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Municipal Government in the County of Kent

A synopsis of a paper by

MR. WALKEN states that our Municipal Institutions are modeled rather after the plan adopted in New England, where "greater importance is placed upon the Township as distinguished from the County system," the allotment of land to disbanded soldiers and their taking up and settling of same necessitated the formation of Townships, not so much for the purpose of government as for designation of specific areas or surveys. The practice of gathering at town meetings to discuss the building of roads and other local affairs prepared the ground work for the organization of the municipal system as later determined and adopted. These early townships were designated by numbers until perhaps they were old enough to name.

On July 24, 1788, the Governor-General, Sir Guy Carleton divided Upper Canada into four districts, Lunenburg, Mechlenburg, Nassau and Hesse; the first Legislature in 1792 changed the names to Eastern, Midland, Home and Western respectively.

Quoting Mr. Walker’s words: The same Act provided for the erection of a Gaol and Court House in each District, according to plans to be selected by the Magistrates in Quarter Sessions. The lowest tender for the buildings was to be accepted if the contractor furnished sufficient security. The Sheriff was to be Gaoler and it was specially enjoined that he should not be licensed to sell liquor within the Gaol.

The Constitutional Act of 1791 authorized the Lieutenant Governor to divide each Province into districts, counties or circles, and determine their limits for the purpose of choosing representatives for the Legislature. Accordingly, Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe issued his proclamation dividing Upper Canada into nineteen counties; Essex and Suffolk, two of these countries, adjoined each other and were entitled to return one member. Kent was the nineteenth county and comprised all the territory not included in the other counties. It extended northerly to the limits of the Province and westerly to include Detroit and other portions of Michigan, and was entitled to two members, the first two being elected at Detroit in 1792.

The second Act of the second session of this parliament provided that two Justices of the Peace within a parish or township or other place might issue their warrant to a constable authorizing him on the first Monday in March to assemble all resident householders, liable to assessment, in such parish or township, in the parish church or other convenient place, for the purpose of choosing parish or town officers, a clerk, two assessors, a collector of taxes, and from two to six persons to serve as overseers of highways and pound-keepers, at that time very important and necessary officials, who were authorized to impound cattle trespassing on lands properly fenced, and, further to appoint two persons to serve as Church Wardens. A subsequent Act gave other powers to the inhabitant householders in their annual town meetings, but it was many years before these powers were much enlarged. Magistrates in Quarter Sessions exercised many privileges in managing and regulating the. local affairs of towns and parishes, but this method proving unsatisfactory and irksome to the people, changes were agitated and pressed for, and, from time to time, separate special Acts were passed bestowing special municipal authority on towns. The first so favored was the Town of Brockville, which in procured an act to be passed establishing a "Board of Police" giving the people control of the Town’s affairs. The Town was divided into two wards, each entitled to elect two members of this body. The electors were the tenants or freeholders within the ward rated from the assessment roll; the fifth member was to be appointed by a majority vote of the four elected, and, if they could not make a choice, the electors of the Town were to make the choice. The five members thus constituted elected one of their number President. Both electors and elected were required to possess a property qualification. The corporation thus constituted was given very considerable powers. It could make rules and regulations for its government, appoint officers, levy rates and pass by-laws for the good order and general government of the Town. Thus Brockville blazed the way. Other towns soon followed, Hamilton, Belleville, Cornwall, Cobourg and many others, and in 1834, Toronto, or York, as it was then known, procured an extension of its limits and was formed into a city to be called the City of Toronto, divided into five wards and power given it to elect a Mayor, aldermen and common councilmen. Two aldermen and two councillors were to be elected for each ward and these were to elect the Mayor. Should their votes be equally divided the member with the highest assessment gave the casting vote. Very extensive powers were given which we will not take time to recite and only refer to these acts to indicate the trend of public opinion.

