxes were levied on all rateable property and income. One-third of the personal property of any one assessed was exempt, and income under $500. Those entitled to vote were persons assessed as owners of real property to value of $200.00, tenants of real property to value of $400 and for income of $400. Lodgers were not classed as tenants and a man living in a house belonging to his wife was assessed as a tenant. There was a poll tax of $2 for those not assessed. Those entitled to vote on money by-laws were required to be assessed as owners of real property to value of $400 or more.

Edmonton was incorporated as a city in 1904. The Edmonton Charter provided for city wards, but provided for a change to general vote instead of upon a reference to the burgesses. Those entitled to vote were men, unmarried women and widows of full age who were assessed for $100 or upwards. This Charter provided for a, division of the executive legislative functions of the council by the employment of permanent commissioners to act in conjunction with the mayor, the chairman of the board of commissioners. This feature was adopted by Calgary in 1908. The councillors were the legislative body and appointed the commissioners by three-quarters vote. Two classes of voters appeared on the lists—burgesses, who alone were entitled to vote on money by-laws, and ordinary voters.

Taxes were levied on (a) land, site value; (b) income; (c) businesses; (d) special franchises; (e) by a poll tax of $5 on every person not otherwise liable to taxation.

Incomes under $1,000 were exempt. Meanwhile Calgary had altered the basis of taxation. The rapid extension of the city and the desire of adjacent subdivisions to join the city, led to many makeshifts from time to time as to the basis of assessment for various classes of property. Some was assessed as agricultural 'and at $50 per acre and other portions in the same subdivision used for manufacturing purposes at $3,000 per acre for ten years beginning 1907 and then at $5,000 for a further period of five years from 1918. In 1911 the city made an attempt to move towards a land tax system by assessing the land at its actual value, and the buildings and improvements at 50% of their value such assessment to be extinguished at the rate of 10% per year until taxation of improvements was wiped out. This expedient lasted but a year and then buildings and improvements were assessed at their fair actual value. In 1915 the electorate was widened to include all British subjects, male and female, of twenty-one years of age who had resided in the city for six months. The last two changes were made subject to a plebiscite. The frenzied quest for revenue drove the city to impose a business assessment equal to the full annual rental.

The Edmonton Charter was revised and consolidated in 1913. The electoral body was enlarged to include all persons, male and female, of full age of 21 years and British subjects whose names appeared on the assessment roll and also each person who occupied a house and paid or was liable to pay rent. Taxation of incomes and businesses was eliminated in this revision. Rates exclusive of school, debenture and local improvements were limited to 2 cents on the dollar of the assessed value of the property within the city. In 1917 the council was compelled to consider the question of taxation. The depletion of land values, and large amount of taxes due on thousands of vacant city lots left the council no alternative but to include improvements and businesses in the body of taxable property— businesses on a sum equal to the annual rental value, and improvements on 257c valuation. As a temporary measure of relief the charter was amended again to include a tax on incomes for 1918 and 1919. Iii 1920 a service tax was added instead of the income tax. But such fiscal jugglery proved very unpopular and is now relegated to the limbo of exploded fads.


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