While the cities were thus successfully securing a measure of municipal freedom by Special Acts of the Legislature, there was very little advancement made towards this object in the rural districts. There the Justices of the Peace in General Sessions continued to control all local affairs much as they liked. True, the electors at town meetings soon were accorded the privilege of electing fence viewers, pound-keepers and road overseers, or commissioners, and, later on, other officers, but these officers were not entrusted with sufficient authority for efficient municipal control, and the power of taxation and the right to raise rates remained with the Quarter Sessions. Matters were in this position when the rebellion broke out, and afterwards came the vigorous report of Lord Durham, in which he strongly recommended the establishment of local municipal institutions.

In 1841 the parliament of the United Provinces passed the first general Municipal Act establishing municipal authority, which Act was introduced and piloted by the Honourable S. B. Harrison, the Provincial Secretary for Upper Canada. Mr. Harrison in that year unsuccessfully contested the representation of Kent with the late Joseph Woods, but he was subsequently returned as the representative of Kingston. When we read of the determined and violent opposition to this bill, and the bitter feeling engendered by it, we are at a loss to realize the cause of all the wasted energy of its opponents, for the measure was but a very modest advance on the old law. It provided that there should be a district council in each district to consist of the Warden and Councillors. The Warden was still to be appointed by the Governor, as were the Treasurer and Clerk. Each Township was to elect two councillors when the freeholders and householders on the assessment roll exceeded 300. Extensive powers were granted to the council, but the serious defect was that the Act still recognized the Magistrates appointed by the Government, and there, not unfrequently, arose a conflict of authority between them and the councils elected by the people. The councils were authorized to pass by-laws respecting roads, bridges and public buildings, for defraying certain expenses connected with the administration of justice, for the establishment and maintenance of schools, assessing, raising and levying rates, fixing salaries, etc. Several subsequent Acts added to these powers.

The Province had been divided into twenty-two districts, of which what are now the Counties of Essex, Kent and Lambton, formed one, known as the Western District. The first Council of this district elected under the Act of 1841, which went into effect on the first day of January, 1842, met at Sandwich. There were present 26 members and the Warden, John Dolsen, appointed by the Government, who continued as Warden for five years. In this formative period the Councillors seem to have taken their duties seriously. The first clerk was John Cowan, Esq., one time Editor, and the minutes are interesting, well phrased and concisely written.

In 1847 Kent was formed into a separate district and a provisional Council met at Chatham in August, its special purpose being the erection of our present Gaol and Court House, which was completed about the year 1850. It would appear that all the members also attended the Sandwich meetings.

In 1849 was passed the Municipal Magna Charta of this Province, the preamble of which declared that ‘It will be of great public benefit and advantage that provision should be made by one general law for the erection of Municipal Corporations and the establishment of Regulations of Police in and for the several Counties, Cities, Towns, Townships and Villages in Upper Canada.’ The Act took effect on the first day of January, 1850. Some fifty or more previous Acts of Parliament were repealed and ample powers of self-government were conferred upon all municipal corporations, largely as those powers exist and are exercised today. All minor municipalities were to elect five councillors, who elected one of themselves Reeve, and, in each Township having five hundred resident rate-payers, a deputy Reeve. By this and the amending Act passed two or three years afterwards, the old districts were abolished and counties defined. The inhabitants of each county became a body corporate whose council consisted of the Town Reeves and Deputy Town Reeves of the several Townships, Towns and Villages within the County. The County Council was to meet at the Shire Hall, if one, and, if none, at the County Court annually, on the fourth Monday in January. At the first meeting they chose from among themselves a Warden who should preside at their meetings.

About the end of 1850, possibly after the Court House was completed, Kent was separated from Essex and Lamb-ton for municipal purposes, while the two last named remained united for municipal and judicial purposes until 1883.

"The first Council for Kent as a Separate County met at the Court House on the 27th February, 1851, and consisted of ten members of whom George Duck, the Reeve for Howard, was elected Warden. There were no Deputy Reeves. George Witherspoon represented the Town of Chatham. William Cosgrove was Clerk and continued to hold office until 1867."

In 1854 the by-laws and many of the records and papers of the Council were accidentally destroyed by fire.

In the year 1896, when the membership of the County Council had reached 36, Kent was divided into seven districts with two members from each.

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